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"Information is the currency of democracy" - Thomas Jefferson


Well if information is the currency of democracy, you'd think we'd keep track of the handlers.

Information has become big business. Duh right? But no I'm not here to talk about Facebook privacy or.. how Apple is trying to establish a content empire.. or how your boss is watching your 4square checkins to track how long you're at lunch.


No I'm here to talk about the more traditional kind. News. Stuff that happens. CNN. ABC. Fox (does that really count?). NBC. BBC. CBC. Sky. Reuters. AP. Der Spiegel.. and the list goes on. They shape how we view the world more than most of us will ever appreciate.. since so few of us really get the chance to see both sides of these events.


We're more connected than ever. We like to think we're more informed than ever. But so much happens.. how do we filter? How do we really know what's going on? How can we be certain to read the right stories and not the wrong ones?


Last week The Guardian got an exclusive with Curveball - this is basically the guy that lied and said Hussein had WMDs - because he wanted regime change - and arguably was instrumental for the whole Iraq war along with the yellow cake uranium nonsense. How many people heard about this? Who understood the significance? What will we do with this information? The answer is probably.. nobody and nothing. 


Dennis Fox's 1985 paper Psychology, Ideology, Utopia, and the Commons talks about the interaction between global problems and individual problems. He counters that the traditional solution - centralization of power, of authority in order to more rigorously manage and enforce something.. is not working.


I knew this before I'd ever heard of this paper, I'd had the idea of organic groups of stakeholders probably since I was 15 after witnessing the utter and despicable failures wrought by fisheries management policy and more broadly foreign aid policies in the "third world" countries I grew up. You know, the places where we think people are too dumb to run a country so we had to show them how to do it. In the process we usually just screw things up.


Fox posits that.. an alternative solution is to democratize it - or more precisely to create an organized anarchy (or direct democracy if you prefer). To get stakeholders involved - and keep it small. Small enough that people can really feel that they are invested in the process.. but large enough to act as a real force. Hmm.. Switzerland?


And this is where I have found hope. In the streets of Benghazi. Cairo. Tripoli. Yemen. Kuwait. Bahrain. Sudan. People are rising up and actually changing things - not just talking about. And they're reporting about it themselves. And all the "mass media machine" can do is link their blog posts.. their youtube videos. It'd be comical if the topic weren't so tragic. Hundreds of people dying.. and we barely hear about it - but the fact that we hear about it at all. That I can go to a livestream from Libya. Photos on flickr. Videos on youtube. This is raw as it gets. It's hard to spin at the source.


They're democratizing the democratic process by ensuring information can freely flow. These people are heroes.


I'm under no illusion that many of these will fail. That promises will retrograde. Movements will falter. And yes, perhaps some will be co-opted by movements more sinister. But that is the risk of change - and our current "stability" policy is just not working. We need to let self-determination happen.. and the only reason it's so violently coming out.. is because it has been suppressed so harshly for so long. Of course the violence is mostly coming from those trying to maintain the status quo.


The fact that in the end.. despite massive military support to their "security forces", despite decades of tyranny - even trying to shutdown telecommunications in and out of these entire countries.. that ordinary people.. leveraging tools like Youtube, Facebook & Twitter.. but also SMS, phones, satellite feeds, and even just old fashioned notes or face to face "social networks".. people are still getting the job done. They are getting their word out. It is being reported, and real progress will be made.


Azad Essa asks the question - does a revolt need to be documented to succeed? I don't know that it's necessary, but certainly if people believe they are being heard they are more willing to speak out further. This is why citizen reporting of these events is so powerful. Atrocities occur in Africa very frequently, but are not so graphically and immediately broadcast to the rest of the world. Yes people died in Egypt, but wouldn't it have been worse without international pressure? What would a Bosnia or Rwanda look like with social media?


Aside, political change need not be violent. Recent protests in Wisconsin and at universities in Puerto Rico have also shown us that.


It's just not information either - at least not of the kind we're accustomed to. You see the same sort of movements in CSAs starting to press on monoculture farming.. and so on.


In the end, I remain very skeptical about our fate. I'm not certain that we will adjust in time - that our attention will be maintained. Still, to dramatically witness that the whole world has not merely become sated zombies sucking on the media teat of large organisations means there is chance yet for positive change. So perhaps even for a cynic like me.. there is hope.


The question remains.. can we do it? You know.. those of us with jobs and shiney cars. When does it matter for us as well?

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Comment by Brian on March 12, 2011 at 10:28am

Closet optimist! Haha I love it.


I agree Ian, I do believe most people feel that way, but dissent can only forge change and action when sustained and shared. It simply doesn't happen. I doubt most people in North Korea are very happy about the status quo, but as long as the power is concentrated in those that are, change will not happen.


Most people will not rise up or stand fast unless they believe it is likely to result in change (even if comes with a beat down - rather than just a beat down).

Comment by Daniel Leuck on March 12, 2011 at 8:47am
@Ian Brian is a closet optimist :-) Smart phones + Twitter & Facebook are definitely making things harder for despotic rulers. Almost all the information we have about the daily lives of North Koreans is coming from thin communication zones along the country's borders where South Korean and Chinese cell tower coverage allow people to use smuggled mobile phones to tell the world of their suffering and learn about life outside of Kim's bubble universe. There are daily internet news services that report on North Korea based on conversations with people inside the country who, risking a death penalty for unauthorized use of a mobile communication device, call, text and tweet from the mountains to avoid interference from Kim's roaming signal intercept vehicles.
Comment by Ian Gilyeat on March 12, 2011 at 4:00am

Nicely said...but if you're the cynic... I'm the optimist.  If I wear out my shoes, I'm just back on my feet.  I believe humanity feels this same optimism - across the masses.  Deep down, in our core, we know who we are and want to be free to think, to do and to be with each other.  Communication developments like smart phones are a great addition to connecting people to each other and breaking down the walls erected by captive media channels.  Crowd sourcing, chaos theory and individual will power offer rich perspectives as we watch people in protest or revolt.  The will power of people, whether in aggregate or individually is not going away...and change will always happen because of it.

Comment by Brian on February 21, 2011 at 5:01pm

Very true Dan. I didn't want to get too technical as it was getting too long as-is. I'm sure you could write a whole other essay on the impact that mobile phones are having on democracy, environmentalism, etc.


Even looking at ourselves, back in the days of WW2 we likely would not have heard about things like Abu Ghraib if digital cameras and easy portability of information did not exist.

Comment by Daniel Leuck on February 21, 2011 at 8:27am

Great post. The use of social media via phones seems to be acting as an amazing catalyst for revolution in those countries. The fact that we can get news from the source is significant, but the fact that citizens of those countries can see what their countrymen are doing and be inspired to join is even more significant. As you said, there is no guarantee that all those revolutions will succeed or result in better governments, but the more transparency that exists the harder it is for despotic regimes to exist unchallenged. I hope these technologies will eventually lead to the overthrow of the junta in Myanmar and the Kim regime that has oppressed millions of Koreans for the past 60 years.

For years I've been using Twitter to keep up to date on the political happenings in Madagascar, a country of 20M people that is largely ignored by the mainstream US media. Many of the people I follow have had their computers confiscated, but its hard to get all the phones!


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