Monday, September 27, 2010

Technology as Social Art

"Once upon a time, in my lifetime, we wondered about the intelligence of computers that could beat geniuses at chess. Now we measure the intelligence of technology in terms of its capacity to address human need and crisis; to change the architecture of human lives; to reconfigure human consciousness. In that context, it seems fitting to recall that the root of technology, the word, is not science but art -- and that there are individuals now on the front lines of developing technology as a social art."
-- Public radio host Krista Tippett

Social media -- chiefly the mobile Internet and short-form video -- are the future of social advocacy and innovation, panelists attending this year's 2010 Clinton Global Initiative agreed. "Mobility is going to be the way we will all be running our businesses and nonprofits in the future," John Chambers, the Chairman and CEO of Cisco said in a keynote panel moderated by public radio host Krista Tippett. "It will empower a decade of productivity in the developed world and allow us to tackle some of the biggest problems in the developing world in a way we couldn't before. Maybe for the first time we'll be addressing the have-nots in the world. Video is the new voice ... and the most powerful force for change now is the power of the crowd."

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Square, and the co-founder and chairman of Twitter, said this new "second wave" of the Web carries with it the potential for large-scale global change because social media are destabilizing tools, making it harder for many in power to speak for others or to manipulate public perception for political gain. Said Dorsey:
"The access to technology and being able to immediately share what you are thinking -- your opinion from anywhere in the world -- allows one to have an understanding with a context that you might not have been familiar with before. When protests were going on in Moldova and Iran, to a lot of Americans and to me in particular, those issues and countries were a black box. But suddenly, we had people on the ground who could share what they were seeing and post videos and it was all happening in real time.
That kind of immediacy and transparency brings a greater social understanding, and we can minimize a lot of the conflict if there is more knowledge...and that is the end goal of this technology."

Arianna Huffington, the co-founder of The Huffington Post and the moderator of another CGI panel on social media last week, cited efforts by authoritarian governments to slow the influence of social media. Chinese government authorities, for example, routinely censor the Internet to try to stem U.S. protest of its human rights violations. "China has learned quickly that shutting down new media -- Facebook and Twitter -- and inviting traditional journalists to have access, instead, will help it spin the official version of events," she said. "...You can always spin traditional journalists ... but it's very difficult to spin millions tweeting."

But most of the change is inevitable, others said. And the most disruptive innovations may be occurring within the social sector, itself -- chiefly in developing countries, said Ory Okolloh, who helped to create Ushahidi, a Web site that crowdsources citizen information to fight information blackouts and government misinformation campaigns, as well as to speed help to those who need it the most in a crisis. Ushahidi's "crisis maps" were used in Haiti to help earthquake survivors find health resources, locate food supplies and track outbreaks of gang violence and looting. Okolloh, a Kenyan activist, lawyer and blogger who lives in South Africa, said social media make it harder for people to be victims of inefficient or corrupt authorities. Africans used to have to "wait for the government" to improve social conditions but "now, we do not have to wait," Okolloh said. "Now, we can self-organize. And just the notion of hierarchy in a traditional crisis on the ground? It used to be Nairobi would have to communicate with Geneva which would have to communicate with New York and it would take forever to determine what people's needs were on the ground. This (social) technology allows the people, themselves, to express their needs in one minute."

Social media also are empowering ordinary people to recalibrate their relationships with one another, Okolloh says. "This technology is agnostic," she said. "It doesn't discriminate man-woman, rich-poor, black-white. African women now have new opportunities," she said, citing as examples the rapid growth in mobile banking services such as M-PESA and the start of thousands of small businesses that can be managed entirely over a mobile phone. "Nobody can tell me, an African woman, to get out of the room because now I own the room," Okolloh said. "Thousands of women can now own the room."

In highlights of other social media discussions at this year's CGI:

* Molly Melching, Executive Director of the African women's health and human rights NGO called Tostan (meaning "breakthrough" in Wolof), said cultural differences need to be acknowledged in the advocacy community's push to put social media tools into the hands of local communities. "You need, in many villages, to explain the benefits and let people work out for themselves how (or whether) they want to proceed," she said. But once consensus is achieved, she said, social media and mobile technologies can change nearly every aspect of local life. Melching, who has lived in Senegal for the past 36 years, said "women no longer have to walk for hours or days to visit the health worker, only to find out he or she isn't there; kids no longer have to go physically from one village to the next to announce a birth or a death. Now, they can just text it. Hours, days are saved. It creates the time and space for new opportunities."

* Pierre Omidyar, founding partner of the Omidyar Nework and founding chairman of eBay, said that social media "fundamentally are changing the relationships between citizens and government." During the post-election uprising in Iran two years ago, he said, "the other side of the story" of the 2009 Iranian elections got out to Americans. Through Twitter, Facebook and video, "Americans began connecting personally to people in the streets and began to realize that people there were, in many ways, just like they were," said Omidyar, a French-born, Iranian-American entrepreneur and philanthropist. "The change in perception that created among Americans about the average Iranian and the connections we now still have will affect what American international policy can be. You can't have an American president standing up and saying we're going to bomb these people anymore. It won't happen now; it can't. Social media fundamentally change the balance of power between ordinary people and government elites."

* Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, said mobile social media can help people get better and more immediate health care. "Think about the mobile technology that exists to enable the poor to have a chip in their phone that will contain their whole health record," she said. "...I met a daily wage earner in Pakistan who got a multiple fracture in his leg. Normally, it would have taken him 2-3 months to get care" but through one of the foundation's grantees, Heartfile, the man's health records are now digital and far more quickly accessible. "We were able to validate him within 72 hours of his injury to receive the care he needed," Rodin said.

* Cherie Blair, a lawyer and the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, told delegates that "we should stop thinking about mobile phones as just a place where we have a chat, and start thinking about these phones as a poor person's computer, where we can all get access to the world of information."

* Mohammad Kilany, co-founder of Souktel Mobile Phone Job Service, offers job-hunting services via text message to thousands of unemployed Palestinian youth. In the Palestinian territories, youth unemployment is nearly 36 percent, Kilany says, but it is difficult for young job-seekers to move from one city to the next in search of work. Few have access to the Internet or to smart phones. "But everyone has a simple cellphone, and it's cheap to text," Kilany says. Souktel asks users to register with the service by texting information about themselves. A user who then texts in "match me" will get job listings that fit his or her skills, including phone numbers to dial. So far, so good. Souktel reaches 15,000 Palestinians and links them to more than 300 employers. "At first, people thought we were idiots," Kilany said. "They didn't believe we could help them find a job with texting. So we invested lots of effort going to universities and talking with employees to convince them of the benefit of letting all people have access to the job market."

For more on CGI's take this year on social media, click here for panel videos.

-- Marcia Stepanek


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