New media: The pros and cons

Texts Without Context on the NY Times is an excellent round up and review of books on the qualitative nature, reach and growth of new media, and its implications for the way we produce, consume and understand news. From the infidelity of Tiger Woods to the death of Michael Jackson, the highest peaks of traffic on the web in recent years have been driven by the reportage of events, the authors of the books included in the article would argue, that are essentially trivial.

As the article notes,

Now, with the ubiquity of instant messaging and e-mail, the growing popularity of Twitter and YouTube, and even newer services like Google Wave, velocity and efficiency have become even more important. Although new media can help build big TV audiences for events like the Super Bowl, it also tends to make people treat those events as fodder for digital chatter. More people are impatient to cut to the chase, and they’re increasingly willing to take the imperfect but immediately available product over a more thoughtfully analyzed, carefully created one. Instead of reading an entire news article, watching an entire television show or listening to an entire speech, growing numbers of people are happy to jump to the summary, the video clip, the sound bite — never mind if context and nuance are lost in the process; never mind if it’s our emotions, more than our sense of reason, that are engaged; never mind if statements haven’t been properly vetted and sourced.

The article goes on to note that,

“Given the constant bombardment of trivia and data that we’re subjected to in today’s mediascape, it’s little wonder that noisy, Manichean arguments tend to get more attention than subtle, policy-heavy ones; that funny, snarky or willfully provocative assertions often gain more traction than earnest, measured ones; and that loud, entertaining or controversial personalities tend to get the most ink and airtime. This is why Sarah Palin’s every move and pronouncement is followed by television news, talk-show hosts and pundits of every political persuasion. This is why Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh on the right and Michael Moore on the left are repeatedly quoted by followers and opponents. This is why a gathering of 600 people for last month’s national Tea Party convention in Nashville received a disproportionate amount of coverage from both the mainstream news media and the blogosphere.”

Read it in full here. Or true to form, I guess you can just tweet about it.

Communications tapping, taping and paranoia in Sri Lanka

An excerpt from a story published in the Sunday Leader, 29th November 2009, demonstrates the reach of communications surveillance in Sri Lanka, and the sheer paranoia of the Rajapakse administration that drives it.

Painfully aware of the chinks in their armor the former Chief of Defense Staff could exploit, the Rajapaksas have moved swiftly, decisively and of course, ruthlessly. The Sunday Leader learns that state intelligence has been tapping both the land and mobile phones belonging to Sarath Fonseka, his family, staff and senior aides for months.

Even ministers, officers at the Defence Ministry, and senior Presidential aides who are known to have associated with Fonseka, are now said to have had their phones tapped. And in the latest bout of paranoia following Fonseka’s formal announcement of his candidacy, it is reported that editors and defence correspondents who have had any contact with the General are now being wire tapped.

Of course surveillance of opposition politicians and anti government editors is simply the de facto state of affairs in this state of serendipity. But the extent of the government’s current bout of surveillance is Orwellian and reminiscent of the most paranoid and sinister of authoritarian dictatorships. And surveillance is not restricted to wire taps — several key opposition figures are now being constantly shadowed, kept in the sights of government operatives day and night.

Initially, phone tapping was handled by the rather shady State Intelligence Service (SIS) but the government’s need to eavesdrop is such that the Military Intelligence corps has also begun tapping phones, with assistance from the Army Signals Corps.
Headed by a Brigadier specialising in telecommunications, there are specialised groups within the intelligence corps for tapping, taping and reporting vital information to superiors.

Superiors inevitably from the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) and SIS who report to the Ministry of Defence what they have heard and await further orders. The details regarding phone tapping were leaked to The Sunday Leader by an officer involved in the tapping. But despite the brazenness and openness of the surveillance now being conducted, under the law of this Lankan land the tapping of any land or mobile phone conversation is illegal.

Of course, it is well known that the law in Sri Lanka is somewhat optional. What is particularly outstanding in this case however, is that this abuse of individuals’ constitutional right to privacy are not being carried out for the security of the nation, but to secure the interests of the Rajapaksa regime.

Sarath Fonseka and his associates aren’t having their phones tapped because they pose a threat to the citizens of this nation, but because they pose a threat to the absolute power of this regime. And for all the talk of patriotism, that ultimately is the thinking that drives this regime — the nation recedes into insignificance when the administration’s interests are threatened.

