Technology’s Wide Angle: A Response to Samantha Power

One of the great failings of my life is that I haven’t yet met Samantha Power or had the chance to debate the issues with her over a cup of coffee or six. Not that my feeble brain could keep up anyway, or that I’d be doing a lot of challenging, since there really isn’t anything about her thinking and writing that I could ever take issue with. 

I started following her writing when I was immediate post-army, post-Bosnia, and still working on an M.A. thesis at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies with Frank Chalk, on mass-mediated ethnic incitement, foreign policy, and humanitarian intervention. She’d written some really, really good articles – on "suffering by comparison", people sitting in offices, Rwanda, Zimbabwe. Then a brilliant book on U.S. foreign policy in the age of genocide, which won a Pulitzer. She’s just published a new book, as well, which I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read yet.

I do manage to keep up with her weekly column in Time, though, and this week’s item, on how new media and online technologies can be used to mobilize support for worthy causes, is especially worth the time it takes to read it. In the US, it’s been an interesting week of political debate on appeasement and diplomacy. In the UK, there’s been a good deal of concern over radicalization and academic freedom, in the wake of a terrorism researcher’s arrest at the University of Nottingham. In light of all the hyperventilating, SP’s timely poke at social media raises some interesting issues for debates on radicalization, mobilization, and the potential for early warning.

Calling herself a "thirtysomething anachronism" who still reads "the hard copies of the New York Times and the Boston Globe", she notes that "my students marvel at me the way I once marveled at my mother for being slow to get an e-mail account. They don’t understand why right-thinking people would willfully make their hands dirty every day when they don’t have to. To them I am like a person who takes a shower in the morning and then decides to do gardening before work."

OK. Her real point, though, is this: "True, smudge isn’t great, but it seems a small price to pay for what the newspaper offers: serendipitous discovery and wide-angle perspective."

Much has been made of the convening and mobilizing power of today’s technology. A person inspired by a cause can blog about their outrage and plot a response on Facebook with other similarly animated people. While any single congressional district might not produce a groundswell to demand a halt to global warming or killing in Darfur, a virtual community unmoored from geography can deliver a critical mass. And once converted, advocates are far better informed than a generation ago. They can hear the personal tales of aid workers over Skype. When the Western press steers clear, they can access and share local media reports. Thanks to what Chris Anderson called the "long tail," far more documentaries are available than when movie theaters and video stores catered only to the most popular side of the market. Netflix carries close to 7,500 documentaries, allowing people already immersed in a cause to deepen their knowledge and commitment–and enabling proselytizers to attract new adherents.

For many of us, though, technology has actually lowered the odds of bumping into inconvenient knowledge. If I had been setting up a Google alert in 1989, mine would not have been for "China" or "human rights." In 1992, I certainly would not have asked for stories on "concentration camps." When I’m abroad these days and have to go without my newspaper, I often turn to the most e-mailed stories on news websites, which are generally opinion pieces (rather than news stories), from which I cherry-pick arguments or facts that comport with my pre-existing views. Reading this way, I rarely stray from the familiar and soothing.

She warns:

Amid the hoopla over new media, it is worth considering the costs of the personalization of news. Sure, viral YouTube videos of global conflicts and tragedies will occasionally find an audience, and movements may grow up around iconic new-media images as they did around the old. But while the long tail ensures once obscure documentaries remain available, citizen advocacy may have a short tail, causing the number of viable causes to get winnowed to a handful of megacauses. Burma may achieve the requisite market share, while Burundi fails to penetrate at all.

Further, the screen on which people view the world will narrow. Spared the burden of considering multiple parts of the world at once, single-issue advocates may have a hard time seeing the relationship of one foreign policy challenge to another. Viewing issues à la carte, they might be unable or unwilling to prioritize. To be fair, if young advocates fail to see the way Guantánamo has undermined U.S. efforts in Darfur, they are being no more tunnel-visioned than the Bush Administration. But they are the ones we are counting on to help turn things around.

It’s too easy to default to accessible information – there’s probably a good marketing reason for calling RSS subscriptions "feed". I understand SP’s cautionary, which is essentially a call to remain critical of all information sources (even print versions of the New York Times and the Boston Globe), and to remain wary of technologically-empowered group-think.

But the sheer variety of new media technologies and widgets suggests there’s an equally ready antidote to spoon-fed e-mail defaults and corporate-sponsored information clusters. Early warning, for example, used to be a labor-intensive process, a race against the clock to sift out indicators and warnings, on time, to identify the proverbial needle in the haystack or smoking gun evidence of command responsibility and criminal intent. No longer.

Serendipitous discovery sometimes comes from reading hard copy, sure – but I find that that has more to do with the tactile reassurance of a physical prop. Eureka moments in daily news reading don’t really happen the same way they do for researchers pouring through archived masses of data. Most open source information now being generated is near-instantly preserved in searchable online databases like Lexis-Nexis. Most currently generated information output is instantly available by subscription. This is a radical shift, a time inversion,  the collected mass of it representing an immediate archive of the now. This is the great new possibility: not of social network platforms, which serve their own purposes and can be useful, but of the next-gen web-filtering that’s available.

RSS blenders and mixers, and aggregators like Newsgator and Netvibes, certainly help to winnow out the uninterersting bits and narrow our optic. But web-filtering is most valuable for its ability to turn pretty much any desktop into a data catchment area the proportions of which were once reserved for BBC Worldwide Monitoring or the former Foreign Broadcast Information Service. Significantly, they also streamline source management – sort of like the finding aids I use to use to sort through microfiche collections of U
.S. State Department dispatches.

Now, instead of receiving separate e-mail alerts on the latest International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and ReliefWeb news – or going from website to website to "manually" find what I need – I can plug all those RSS subscriptions into a reader and get a single running feed right on my monitor. There’s a lot of junk on the web, and the importance of remaining critical and thinking about how to collate and categorize information doesn’t go way. Apply that to new filtering technologies, and we may have something.

Things have changed since I first left the Army and SP was starting to show her brilliance. Then, radicalization and mobilization were about radio in Africa and broadcast media in the former Yugoslavia, about sick nationalism and ethnic cleansing. As she once put it – possibly on Charlie Rose – 9/11 sucked the wind out of some important Clinton-era issues: human rights, humanitarian intervention, accountability for war crimes, R2P. But the early warning lessons of that era are directly linked to how we can do some things better today.

SP would probably agree, though, that none of it means a thing in the absence of political will and in an atmosphere of partisan hysterics.

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