Quetzalcoatl and Back Again

It’s nice to be on the spring side of the winter solstice. Farewell, Apocalypse. Nice try.

What a year. In 2012 I occupied — Wall Street, Mental Health, the American Psychiatric Association, and my dissertation. I catalyzed the production and distribution of Mindful Occupation, and helped organize the Icarus Project’s NYC 10 year anniversary event and art show.  And, I was privileged to visit the great Mediterranean capitals — Cairo, Istanbul, Athens, Jerusalem, and Ramallah. All while holding down a full-time job.

Some were not concerned that the world would end on 12/21, but instead, were horrified at the prospect that humanity will continue hurdling forward, business as usual. As many on our planet yearn for unity and the Most Great Peace, and there are hints we might be learning to direct, harness, and measure our collective intentions. But, as mystics have long understood, our collective choices will decide if we converge on a global state of war or peace.

All of my travels this year were transformative and intense, but my October trip to the West Bank was really the culmination of my hero’s journeys. I travelled there for the final stage of the project we began 2 years ago, trying to help Palestinian educators develop their capacity to improve their teaching excellence (Towards the (educational) liberation of Palestine, Dispatches from Cairo: The Raw Data, If I forget you, O Palestine…).

I travelled with my friend and colleague, Mark Phillipson.  Together we delivered a keynote speech at the Palestine Technical University — Kadoorie, in TulKarm, and taught workshops on cutting edge, video-based, teacher training and assessment techniques.  The PTUK team officially opened the Multimedia and Educational Resources Center (MERC), and were raring to go. The MERC center is an impressive accomplishment, but I also experienced great sadness and disappointment at the unsustainability of the development grant. Just as we were finally getting some traction, the funding was finished.  I understood that unsustainability is a common failure of projects like this, but the firsthand experience felt worse than any theoretical critique.

My boss/advisor/mentor, Frank Moretti, was unable to make the trip this Fall, but recorded a video introduction to our keynote that set the stage for the rest of my trip. The introduction started out cordial and friendly, but 3/4 of the way through, Frank lobbed a handgranade was starker and sterner than any Mayan prophesy. He warns that unless educators incorporate the twin themes of environmental catastrophe and nuclear war into every stage of curriculum we are headed for a “collective calamity”:

This warning framed the rest of my trip, and the rest of the year. I’m still unpacking the fallout.

Dispatches from Cairo: The Raw Data

I just returned from a whirlwind eduventure at the American University of Cairo (AUC). My trip included a detour through Ancient Egypt and a 36-hour decompression-stop in the capital of the Ottoman Empire, but our main purpose was to participate in a week-long professional development conference for Palestinian Educators:

Challenges and Practices of Pedagogy and Instructional Technology: Professional Development Exchange for Palestinian Educators

The AUC conference was a continuation of the project that brought me to Palestine this past summer, and was creatively imagined and improvised by my mentor/advisor/boss, Frank Moretti.

I am still processing and synthesizing my experiences, and I plan for this to be the first in a series of posts detailing what I learned on this trip. For now, I will just capture the raw materials and highlights.

For starters, the conference was covered by both the AUC News and CCNMTL’s blog.

AUC’s Center for Learning and Teaching hosted an incredible conference – the talks were provocative and well balanced, and the food was fabulous! They even captured the entire event and posted the video and slides here. Our hosts were hospitable and generous beyond words, and we are forever grateful to Aziza Ellozy and her staff for making us feel at home.

Our plenary keynote, featuring my colleague, Mark Phillipson, and my doctoral cohorts, Travis Mushett, Madiha Tahir, and Charles Berret is viewable here:

#celebrity #violence #resistance: Media Analysis and Social Pedagogies

Mark and I also presented two workshops:

In reply to Frank’s intro, the Palestinian educators we were working with sent him a warm get-well video.

Of course, there is more. There is always more. But, for now, I rather sift through these pictures (Mine and Madiha’s, Mark’s, CLT’s) than write.

Peace.

The People’s Drones

In May ’06 I visited New York’s annual Fleet Week and personally met a few drones who were sleeping below the flight deck of a U.S. warship. In the 5 years since, “unmanned aerial vehicles” have reproduced explosively, and are rapidly changing the parameters of war and American foreign policy.

Glenn Greenwald describes the “Drone Mentality” that renders victims invisible and enables risk-free aggression and violence. Public anti-drone outcries are spreading, though media coverage of the effects of U.S. drone attacks is glaringly absent. My friend Madiha Tahir has been reporting and researching these attacks in Pakistan and the accounts she has gathered are quite horrifying.

But the U.S military isn’t the only outfit with access to these technologies. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (!) is using a drone to capture footage (and who knows what else), and Polish protesters in Warsaw used a drone to capture footage of riot police attacking them. Last year some hobbyists buzzed the Statue of Liberty with an unmanned aerial vehicle, and didn’t even get fined.

Drone technology is advancing very rapidly, though to the average observer the technology might not look that much different from 70’s-era remote control planes. Most of the advancements are happening in software, which is invisible to the casual observer, and also more difficult to prevent from proliferating.

