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Digital Technology

Information is power: Silvio Waisbord on how digital technology changes the public sphere and notions of privacy

Roxanne Bauer's picture
How do digital media affect traditional theories of the “public sphere” and power? Are we living in a modern-day panopticon?

The notion of the “public sphere” is useful worldwide to consider how citizens can and do articulate demands to the market or to states. The public sphere is generally conceived as a place (figurative or literal) in which citizens can share information, debate issues and opinions, and restrain the interests of the powerful elite. This space is critical to the formation of public will and the transmission of it to official authorities.

In contrast, the Panopticon is a design for a prison or jail which allows watchmen to observe all inmates at all times without the inmates knowing whether they are being observed or not.  The idea has been used to discuss online privacy, as individuals are often unaware of how governments and companies collect and use the information they gather about them online.  Moreover, the revelation that governments and companies work together to “spy” on citizens, as revealed by Edward Snowden revived the concern that a modern-day panopticon might be possible.   

But these concepts raise another important question: How can the public sphere, which aims to limit excess power, continue to function if the state is monitoring citizen activity?  Much of the information that is collected and tracked online is willingly shared by individuals as they search the internet, use mobile apps, and contact friends and family. This activity is vital to the future of a public sphere around the world, but it also allows governments and companies to intrude in our private lives.

Silvio Waisbord explores these two evergreen, yet very immediate concerns. He argues that while digital technologies have improved the capacities of states and companies to track human activity, digital media can also be used for democratic purposes. 
 
The modern public sphere vs. The online panopticon

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture
World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
 

Technology for Transparency: Cases from Sub-Saharan Africa
Harvard Political Review
Over the last decade, Africa has experienced previously unseen levels of economic growth and market vibrancy. Developing countries can only achieve equitable growth and reduce poverty rates, however, if they are able to make the most of their available resources. To do this, they must maximize the impact of aid from donor governments and NGOs and ensure that domestic markets continue to diversify, add jobs, and generate tax revenues. Yet, in most developing countries, there is a dearth of information available about industry profits, government spending, and policy outcomes that prevents efficient action.

Popular Uprising against Democratically Elected Leaders. What Makes it Legitimate?
Huffington Post
In the last five years, democratically elected governments in countries as diverse as Guatemala, Bulgaria, Venezuela, Ukraine, Thailand, Macedonia, South Africa, Spain, Iceland, Hungary and presently governments in Moldova, Brazil and Poland were all challenged and some of them forced to step down by mass-based popular uprisings. If it had not been for the strategic weakness of the Occupy movement, the United States might have also seen toppling of its own democratically elected leaders closely tied to business elites. This might still happen. If Donald Trump wins the presidential election and attempts to implement some of his most outrageous campaign promises popular uprising may be in the making sooner than we think.  When is people rising against their own government legitimate? A number of Western philosophical treaties, historical practice and agreements, including declarations of people’s self-determination rights stressed the moral and legal permissibility, and even necessity, to rise up against abusive regimes.

Does “Rational Ignorance” make working on transparency and accountability a waste of time?

Duncan Green's picture

Guest post from Paul O’Brien, Vice President for Policy and Campaigns, Oxfam America (gosh, they do have august sounding job titles, don’t they?)

As the poorest half of the planet sees that just 62 people have more wealth than all of them, collective frustration at extreme inequality is increasing.  To rebalance power and wealth, many in our community are turning to transparency, accountability, participation and inclusion.  Interrogate that “development consensus,” however, and opinions are fractured over the benefits and costs of transferring power from the haves to the have-nots.

Social Media Information OverloadIn truth, our theories of change often diverge.  Most development organizations may agree on the need to advocate for more Investment, Innovation, Information, strong Institutions and Incentives, but some organizations are genuinely committed to only one of those “I’s”, and that can be problematic:  Oxfam often finds itself choosing and moving between the relentless positivity of politically benign theories of change (e.g. we just need more “investment” or “innovation”), the moderation of those who focus exclusively on transparent “information” with no clear pathway to ensure its political relevance, and the relentless negativity of activists that think the only way to transform “institutions” or realign the “incentives” of elites is to beat them up in public.

Oxfam’s challenge is to be both explicit in our theory of change and show sophistication and dexterity in working across that spectrum.  If Oxfam’s theory of change is based on a citizen-centered approach to tackling global systemic challenges like extreme inequality, then our opportunity may be engaging the “rational ignorance” of citizens and consumers.
 

Media (R)evolutions: Convergence around mobile phones in sub-Saharan Africa

Roxanne Bauer's picture

New developments and curiosities from a changing global media landscape: People, Spaces, Deliberation brings trends and events to your attention that illustrate that tomorrow's media environment will look very different from today's, and will have little resemblance to yesterday's.

Globally, all regions of the world are gaining access to the internet and mobile phones, with mobile phones driving a great deal of the gains. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 60% of individuals now have access to a mobile phone. Convergence around mobile phones is occurring in two simultaneous and reinforcing ways: mobile phones are superseding or preceding other communication methods as the technology of choice for individuals looking for greater interconnectedness, and they are also incorporating (rather than replacing) other mediums in the provision of content.

