Question(s) of Balance?

 

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We do not live in a perfect world. The implication of this statement is huge. I see this being brought to the fore in almost every chapter of MacKinnon’s book, Consent of the Networked. A central theme that I just could not get over are the many questions begging answers; the many instances where finding the balance between societal, political or technological options seems to be the only way to fix a country’s (and even the world’s) problems. The problem for me is the fact that nobody seems to know or be able to decide on what that balance looks like. And even in cases where we do decide on the balance the differences in opinion and outlook of the powers that be remain an impediment to proper execution.

  1. How do we use technology to deliver good and minimize evil?

We must agree that the Internet and digital technologies, while they empower citizens to express dissent and advance activism, do not automatically deliver democracy and good governance. Countries like Egypt are proof positive that it takes much more than the Internet to truly and ultimately liberate a people.

  1. How do we ensure that those who hold power over our digital lives do not abuse that power?

This is a tough one. The obvious answer would be to set up laws that are able to keep power in check. But this hasn’t totally worked. We all know the law can always be bought or manipulated when there are other priorities involved. On the other hand, authoritarian regimes make this question even more difficult. Those who make the law are the ones who have the power that we seek to control or keep from being misused.

  1. How do citizens make sure that private agendas and the pursuit of profit do not erode consumer choice and even democratic expression?

To some, government regulation seems to be the way to go here. To control the excesses of the private sector and ensure healthy market competition. But we also know that government interference sometimes does harm. It becomes easier to police public expression and stifle freedom when the government gets to decide how business is done and who gets to do business in the first place. This is obvious with government requests for surveillance of consumer communications as a prerequisite for some Internet companies to get or retain business licenses.

4.   How do companies and corporations draw the line between the need to advance international markets and the responsibility of protecting their consumers and users from privacy and freedom violations?

The cases of companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft make this a very important question. While MacKinnon points out that it is simply irresponsible for companies to carry out their activities is such a way that human rights are violated just because the governments in countries where they operate demand it, she also recognizes the moral and ethical dilemma on these issues.

       5.    How do we prevent cases of online abuse and cyber bullying while keeping online access and speech free, open and uncensored?

Internet companies have been criticized for the abuse that go on on their platforms and have been called upon to take responsibility. But any action to prevent this will almost certainly involve some sort of online policing and surveillance or the requirement of real identities and the death of anonymity. What will this mean for free speech? For activists in authoritarian regimes? How do we keep it from being abused and misused against the very public we try to protect?

6.    How do we keep those in power from making the right decision only when it is convenient or beneficial to the interests of certain groups?

There are so many questions to be asked.

Sometimes it seems hopeless to think of a world system that works for the good of all, governments and corporations that work for the real benefit of the public; ordinary people who do not hide behind their keyboards to abuse and harass other people.

MacKinnon said something really important in the text.

 “Contrary to what some people may have hoped, the Internet does NOT change human nature. Power in cyberspace is as much as powerful and liable to abuse as power in the physical space.”

When we speak of governments, corporations and the public, these are made of people, human beings. People make the laws that suppress and oppress citizens; people make the decisions in corporations to put other interests above the interests, safety and well being of their users and consumers. It is people, human beings who exploit innocent children and upload illegal images of them on the Internet.

 James Madison said, “…power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.” (Pg. xxi)

This may sound quite reductionist but it really is the root of the problems with oppression, censorship, abuse of human rights. It is true that there are much more forces at play than an individual’s will in every given situation but as long as we exist we will always be faced with choices and we may not readily make the noble ones.

I like the way MacKinnon sums it up,

“The future of the internet age depends on the choices and actions of everybody on the planet who creates, uses, and regulates technology.” (Pg., xxiv)

I can only hope that those choices and actions take us in a positive direction as the powers that be make the public good their utmost priority and citizens continue to stand up for their rights when they do not.

 

Image Credits: www.mortisetenon.com

The Intelligence of the ‘Other’

Does Intelligence have a certain human face? Peculiar characteristics? How does it dress, walk or talk? Where does it live?

Last week we talked about privilege and the fact that we all have fur. True. And we all mete out to others some form of discrimination because or in spite of the fact that we have been discriminated against in one way or another.

Pierre Levy’s concept of the Other struck me so strongly as one of the ways our so called fur prevents us from seeing intelligence because it isn’t dressed like we expect. How many people have been refused entry into some certain circles because they do not look the part, the self-acclaimed judges totally ignoring the fact that intelligence is and can be contextual?

“The light of the mind shines even where we attempt to persuade others that no intelligence exists: educational failure, rote execution, underdevelopment.” — Collective Intelligence, Page 14.

People have been assumed unintelligent just because they cannot speak a certain ‘brand’ of English or because they absorb information at a certain pace or even because they have not had any formal education.

Pierre Levy says,

“If you are tempted to judge someone as ignorant, look for the knowledge in which his knowledge can be turned to gold.” Pg. 14

The ‘Other’ has intelligence. It may be different from yours but it is intelligence all the same. This intelligence must be constantly enhanced. But how can it be enhanced if it is not even acknowledged?

I came across this video of a young boy, Kevin Doe, from Sierra Leone. By certain standards he may be judged by some as not being the ideal model of an intelligent innovator or ‘genius.’ But even though he didn’t wait for it, he got a chance to show what he knew, what he could do with it and how he could be a channel of hope for a community desperately indeed of such gifts and talents as his.