If you haven’t seen any of the amazing footage of quadcopters in action, take a peek. These machines are much simpler to pilot and steer than a helicopter, and are quite inexpensive. There are quad-rotor open-source hardware/software projects, like the aeroquad (complete kits $1.5k), and the high-end is quite affordable (< $10k) for news companies and local police departments.

At the moment, the regulations around flying these drones is ambiguous. But the FAA is currently reviewing regulations, and a government agency predicts there will be over 15,000 civilian drones operating in U.S. airspace by 2018.

Drones are already in use patrolling the US/Mexican border, and the Department of Homeland Security is helping local law enforcement agencies obtain them. When I saw the video of the Polish protesters (via @MutualArising), I began wondering why local news companies were still flying manned traffic and news copters, and then I ran across the story (via @jonathanstray) about Murdoch’s drones.

From my limited research, I believe that non-commercial hobbyists are allowed to fly these vehicles below 400ft. I propose that Occupy Wall Street should fly drones at every protest, to counter Mayor Bloomberg’s egregious attempts to suppress journalistic coverage of the protests.

It seems clear that a robotic arms-race is underway, and my friend Peter Asaro, a robo-ethicist who serves on the international committee for robot arms control (icrac), worries about an arms race where everyone from drug cartels to the paparazzi all begin abusing drones. I remember Eben Moglen predicting that it won’t be long before every self-respecting dictator has full regiment of killer robots. Unlike human police, robots aren’t likely to hesitate when ordered to fire upon civilians.

The right to bear robots?

I am not convinced that drone-control is the best response to the asymmetrical power drones deliver (at least when it comes to surveillance drones, not armed drones).  I think they best way to counterbalance this power is with  open-source drones.  The people’s drones.

Update: As per @MutualArising‘s comment below,  OccupyDrones has taken off!

If I forget you, O Palestine…

I just returned from the eduventure of a lifetime in Palestine and Israel.  I travelled to the Palestine Technical University of Kadoorie  to consult on a World Bank funded project to help enhance technology education. The details of this project are inspiring and provocative, but before discussing educational technology, media literacy, and capacity building I need to talk about my direct experience of The Occupation.

As I anticipated before the trip, my understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was transformed by my first-person experience of the occupation. Within an hour crossing the Kalandia checkpoint into Ramallah, I began to experience a harshness that is almost impossible to capture in a snapshot. Superficially, life in Palestine seems almost normal. Everyone we met was warm and friendly, and I did not encounter extreme third-world poverty. However, during my visit I learned how virtually every aspect of ordinary Palestinian life is occupied.  Electricity, fuel, mobility, connectivity, information, and water are all tightly rationed and controlled by Israel.

Before the trip I had heard about the checkpoints, but it is difficult to capture the feelings of intimidation and harassment until you are stuck in checkpoint-traffic watching a Palestinian adolescent being handcuffed and manhandled on the side of the road. I began to feel the harsh gaze of the guard towers, and the spit-in-the-face of the  Israeli flags, waving  arrogantly.

The most shocking reality I learned about is the Palestinian water situation. Many Palestinians only have running water a few days a week. One quick way to tell the Arab homes apart from the settler’s homes is that the Arab homes have big black water tanks on their roofs to capture water while it is running.  In contrast, the settlers homes have water 24×7, and many have swimming pools and lush lawns.

I kept thinking of this iconic image:

and its visually gripping corollaries:

Comparisons between the occupation and South African apartheid are common, but on this trip I began to relate the struggle to Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and racial profiling and injustice that continue to oppress  US minorities.

I also learned about the regulation of information flows. On an Egged bus in Israel, I had a better connection over free wifi than anywhere in Palestine, including the universities. Palestinian telcom companies are currently forbidden from rolling out 3G networks, building new communication lines between cities is notoriously difficult, someone I met was not allowed to import routers, and Palestine cannot connect directly to the Mediterranean backbone.  [Incidentally, a local group of activists is trying to set up free wifi in Ramallah, but they are being thwarted by Palestinian telcoms!] Like their physical borders, all Internet traffic into and out of Palestine must cross through Israel first.

Serendipitously, Richard Stallman was visiting Palestine while I was there!  Unfortunately, I missed his lectures, but I met up with a few people who saw him speak, and they reported that his  message of freedom and liberation resonated strongly with his audience. I also connected with ma3bar.org – a society for Arab free and open source software, and ArabEyes — an Arabic-FLOSS translation project . I developed fresh insights into the role of free software in resistance and activism — especially as I appreciated the strength of the human networks that power free software, and the relative safety of engaging in this kind of organising (as opposed to being tagged by the authorities as an peace activist). More about this in future posts.

Scholarship such as Eyal Wiezman’s Hollow Land and Helga Souri’s work attempt to describe the Palestinian experience of the occupation, but the situation is so complex and hyper-mediated I recommend that anyone who wants to learn more should visit the West Bank themselves (special thanks to Dalia Otham for the conversations and introducing me to this work). Anyone with the smallest compassionate bone in their body will undoubtedly sympathize with with the Palestinian cause.

