2010 was a year of information explosions around the world that have set governments reeling. From Beijing to Washington those in power are being held to account by a new generation of digital watchdogs. But are Internet-inspired instrument uprisings a short-term spark or can they be part of a long-term environmental change?
I agree with Internet enthusiast Clay Shirky that blogs, mobile phones, email, Youtube and the rest can be tools for protest, advocacy and resistance. From Twitter to Wikileaks, they provide an unprecedented power to activate and organise. “Communicative freedom is good for political freedom” as Shirky puts it.
But as Shirky is also finding out, authoritarian regimes also use the same technologies to identify and clamp down on protest. And they are getting much better at blocking the most overt online activists.
So if governments like America want to encourage freedom of expression as part of developing democracy then they need to move from what Shirky calls instrumental to environmental use of new media.
The old model of an independent Fourth Estate has not yet been replaced but it is broken. Around the world we see that mainstream journalism is not up to the job of ‘speaking truth unto power’. It must now work with the people not simply on their behalf. And the people are now doing it for themselves as well.
Those working in media for development will recognise this model of networked journalism. It combines ideas of community media with public journalism. It is about building capacity for media to act as a platform. But it is also about fostering media literacy amongst people and civil society organisations to enable them to understand and use the new communications technologies for themselves.
What is fascinating about how this works in the Internet age is that the old divisions between developed and developing world are breaking down. Of course there is still a massive digital divide and disparities in resources as well as differences in media conditions. But all societies are presented with the same challenge by the ubiquity, scale and personalisation of digital communications. In theory, we can now all communicate about everything all the time. So what are the rights and responsibilities of those creating this networked mediation?
In theory, governments, businesses and civil society organisations such as iNGOs can now be totally transparent and communicate their work in an open and interactive way. So in practice how do we make that happen and how far can it go? Welcome to what World Economic Forum President Klaus Schwab called 'the glass room'. In theory we can all see what everyone is doing. Can we make that a reality? Do we want to?