Mobile phones are cheap, easy to use, provide many benefits, and do not require much literacy or numeracy for basic use. They can be shared, prepaid, billed in prices per second, depending on the needs and abilities of the owner(s).  In Cameroon, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda, more than four in five mobile phone owners have simple phones, not capable of browsing the internet.  

Mobile phones are also capable of providing a diversity of interactive activities. Mobile apps, text messaging, calling, and internet browsing are all possible from these small devices. In African countries, social networking, sending and receiving e-mails, instant messaging, and checking facts and definitions are the most common uses of the internet. The consumption of games, online newspapers, books, radio, and video also signals that rather than replacing these traditional mediums, the internet incorporates their digital versions.

Uses of internet, mobile phones in sub-Saharan Africa

Frequently Asked (not so smart) Questions

Abir Qasem's picture

This blog is the second of the series of a year-long skills transfer discussion/blog series on technology aided gut (TAG) checks. We use an interactive and just in time learning strategy to help you learn to do TAG checks on your data. 

People using computers in an internet cafe in Kampala, UgandaMany of us fondly remember from our school (and college) days the best and the most inspiring teachers always told us that "there are no bad questions".  No matter how silly our questions were, the best teachers always had the talent to transform an uninformed question into a learning experience. Even in the age of AI (Artificial Intelligence) that quality is still uniquely human (Google or even IBM’s Watson are not there yet)!  So, for an adult learner, who is using online resources to learn technical skills, ­asking the right question is important.  If you don’t ask the right question, the Internet will not give you an answer. Even worse than not getting an answer, you may get the wrong answer. This blog is all about asking the right question. More specifically, this blog is about coming up with precise and specific search queries when you are searching online resources to further your knowledge or solve a specific problem.

The Internet is the world's largest knowledge repository, but it is still far from becoming a one-stop knowledge shop. We still need a vast education industry (in the US, it is close to a trillion dollars) consisting of teachers, mentors, training, schools/colleges etc. Unlike machines, and, by extension, unlike the Internet, we humans have an unequalled capability to deal with ambiguity. We do not need to always work under a precise set of rules. We also have a propensity to be ambiguous in framing our questions. Therefore, we need expensive human intervention to remove the ambiguity factor from the human-to-machine knowledge loop.

In the physical world, there is a high level of interactivity between the asker of a question and the human provider. This interactivity- coupled with the human ability to deal with ambiguity- helps refine the question by making it precise enough to answer. On the Web, such interactivity is much harder to attain.

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Poverty is Sexist 2016 Report
ONE Campaign
Last year ONE released its first “Poverty is Sexist” report, aimed at pressuring leaders to put girls and women at the heart of key policies and decisions. The report demonstrated two truths: 1. That poverty and gender inequality go hand-in-hand. Being born in a poor country and being born female amount to a double whammy for girls and women: they are significantly worse off than their counterparts in richer countries, and in every sphere they are hit harder by poverty than men. 2. Investments targeted towards girls and women pay dividends in lifting everyone out of poverty more quickly, and are essential in the overall fight to end extreme poverty everywhere. 2015 saw the world debate and decide the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and a climate deal at COP 21 in Paris. This year, leaders have the opportunity to turn these aspirations into results.
 
Practice Note: Young People's Participation in Peacebuilding
UNDP
Throughout the world, more than 600 million young people live in fragile and conflict-affected contexts today.  They are among the most affected by the multiple and often interlinked forms of violence – from political violence and criminal gangs to organized crime and terrorist attacks that plague their countries and communities, bearing enormous and long-lasting human, social and economic costs. Over the past decade, the involvement of some young people – particularly young men, but also increasingly young women – in violence and extremist groups has led some to paint youth generally as a threat to global security and stability. But research shows that youth who participate actively in violence are a minority, while the majority of youth – despite the injustices, deprivations and abuse they can confront daily, particularly in conflict contexts – are not violent and do not participate in violence. Moreover, a growing body of evidence suggests that young women and men can and do play active roles as agents of positive and constructive change.
 

Media (R)evolutions: Dramatic spread of internet, mobile phones not enough to get women online

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Also available in: Español

New developments and curiosities from a changing global media landscape: People, Spaces, Deliberation brings trends and events to your attention that illustrate that tomorrow's media environment will look very different from today's, and will have little resemblance to yesterday's.

The global expansion and near ubiquity of the internet is now taken for granted in many spaces in upper- and middle-income countries. The number of internet users has more than tripled over the past decade—from 1 billion in 2005 to an estimated 3.2 billion at the end of 2015. Mobile phones are the most pervasive way for people to access the internet, and their use has spread through developed and developing countries alike.   

However, this is still not the case for everyone.  Nearly 2 billion people do not own a mobile phone, and nearly 60 percent of the world’s population has no access to the internet. The World Bank’s recent World Development Report 2016 (WDR) on “Digital Dividends” notes that “For digital technologies to benefit everyone everywhere requires closing the remaining digital divide, especially in internet access.”  