Another Video of Kevin at TEDx Teen

“While we are increasingly concerned with economic and ecological waste, it seems that we are willing to squander our most precious resource by refusing to acknowledge it, develop it or even use it when it is found. From school report cards to a corporate job profile, from archaic management methods to social exclusion through unemployment, we are currently witnessing the deliberate organization of ignorance concerning the extent of the intelligence around us, a terrifying waste of experience, skill and human wealth.” — Collective Intelligence, Pg, 14

Acknowledging intelligence is creating a conducive environment for it to grow and be nurtured. On a national level I believe it is the responsibility to governments to create this enabling environment and for the various arms of society to keep it going. When this is ignored the results can be drastic.

This reminds me of my country and the constantly talked about “brain drain.” Simply, young people with their intelligent minds and unsupported talents leaving to pursue opportunities all around the world because of the lack of same in the country.

It is not enough to recognize and focus on certain ‘validated skills’ to the detriment of others. A country shouldn’t just pay attention to ‘crude oil’ and the industries connected to it as if no other kind of skill or industry is needed. Not only is this not an economically wise idea, it is not socially realistic. There are as many skills as there are people and every sector needs to be appropriately equipped with quality skill and representation. Ofcourse the gratification that comes from being profitably integrated in society is also important for individual identity.

A Nigerian proverb says “Five unequal fingers form a hand.”

I say they are unequal not in importance or function but only in shape and form.

As Pierre Levy predicted, the Knowledge Space is alive and well. While there are so many nuances to the question of what works and what doesn’t in this space I believe that any society that makes it a duty to recognize the intelligence of the other, enhance it and effectively mobilize it taking advantage of the peculiar age we are in.

And for countries lagging behind, it doesn’t matter how much aid they receive or how ‘superficially’ effective the call is to save them, rescue them, help them; they will NEVER fully attain their potential until THEY (the countries themselves) pay attention to these foundational issues.

How can intelligence be enhanced if it is not even acknowledged? Go Figure!

The Cultural Web

Facebook-1 Closeup of an African American woman lying on sofa, using laptop

Everything is cultural. This is my way of saying that our backgrounds and formative experiences plays out in all areas of our lives. Education is cultural, humor is cultural and so is the way we approach the web and all things digital.

Reading about the way people form relationships on social media, the driving force behind their choice of Facebook friends and their expectations of online connection brings this cultural concept to the fore for me.

Several statements in A Networked Self Identity, Community and Culture on Social Network sites point to the fact that a lot of people use Facebook to connect with people they already know offline. These may range from very close friends to casual acquaintances but there is usually a prior connection for a Facebook connection to be deemed necessary or possible.

Although it is widely assumed that computer-mediated communication frees individuals from the limits of physical proximity, it appears social connections in online settings may depend on offline contact.” Pg, 120

I believe that these studies were done in the United States so it is representative of the habits of most Americans. I’m from Nigeria and I realize that there is a big difference in how most people I grew up with approach online connections.

There are few restrictions to who becomes your friend on Facebook. Geographical connection may be a consideration but not a limitation. Most Nigerians I know do not hesitate to add anyone to their Facebook connections, except maybe for personal reasons.

Below are some habits I have observed in the way other Nigerians made Facebook connections.

  1. Similarity in geographical location is a plus but not a definite criterion. (Much more for Nigerians living in diaspora. “You’re Nigerian? You live in Houston? Like me? Let’s chat!)
  2. The more mutual friends you have the more reason to accept a friend request. Most connections start out with friends from school and because our schools are very well populated (almost too!) you tend to have a lot of cross connections.
  3. Mutual interests also play an important role. I would accept a friend request from someone who has similar interests e.g. Nigerian Literature or love for a Nigerian Musician.
  4. Shared histories are also important. People may send requests to other people on Facebook who indicate having worked for an institution they may have certain affiliations with but may not have worked for.
  5. Just because you asked! Most will not hesitate to add anyone to their Facebook connections, except maybe for personal reasons. (e.g. a creepy profile picture!)

So basically it has always been kind of a no holds barred system. However, I feel this is beginning to change as more and more people are becoming concerned about privacy and who gets to see their personal business on Facebook. (This is actually a story for another day. We haven’t been very bothered about privacy and keeping things personal on social media in the past.)

In stark contrast, I have had situations where I sent a friend request to an American and got asked who I was and why I wanted to connect.

I’ll share an instance.

I was looking through a Zimbabwean writer’s Facebook page and reading the comments on her posts. I spotted a comment from an American who sounded pretty enthusiastic about African literature. I was intrigued so I sent a friend request. In my mind a shared interest in African Literature was enough reason to ask for that connection. Was I wrong. It was like an interrogation! He wanted to know who I was, where I was from and why I had sent him a request. Luckily I was in a mood to talk so I explained about the Zimbabwean writer. He added me up immediately after that and we had quite an interesting conversation about writing and novels in general. He even sent me pictures he had taken with some of my favorite writers, whom I have not been opportune to meet 😦

Had he being Nigerian, I am almost certain he would have added me without question. The downside though, is we may not have had the ensuing conversation. I guess this is because we are so used to Facebook friend requests; we just accept and move on.

My observation of these differences in online habits also bleeds into offline environments, some of which I mentioned in this lighthearted piece on Medium.com.

Even though we grow and adapt as we gather new experiences everyday some of our habits will always be influenced by our backgrounds and the perceptions we grew up with. This happens in every area of our lives, our online habits included. This is why I believe corporations spend a lot of money on market research. Knowing a group of people and understanding their habits and impulses is the key to selling to them.

instameet

One thing that I haven’t seen in my culture though is offline connections that result solely from online interactions. Great examples are “Instameets”, where Instagram users meet up and share their love of photography and adventures. It has been a successful venture as evident in the updates and little communities I see on Instagram. I think that is such a cool concept, that online spaces create an opportunity for meaningful face to face offline interactions that would otherwise not have happened.

Image credits:

http://faraitoday.com

http://blog.instagram.com

http://relationshipblackbook.com