And phone tapping isn’t the only instance where the national interest and this nation’s law has been subordinated to the government self interest.

Also read Intercepting mobile communications: A cogent case for truth-seeking and slow news?

Growth of mobiles and ICTs in the Asia Pacific region

The UNESCAP 2007 Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific has some interesting figures on the growth of ICTs in general and mobile phone telephony in particular in the region.

Mobile phones per capita

Sri Lanka has more mobile phone subscribers per 100 population than Pakistan and India. Other interesting statistics include:

  • Mobile phone growth is stifling fixed line growth across the region, but particularly in low income countries, SAARC member countries and least developed countries in the region (e.g. 97% of all phones in Cambodia are mobiles)
  • Internet use is growing, though the statistics don’t register wireless broadband internet access (via mobiles).
  • The Maldives, unsurprisingly, has the highest number of cellular subscriber per 100 population with Sri Lanka coming in second in South Asia.
  • SAARC member states and least developed countries show the highest growth for mobile phone subscribers in the Asian and Pacific country / area groupings noted in the report. 

Not sure why in the report Sri Lanka doesn’t register any growth in (wired) broadband subscribers from 2004 – 2006, though it does show an increase in the number of Internet users. I thought SLT alone would have given out a fair number of ADSL subscriptions over the past two years.

It will be interesting to see the data that comes in for 2007 / 2008 on how the introduction and growing usage of wireless broadband connectivity (3G and WiMax) over mobiles and PCs impacts these figures.

For me, these stats are vital determinants in favour of strengthening and promoting citizen journalism and user generated content in the region.

ICT, Socialism and Apartheid

Cybersyn Control Room

Cybersyn Control Room (image courtesy Wikipedia)

Cybernetics and Stafford Beer were introduced to me by a friend who was a former mainframe systems analyst interested in using Beer’s Viable Systems Model for the design of peace processes more resilient to spoiler dynamics in the erstwhile Sri Lankan peace process. Never quite grasped it, though words like algedonic feedback and taxonomic change sounded quite delicious.

I was reminded of Beer when I was sent a link by Patrick Meier recently on the use of ICTs in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Two countries, a continent and decades apart, demonstrate just how powerful technology can be in fostering social change. I bring up the example of Chile in particular because Beer’s system called Cybersyn (pictured above) was able in the 70’s to use information and communications to thwart the first strikes against Allende’s government sponsored by the CIA. As Andy Beckett notes in the Guardian

Across Chile, with secret support from the CIA, conservative small businessmen went on strike. Food and fuel supplies threatened to run out. Then the government realised that Cybersyn offered a way of outflanking the strikers. The telexes could be used to obtain intelligence about where scarcities were worst, and where people were still working who could alleviate them. 

This, mind you, was in 1973!

Using nothing more than telex machines connected to central control rooms, Cybersyn was able to leverage the power of near real time communication to thwart the workers strikes. Field based needs and information fed into effective and timely national needs based responses. That’s the kind of operational effectiveness that humanitarian information systems still struggle to achieve today. 

The interconnected telex machines, exchanging 2,000 messages a day, were a potent instrument, enabling the government to identify and organize alternative transportation resources that kept the economy moving.

An important legacy of Beer’s work and research is the approach to communications systems design at a local and national level. Both he and Allende did not perceive (or use) Cybersyn as a means through which an Orwellian surveillance state could be brought about, such as that we see in the United Kingdom today with its millions of CCTVs. As Andy Beckett avers,

[Beer and Allende] shared a belief that Cybersyn was not about the government spying on and controlling people. On the contrary, it was hoped that the system would allow workers to manage, or at least take part in the management of their workplaces, and that the daily exchange of information between the shop floor and Santiago would create trust and genuine cooperation – and the combination of individual freedom and collective achievement that had always been the political holy grail for many leftwing thinkers.

There were other non-technological innovations, such as bringing together diverse and sometimes opposing groups into the control rooms to discuss national affairs, a precursor to the virtual One Text process we pioneered in Sri Lanka. As Eden Media notes in “Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation: Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile”, although Cybersyn was technically ambitious, from the outset it could not be characterised as simply a technical endeavour to regulate the economy. From the perspective of project team members, it could help make Allende’s socialist revolution a reality – ‘ revolutionary computing ’ in the truest sense.

