Thursday, June 18, 2009

If you can't beat 'em, Or the ubiquitous Twitter post

It all started with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

An online event titled "ONLINE DISCOURSE IN THE ARAB WORLD: Dispelling the Myths" was hosted by the US Institute of Peace Center of Innovation for Science, Technology and Peacebuilding, in partnership with Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society on June 17th.

The discussion began with a presentation of the Berkman's Center mapping report on the "arabic blogosphere".

Download the Berkman Center's report "Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture and Dissent" here, if you'd like. An interesting enough idea, but there were limitations on the study that were immediately apparent-- dialects of various arabic languages were not considered for one, and the use of labels such as "arab", "fundamentalist", "radical" and "terrorist", which despite being carefully coded by the Berkman Center, didn't sit well with a large number of the online participants as well as with some of the panelists. The study focused on blogs, leaving out more embedded forms of social media-based interaction such as Facebook, and the still popular use of listservs and mailing groups.

I first logged into the embedded chat applet on the event page, but soon discovered that the real action was on Twitter, with folk using the hashtag #arabblogs to discuss the Eventbrite-based goings on.

In about 3.5 minutes, was born.

Tweeting for the first time was a strangely nostalgic exercise. It reminded me of the good ol' days of downloading music and chatting on WinMx: less words used yes, but the same back-and-forth, the same endorsement, reaction and attribution cycle where multiple players share center stage for short bursts of time.

Those using the chat applet took time developing questions, forged temporary relationships with other users, made introductions and exchanged contact information at the end.

Those tweeting stuck to reacting to the panelists and each other much in the fashion of these lads, and rightly so. There wasn't enough time or a sufficient character limit to establish much more than disapproval or approval of a statement. There were a few points made by folk in their twitter feeds however, which ranged from the angle of the camera used to record and relay the panel discussion to the fact that it was an all-male discussion on blogging in the Arab world, when it is self-evident that a majority of arab bloggers are in fact female. Tweets added biographical information about the panelists and references they made for the edification of others, who then RTed this same information again, and again. The camera angle was righted, but no one got back to the point about the lack of female representation. Perhaps the 140 character limit made it impossible to explain.

On June 21st, Bruce Etling and John Palfrey of the Berkman Center-- speakers at the USIP event-- together with Robert Faris published a WaPo article on the role of twitter in the Iran election protests, stating the following:

... Twitter's own internal architecture puts limits on political activism. There are so many messages streaming through at any moment that any single entry is unlikely to break through the din, and the limit of 140 characters -- part of the service's charm and the secret of its success -- militates against sustained argument and nuance. (Yes, "Give me liberty or give me death" totals just 32 characters, but Patrick Henry's full speech exceeded 1,200 words.) What's most exciting is the aggregate effect of all this speech and what it reveals about the zeitgeist of the moment, but it still reflects a worldwide user population that skews wealthy, English-speaking and well-educated. The same is true of the blogosphere and social networks such as Facebook.

The authors then refer to the USIP event and say--

If dissent is channeled into cyberspace, it can keep protesters off the streets and help state security forces track political activism and new online voices. As Egyptian democracy activist Saad Ibrahim said last week during a
discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, this appears to be part of a long tradition for governments in the Middle East, especially in Egypt, where dissent is channeled into universities and allowed to thrive there, as long as it does not escape the university walls.

It's not a particularly conclusive piece-- All that Etling, Palfrey and Faris say is that revolutions aren't fought online, though attempts at supporting or quelling it can be made online.

Fair enough.

It's interesting to note the roots for the word 'Twitter', etymologically speaking-

to reproach, blame; originally, to observe, see, hence, to observe what is wrong... To vex by bringing to notice, or reminding of, a fault, defect, misfortune, or the like; to revile; to reproach; to upbraid; to taunt; as, he twitted his friend of falsehood.
A whole cyber sky-full of those iconic little blue winged buggers then, worrying and picking at some large issue till even more folk take notice and some "real action" takes place, "on the ground".
Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind's greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn't have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking - Stephen Hawking. Who also, apparently, tweets.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The answer, Mr. Huntington, is blowin' in the wind

"I've had all I can stands and I can't stands no more"-- Popeye the Sailor-man.

Two articles caught my eye this morning-- the WaPo coverage of the anti-Taliban sentiment and fighting in Pakistan, by Griff Witte, and an op-ed in the NYT regarding the current elections in Iran.

The articles highlight two separate events that till recently, as recently as six months ago, no one saw coming.

No one in their right mind, not even the most sanctimonious or the most optimistic supporter of Islamic Democracy would have put money on Pakistanis rallying to fight and lose their lives in an effort to quell the efforts of the Taliban to "fundamentalize" outlier regions of their country.

