Asymmetrical Networking and Human Dignity

Protesters held banners saying that the Bahraini government treats its own people terribly. Photo: Al Jazeera English

Neither Twitter nor Facebook caused the uprisings that are now spreading across the Middle East, but much of the conversation about their role misses the point, as Mathew Ingram writes. It focuses on the technical and tactical, yet important as these are, they’re not the whole picture.

The ability to tell your own story is empowering, even more so if you’ve never had access to the means to tell it, or if you’ve been silenced by repression.

Among the many indignities of people who live in poverty is powerlessness. Their voices are scarcely, if ever, heard by those in power. Marginalization isn’t only economic, it’s also the diminishment of the human spirit. It’s the sense that if you’re poor, you don’t matter. When people who’ve been treated like this find their voice, they find a means to experience affirmation and liberation. It’s a chance to discover dignity and self-worth.

In many places, legacy media are in state control or subject to manipulation by the state. Under these conditions, it’s possible to stifle alternative voices and frame the social narrative to the state’s own ends. This repressive use of media has gone hand in hand with physical repression of dissent, often through the use of intimidation, violence, imprisonment and state-sanctioned killing.

With cellphones and smartphones, text messaging, still and video photography, emboldened people, tired of neglect and repression, are finding their voices and telling their stories. And they’re finding a global audience anxious to know more.

They’re documenting events firsthand and providing images directly from the scene in contrast to the manufactured plotlines of state media. They’re experiencing strength in numbers through the free flow of information made possible by this new asymmetrical network.

While revolutions have occurred throughout history without social media, these are the first revolutions that have occurred with the tools of internet-based digital media and they shift the power balance and turn the people into producers. A new media ecosystem is being born.

We can celebrate this new age, but we must also learn from it because repressive rulers and fearful states are studying how to shut down, restrict or control these media as quickly as they can. Corporations are seeking to capture control of the systems for profit, turning them toward the economic models of the past that have shut out divergent voices, limited competiton and concentrated control in their hands.

In this interconnected world, the rights of people in the Middle East are as close as the cellphone in your pocket, or your contract with your internet provider or cell carrier. We share this need for open access and free flow of information in common with them.

In the new global media ecosystem, the health and freedom of each part of the system is directly related to every other part. This is more clear in these 21st century revolutions than ever before.

These revolutions also reveal what’s at stake in the net neutrality debate. The desire for control isn’t limited to totalitarian states. Dan Gillmor in Mediactive writes of the threat of “broadband oligopoly” that would make the internet into the financial model of cable television, limiting the flow of information in ways that will restrict timely, universal access. Corporate oligopoly puts at risk the participatory free flow of information upon which these people’s revolutions rely.

The Knight Commission on The Information Needs of Communities offers a wealth of resources for getting a handle on this challenge. The Open Society Justice Initiative offers an archive on global freedom of information resources.

Hillary Clinton’s support of an open internet is encouraging, but meeting the threat will take more than speeches, and the recent FCC ruling didn’t demonstrate unequivocal support for an open internet in the United States free from corporate manipulation, and even that is under fire.

It will require advocates who stand as firm as the people of the Middle East are standing at risk of their lives for more freedom, the right to assemble, the right to speak, the free flow of information and to be free from repression.

Those of us who don’t face the extreme conditions they are fighting against need to pay attention anyway. We don’t know where these various uprisings will end, nor if they will result in the kind of democratic states we hope for.

But they challange us to protect the media ecosystem that is being born, and if we do, we will go a long way toward creating a more open world in which human dignity and freedom have an opportunity to flourish.

(I think “asymmetrical” is a more apt description of the networks assembling today online. I don’t know why I didn’t use this descriptor earlier. But I changed the title and copy to incorporate it in this revision.)

3 Responses to “Asymmetrical Networking and Human Dignity”

  1. Dale Lature February 20, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    For me, and as I read you here, you too, the “causes” arguments have been aimed at straw arguments. You’ve probably read some of Jay Rosen’s posts on this. It seems to me not a matter of “cause” (I think we can all agree that the “causes” are in the actions of the people in saying “enough”). It seems that the tools, though, play a much larger role in allowing much more to be done in that “window of opportunity” that prior to electronic networked communications, was of necessity and technological limitation, slower. Also the immediacy of getting feedback that indicates a popular support for the physical movements was instrumental in getting people onto the streets (and even the cutting off of connections may have backfired, getting more would-be “watch from the sidelines” people – the sidelines being the electronic viewing – to get onto the streets if they wanted to continue observing/involvement). So the “window of opportunity” time is compressed via the immediacy. I think it’s very much a matter of what you referred to in your previous post: that the movements “accelerated incrementally “; I would say it is also accurate to say “incrementally accelerated”; that the addition of layers of various technologies accelerated the process of “waking up” and fighting back against what was previously “resignation” or “hopelessness”, when it came to light via networked, personal stories (as you also emphasize) that others were calling on everyone to say “we aren’t taking this anymore”. Acceleration and augmentation, and not “causation”, are my key words for this.

  2. Larry February 21, 2011 at 6:41 am #

    Dale,
    You make an important point. It’s the enabling aspect of these tools that reveals their value. They speed up the mobilization, all other factors taken into consideration. They allow for faster mobilization and for wider reach. The causes exist regardless, but given the ability to communicate people are acting on them more quickly.
    I think your comment about “bystanders” is interesting, too. People are engaging, and it’s reasonable to ask if they are not encouraged by seeing ever-increasing numbers joining in. It appears from afar that the more harsh the government resistance, the more determined the popular opposition. As I write, it looks as if Libya is falling into chaos. And this looks like a case of opponents feeling that they’ve come this far and if they retreat they’ll be killed anyway, so why not go for broke and attempt to overthrow the strongman? Even with the internet restricted it looks like satellite phones are being used to communicate with the outside. These tools sustain the uprisings, along with others. The role of Al Jazeera deserves study in its own right. But that’s another subject.

  3. Dale Lature February 21, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    Larry,
    Al Jazeera is outstanding. I have discovered oneof their shows, aside from the live news, called “Empire”, which has some excellent conversation/documentary , usually focused onthe U.S., which is unarguably, “The” Empire. But their live coverage is what led me todisocver those, and it is their live coverage whichmakes them a “must carry” alongiside BBC for US Cable cos, if they want to provide the kind of news that a lot of news consumers want.

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