ICT without agency?

Cross-posted from my blog featuring my regular newspaper column.

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There is in Sri Lanka an Information and Communications Technology Agency. There are also Ministries of Science and Technology, Mass Media and Information, Telecommunication and Information Technology and incredibly, Technology and Research. In addition, we have the Department of Government Information. Finally, there is a National Science and Technology Commission.

The combined financial and human resources needed to maintain these institutions are significant – billions of rupees per annum. And yet, not a single one has any on-going or planned initiative, made public, around post-war reconciliation in general, or the curation of vital discussions around the final report and recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in particular. And while the LLRC has it’s own website, it is about as useful an archive as a bakery in Colombo during April’s long Avurudu break – there’s a clear structure, but nothing of any worth in it. As I noted in a longer article penned recently for a Sinhala publication, there are already over 18 million SIM registrations in a country of just over 20 million people according to the latest topline census data. 2.3 million smartphones were sold over 2011 alone. Mobile phone companies have an SMS code or service for a plethora of entertainment options, lifestyle choices, news updates, cashless mobile commerce, utility payments and even astrological updates. And yet, there’s no short-code or service yet to inform 18 million subscribers about the contents of the LLRC report, or broadly, host discussions around post-war reconciliation.

Sri Lanka could have set an example on how post-war ICTs can strengthen reconciliation. Sadly and perhaps unsurprisingly, it has not done so. Whether online, on the desktop, via mobiles, using a combination of mainstream print and terrestrial media with web platforms or strictly through SMS and online social networking platforms –technology that can be leveraged to strengthen and support meaningful reconciliation is either already present and used in the country, or can be without much effort and investment, introduced. Mainstream media can play a role. So can so-called ‘serious games’ – games that through small mobile downloads or through the desktop browser use rewards and social recognition to promote engagement with tough issues like reparation, accountability and transitional justice. From online memes – the growth and potential of which I have recently addressed in this column – to bearing witness through mobile phone photography, from citizen driven curation of audio-visual content online to audioscapes of ordinary life in different communities even within a single city, from how we can localise compelling examples like Videoletters that brought together displaced and dispersed families from the former Yugoslavia through video to powerful examples of memorialising violence like the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, literacy, age, socio-economic group, geographic location, topography, language or cost no longer impedes us from leveraging the full potential of ICTs for reconciliation. However, in Sri Lanka, the absence of political will remains a significant challenge. In our country, ICTs will be used for reconciliation despite government and, for the foreseeable future, without any subsidy or support from any major telecommunications company.

The galaxy of line ministries, departments and commissions dealing with information and technology alone, supported by public coffers, should be leading innovation around reconciliation. Clearly, they are not. It is unlikely they ever will. This can be turned around. Every published indicator unequivocally suggests Sri Lankans are more connected today than any other period in history. We call more. We text more. Young Sri Lankans use the Internet more. Mainstream media is on the web, on Twitter, on Facebook. Civic media online, in Sinhala and Tamil, is on the rise. This is a real opportunity through a historic intersection – the contents of a report on reconciliation published at a time when there are growing numbers producing information for and consuming information off online channels. And it’s not just for the Twitterati – information online, when available, debated and highlighted, has the potential to shape policies and practices that affect far larger numbers of citizens. We have the infrastructure, and both government and civil society have much to gain from thinking and using more ICTs for reconciliation.

Either we step up now, or deeply regret later.

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Published in The Nation print edition 1 July 2012.

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