Of course, the WaPo article highlights the fact that the Pakistanis in question are from low-income families and regions: is it because these people have more to lose if the Taliban do expand, and consequentially more to gain if the Taliban doesn't? Maybe. Which means that their current action, however lauded by the American government, is rooted more in desperation rather than any higher sense of right and wrong. In fact, Witte's article sheds light on the self-doubt that abounds within households in places like Patalian, where people are questioning who is the real enemy, this time around:
"We used to know who the enemy was, and where he is coming from," said Zulfikar Sajad, his eyes vacant and sad as he sat in a mud-brick hut on a desolate plain. "Now, we don't know from which direction the bullets will come."
The Op-Ed piece in the Times is a positive piece: Camelia Entekhabifard is a respected journalist and spokesperson, and has written from the NYT before (this piece particularly stood out-- I loved the mushroom analogy). Her Op-Ed speaks of the new hope on Iranian streets, where students and women have formed protest marches and lines, wearing green in support of Mousavi, the reformist candidate that an apparent majority in Iran is hoping will change the way the country is perceived globally.

(Photo credits: MAJID/Getty Images, for Preeti Aroon's article in FP)

Entekhabifard writes,

So what makes today’s activists different? First of all, a large swath of this “third wave” of voters includes young people who do not remember the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and its related traumas. The ordeals that we suffered immediately after the 1979 revolution are just history to them. Today’s voters probably never had to lie to schoolteachers trying to ferret out damaging information about their families. Iranians may be far from free, but they do not endure the fear we experienced daily.

I used to consider myself among the most outspoken critics in Iran. But I would have never dared to stage a loud protest against a sitting president, as Iranian students did in 2007... Now, Iranians form a 12-mile human chain in support of Mr. Moussavi, and women are seeking one million signatures for a petition for gender quality. Thanks to YouTube, Facebook and blogs, it’s easier for young people to organize, express their grievances and learn personal information about top officials.
This is all very interesting, because it provides additional basis for an argument that counters Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. It shows that even within a tightly knit culture, where complex intermingled structures of society and religion provide the general populace with a code of behavior and cognition, it is possible for new ideas to take root and cause a sea-change in how people react to one another. Not every old traditional fear or belief holds true forever. Not every tie binds just because it did for one's father and his father before him.

In short, the events referred to in these two articles give an elegant bird right in the face of every conservative and every nay-sayer who claim you can't teach an old culture or community new tricks.


But hold up, son. Before you start poppin' them bottles, realize that it is impossible for any movement to be wholly self-sustained. Yes, the people of Patalian, the Swat Valley and nearby regions are fighting and dying for what they believe is a worthy cause. Yes, en masse, people are agreeing that there is more than one interpretation to the role of Islam in a country's political future. But what happens when the last body hits the floor? What happens when aid runs out, or if the Taliban cut a deal or threaten some big-shot in Islamabad?

And what happens if Mousavi doesn't win the Iran elections, or does win and ends up being strong-armed into a hardline stance? What happens if the government in Iran takes over all forms of communication, and controls the use of Youtube, Facebook and blogs?

Citizen groups, bloggers, individuals and media need to let people in Pakistan know that they are supported for their bravery in attempting to choose a better political fate for themselves. The efforts of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent need support. And we're the ones to give it to them.

According to the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF),
"A lack of funds is threatening the humanitarian aid effort in north-west Pakistan.

Save the Children reports that the organisation has received £2.6 million of the £6.6 million needed to assist 168,000 children and 112,000 adults in the region who have become victims of fighting in the Swat valley.

Carolyn Miller, chief executive of humanitarian charity Merlin, commented: "The only reason we haven't faced a massive humanitarian meltdown is the generosity of families and communities of modest means who've looked after the vast majority of those who've fled the fighting. The world's richest nations need to dig much deeper into their pockets to help.""

While this is true, it's not just the world's richest nations; it's the lot of us, and our "families and communities of modest means".

Multiple causes do act as a sort of check and balance on any human attempt at world peace, I suppose. Perhaps peace and development are meant to be elusive and eternally unattainable, like the perfect copper wire, or a responsible, accountable system of governance in India. Perhaps it is the holy grail of the modern age, only meant to be quested after by a rag-tag bunch of don quioxtes with different agendas.

Multiple causes mean that perhaps those who are passionate about a peaceful, thriving civic society in Sri Lanka may not be as passionate about the same in Pakistan. Or Colombia. Or Somalia. Or Nepal. Perhaps multiple causes mean that those who are passionate about open source software or free internet radio are not as concerned about containing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Perhaps those working for LGBT rights are not as concerned with autism, or primary education, or female nutrition in the developing world.

If Huntington was right, and conflicts do result from a number of causes, such as "... discrimination against people from a different civilization... different values and culture... particularly when one civilization attempts to impose its values on people of a different civilization" (2002*), then one way of sending his thesis--with all due respect-- ass over tea-kettle into oblivion, is to spread awareness about these different civilizations, till we learn from each others' conflicts and methods of disaster management, and in the process learn that our values and culture are not that different at all.

Thankfully, this has already begun: apart from the web tools named by Entekhabifard, sites like, New Ideas for Government, Peace X Peace, Social Edge and others have begun breaking down perceived and assumed differences between groups and social causes.

I only hope that this trend continues, and that Ol' Sammy, wherever he is, loses any bet he might have hedged on the world dividing into zones of civilizations reminiscent of pre- Silk Route days.


*Huntington, Samuel P. (2002) [1997]. "Chapter 9: The Global Politics of Civilizations". The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (The Free Press ed.). London: Simon $ Schuster. pp. p 207f