And it is important to underscore here that Beer’s work was not about processing power, but about processing communications. Information management in its truest sense. 

Which neatly ties in with Patrick’s link on Operation Vula, an encrypted communications systems for the African National Congress designed in the 1980’s. Patrick’s post and the excerpts from the article he quotes from showcase an interesting similarity with Cybersyn in that both systems ran on hardware less powerful than our mobile phones today. Both were successes in their own right, though Vula perhaps to a greater degree than Cybersyn. Both carry important lessons for us today in the design of ICT frameworks for peacebuilding, reconciliation processes and humanitarian aid. 

As Tim Jenkins notes in The story of the secret underground communications network of Operation Vula,

The lessons of Vula are clear. Without first-class communications you cannot carry out a successful underground operation. Underground does not mean silence, it simply means operating at a different level – one that operates in parallel but separately from the above-ground. Both levels need to be able to communicate in order to operate effectively but in the underground communication links are more critical as they are the cement that binds together the parts… Vula should serve as an example for the present. The need for good communications are as important today as they were in the days of the underground.

Communicating Disasters: Seeking common ground for media and disaster managers

Communicating Disasters

Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book (Edited by Nalaka Gunawardene and Frederick Noronha with a Foreword by Sir Arthur C Clarke) was published in December 2007. It is a multi-author book that discusses how information, education and communication can help create disaster resilient communities across the Asia Pacific region, home to half of humanity. It also takes a critical look at the communication lessons of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, and explores the role of good communications before, during and after disasters.

The book comprises 160 pages (17.3 cm x 24.4 cm) and contains 19 chapters authored by 21 contributors, plus 7 appendices. It is co-published by TVE Asia Pacific and UNDP Regional Centre in Bangkok.

Download the entire book for free from here.

Also see:

Who’s afraid of citizen journalists? – Chapter from “Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book”

Who’s afraid of citizen journalists? – Chapter from “Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book”

Communicating Disasters

“Communicating disasters — before, during and after they happen — is fraught with many challenges. Today’s ICT tools enable us to be smart and strategic in gathering and disseminating information. But there is no silver bullet that can fix everything. We must never forget how even high tech (and high cost) solutions can fail at critical moments. We can, however, contain these risks by addressing the cultural, sociological and human dimensions – aspects that this book explores in some depth and detail, from the perspective of both media professionals and disaster managers.”

Sir Arthur C Clarke, in his foreword to Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book

I was invited to contribute a chapter on citizen journalism and disaster response for Communicating Disasters: As Asia Pacific Resource Book published by the UNDP and TVEAP in December 2007.I am glad I agreed – the final book is one of the best I’ve read on media and communications for disaster preparedness and response, with contributions from leading authors that are personal, provocative, challenge conventional wisdom and offer vital insights into the role and practice of journalism and media in covering and responding to disasters and other crises.In my own essay, I introduce the idea of “victim journalism”, who by “palm-grown” content enabled by the increasing footprint of and access to ICTs, have more agency to secure their needs in the aftermath of a disaster or crisis. On the other hand, I also point to significant challenges of citizen journalism:

like any other tool, [citizen journalism] can [be] used for purposes they were not in-tended for, misused or only used for personal gain. There is no guarantee that images and photos from disasters produced by victims in the thick of it will galvanise attention and support.

However, I go on to note that:

Disasters are about resilience – how we pick ourselves up after a human tragedy and slowly return to normalcy. ICTs help us understand how we can help communities spring back to life after a disaster. They humanise a tragedy, the scale of which may be too large to otherwise comprehend. Citizen journalists, flawed as they may be as individuals, are nevertheless tremendously powerful as a group. They have the potential to capture, over the long term, a multiplicity of rich and insightful perspectives on disasters not often covered by the traditional media.

A note of thanks to Nalaka Gunawardene, a co-editor of the publication, who in response to an early draft said that since my chapter named and shamed countries, including Sri Lanka, for their deplorable human rights and media freedom record (that I submit vitiates the potential of citizen journalism) it may not pass muster with the hyper-sensitivities of the UNDP, that funded the publication.

I was happy to note that the final publication was unchanged from my draft.

Read my chapter in full here and visit the TVEAP site for updates on when the entire book will be published online under a Creative Commons License.
Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book160 pages; 17.3 cm x 24.4 cm; 19 chapters + 7 appendicesPublished: December 2007