Attending 2011 MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference

Stepping into the MIT Media Lab is akin to leaving this world, and stepping into a different one. I chanced into the building to meet Ethan Zuckerman earlier this year as part of the ICT4Peace Foundation‘s work, and will step in again in two weeks time as a participant at the 2011 MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference. MIT’s Media Lab exudes the applied research orientation of its inhabitants.

Littered across vast hallways are interactive touchscreens, experiments in progress, vast panes of glass from where you can see researchers pouring over minutiae and open spaces where others, mostly on Macs, peer at their work interrupted occasionally by a muttered expletive or more vociferous sounds of jubilation, clearly indicating that something went to plan. It is a massive building, and needless to say, even when connected to its free wifi, the throughput and bandwidth exceed anything that is possibly even commercially available in Sri Lanka.

I look forward to all this, but more towards the substantive content of the conference as well as meeting the other Knight Journalism Fellows. I believe I was the first cohort of Ashoka News & Knowledge Entrepreneurs supported by the Knight Foundation, and my work on Groundviews in particular and the use of ICTs and new media for conflict transformation and to bear witness have been supported by the Fellowship.

Over the years, I’ve reflected a number of times on this blog how the use of web media and mobile phone in particular during war, and after it, changed the manner in which for example, the violence in Sri Lanka was recorded for posterity. I have cautioned that technology alone isn’t a solution, and that the focus must always be on people. There are however real challenges. As I’ve noted in the past,

As an Ashoka Fellow, I feel particularly privileged to be part of a group of thought-leaders shaping the way the news and media agenda grapples with significant social, economic, political and identity based conflict and violence. Yet there’s always more to the solution that adding ICTs to the mix. In Sri Lanka, the fact that there is little or no civic consciousness is the real challenge to new media and citizen journalism. It is a country of voters, and the difference is not just semantic. There is a real dearth of critical thinking, media literacy and a sense of public outrage at the breakdown in governance, human rights and corruption. New media can create that outrage, or hold to scrutiny issues mainstream media cannot or will not. But this requires citizens to write in with their ideas and thoughts – which proves exceedingly difficult in a society that does not work in this manner.

There are other challenges too, for example, on how to measure the impact of citizen journalism on the web. In addition to articles on how citizen journalism operates in Sri Lanka, I have also critically analysed the underpinnings of professional blogging in similar authoritarian contexts. All this reflection, based on real world work and its evaluation, was mostly possible because of the Knight Fellowship. One of the best pieces I wrote at the invitation of Keith Hammonds from Ashoka Foundation was to look at what changes ICTs would bring to media over 2010. This was published in Ashoka’s website in early January 2010.

I end that article by noting that,

Technology can be a great leveller, and we must ensure it is used to strengthen democracy, for increasingly, the enjoyment of our fundamental human rights rests on it. I hope that by the end of the decade, this vital realisation will find expression in constitutions, policies and practices of governments, initiatives of civil society and the ethics of business and journalism.

The 2011 MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference offers a great venue to carry some of these discussions further, in a room full of some of the world’s leading minds on citizen journalism and new media.

I’m looking forward to this.

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