Moreover, the digital divide within countries can be as high as that between countries, and one reason for that is that women are less likely than men to use or own digital technologies.  According to a recent Pew Global Survey, “There are gender gaps on many aspects of technology use. For example, in 20 nations, men are more likely than women to use the internet. These differences are especially stark in African nations. Elsewhere, equal shares of men and women use the internet. But large gender gaps also appear on reported smartphone ownership (men are more likely to own a smartphone) in many countries, including Mexico (+16), Nigeria (+13), Kenya (+12) and Ghana (+12).”
Gender divide on internet use     Gender Divide on smartphone ownership
       

Liberals behaving badly in the public sphere

Sina Odugbemi's picture
Local politician making an appeal at demonstration against default data traffic surveillance proposed lawLiberals, as defined below, often like to shame their opponents in public debate by calling them extremists. They say this about right wing campaigners, for instance, who hold uncompromising views on gun control, or abortion, or the ruthless and prolific use of force as an instrument of power politics. Liberals also describe as extremists sundry religious fundamentalists: Hindu, Christian, Islamic, whatever variety of a religion refuses to embrace tolerance, balance, and modernity and so on. Clearly, you’d think, to be an extremist, is something that liberals really abhor. But do they really?

Before we get into the key issue that I want to raise, it is important to ask: what is liberalism? The question matters because depending on where you are in the world today to be called a ‘liberal’ could mean very different things. It is important to point out that I refer to liberalism in the context of political philosophy.

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy [1]helpfully points out that:

One of the major political ideologies of the modern world, liberalism is distinguished by the importance it attaches to the civil and political rights of individuals. Liberals demand a substantial realm of personal freedom – including freedom of conscience, speech, association, occupation, and, more recently, sexuality – which the state should not intrude upon, except to protect others from harm. (p. 514)

…the basic language of liberalism – individual rights, liberty, equality of opportunity – has become the dominant language of public discourse in most modern democracies. (p. 516)

I am a conviction liberal of this kind, so what I am about to point out are the things some prominent liberals are saying in the global public sphere that make one wonder if they know what they are doing. To be blunt about it, quite a few loud, particularly doctrinaire liberals are becoming extremists too, and they seem totally unaware of this. I won’t name names, let’s just focus on the positions that they are taking.

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

The 2015-16  Alliance for Affordable Internet Affordability Report
Alliance for Affordable Internet
Everyone should have access to the Internet. So concluded the 193 member states of the United Nations when they agreed on a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015. Underscoring the potential of the Internet to contribute to global development and empowerment, SDG target 9c calls for universal and affordable access in the world’s least developed countries by 2020. Reaching this goal will require bold and immediate action. On our current trajectory, A4AI predicts that we’ll only hit this target in 2042 — 22 years after the target date set by the global community. Without urgent reform, in 2020 we will see just 16% of people in the world’s poorest countries, and 53% of the world as a whole, connected. We won’t just miss the target, we’ll miss by a mile.
 
The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution
World Economic Forum
Today, we are at the beginning of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. Developments in genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing and biotechnology, to name just a few, are all building on and amplifying one another. This will lay the foundation for a revolution more comprehensive and all-encompassing than anything we have ever seen. Smart systems—homes, factories, farms, grids or cities—will help tackle problems ranging from supply chain management to climate change. The rise of the sharing economy will allow people to monetize everything from their empty house to their car. While the impending change holds great promise, the patterns of consumption, production and employment created by it also pose major challenges requiring proactive adaptation by corporations, governments and individuals. Concurrent to the technological revolution are a set of broader socio-economic, geopolitical and demographic drivers of change, each interacting in multiple directions and intensifying one another.
 

Four ways open data is changing the world

Stefaan Verhulst's picture

Library at Mohammed V University at Agdal, RabatDespite global commitments to and increasing enthusiasm for open data, little is actually known about its use and impact. What kinds of social and economic transformation has open data brought about, and what is its future potential? How—and under what circumstances—has it been most effective? How have open data practitioners mitigated risks and maximized social good?

Even as proponents of open data extol its virtues, the field continues to suffer from a paucity of empirical evidence. This limits our understanding of open data and its impact.

Over the last few months, The GovLab (@thegovlab), in collaboration with Omidyar Network (@OmidyarNetwork), has worked to address these shortcomings by developing 19 detailed open data case studies from around the world. The case studies have been selected for their sectoral and geographic representativeness. They are built in part from secondary sources (“desk research”), and also from more than 60 first-hand interviews with important players and key stakeholders. In a related collaboration with Omidyar Network, Becky Hogge (@barefoot_techie), an independent researcher, has developed an additional six open data case studies, all focused on the United Kingdom.  Together, these case studies, seek to provide a more nuanced understanding of the various processes and factors underlying the demand, supply, release, use and impact of open data.

After receiving and integrating comments from dozens of peer reviewers through a unique open process, we are delighted to share an initial batch of 10 case studies, as well three of Hogge’s UK-based stories. These are being made available at a new custom-built repository, Open Data’s Impact, that will eventually house all the case studies, key findings across the studies, and additional resources related to the impact of open data. All this information will be stored in machine-readable HTML and PDF format, and will be searchable by area of impact, sector and region.


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