There is so much more to write. The specifics of our educational technology workshops, travelling and working with my advisor and a fabulous team from TC , the hospitality of our hosts at PTUK, the amazing sweet deserts, my tour of the graffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall,  the culture shock of leaving the West Bank and visiting my sister (and my four amazing nephews and brother-in-law) on a zionist kibbutz, the Israeli friends and family I connected with across the ideological spectrum, my visit to Sheva Chaya’s mystical glass blowing studio/gallery, diving an underwater museum in Caesarea, whitewater rafting down the Jordan with my nephews,  and Mushon’s personal guided tour (complete with analysis!) of the incredible housing protests erupting across Israel.

To be continued…

Memory Leaks

12-01-10wikiFD
WWIII – A TV guerrilla war with no division between civil and military fronts.

– Marshall McLuhan *


As you enjoy the Wikileaks reality show circus, please remember to support to the Bradley Manning defense fund.

This week’s drama has been riveting and surreal. For years I have been describing the era we are embarking on as the End of Forgetting, and imagining the repercussions of this transformation on the fabric of social life. But my relationship with this saga goes well beyond the theoretical and is much more personal.

In December 2006post-Diebold memos and, synchronously, within weeks prior to Wikileaks’ launchI began researching the ZyprexaKills campaign (slides), a whistleblowing action implicating the drug company Eli Lilly which soon became the EFF’s first wiki case. That case was a significant milestone in life. The experience was a crash course in First Amendment Law, exposed me to the hybrid dynamics of new and traditional media, prepared me for epocal epistemic shifts, and confirmed the power of my information flow models.  On the ZyprexaKills case no one wanted to be forgotten more than the anonymous John Doe, and Eli Lilly undoubtedly wishes the world would forget that they marketed Zyprexa off-label to children and the elderly, even though their executives knew Zyprexa causes diabetes.

Which brings us to today. I am amazed at the wide speculation across the mainstream press around Assange’s motives when his own writings are widely available. Apparently, we are still transitioning to the age of  Scientific Journalism Assange dreams about. Bloggers and tweeters have finally helped  mainstream news outlets pick up the story–as Todd Gitlin writes, we should “Credit him with a theory”.

The potential fallout of the leaks goes well beyond the substantive contents of any particular document. To understand the potential impact of this communication its important to consider the different types of messages conveyed to various receivers. Some commentators, like Umberto Eco, have taken up the message of the medium itselfWhat do leaks of this type communicate? Beyond any specific cable or document, what messages do the leaks send, and to whom?

I don’t think the Wikileaks collaborators have much faith in the US political processes.  Like the Tea Party, I imagine they aim to usurp the agenda and change the language of the conversation itself.  I doubt they are overly preoccupied with any particular exchange.

Some have alleged a preventative coup against Hillary, but I think we need to read this in a more global context. Beyond the narrow lens of partisan, or even geo-politics, there cultural and ideological battles are raging. Wikileaks’ actions model and embody the maturing, politically conscious, hacker ethicand their actions alter people’s conception of the real and the possible. Their actions are floating and actualizing crucial thought experiments just in time for the showdowns around net neutrality, kill switches, and the future of journalism and the Internet.

All the more reason why They have to try to make an example here. Is the US Govt already caught in a chinese finger trap?

Whatever the outcome, at least its different. Last week’s media-policy talks at the Columbia J-school (Wu/John and Copps) articulated the historic challenges we face at this critical juncture in order to avoid the fate of all previous media revolutions. At this point I’m willing to try just about anything that might snap us out of the repetition compulsion of the 20th century. But, I like backgammon better than chess 😉

BTW – I love that my fact that my idea for this post’s image had already been drawn, and was discoverable within 10 second search. Long live the open, neutral, unkill-switchable,  World Wide Web!

Ongoing collection of my favorite Wikileaks coverage here.

Collaborative Futures, 2nd Ed.

CF_coverThe Collaborative Futures book is back for another edition and is smarter, sharper, and more insightful than ever.

Last spring I was fortunate to become involved in an amazing experiment in composition and collaboration.  A friend and colleague of mine, Mushon Zer-Aviv locked himself up in a hotel room with 4 other collaborators and came out 5 days later with a the first edition of Collaborative Futures. Many conversations and an intensive editing sprint later (with a fresh team of collaborators), yields a much more comprehensive and finished work.

While the original team was in Berlin, I sent Mushon a copy of my essay on the history of version control systems – Versioning Dissonance. In this essay I discuss the significance of the distributed version control phenomenon, and speculate on the crossover of these collaborative modalities from software to other forms of production. An excerpt from my essay underlies the chapter on Multiplicity and Social Coding.  I didn’t make it out to Germany, nor did I communicate synchronously with the sprinters. 🙁 However, through my friendships and participation in the larger NYC free software/culture,  collective communications campus,  and Eyebeam communities, I was a participant in an ongoing conversation around these important themes.

This book is a really cool accomplishment on multiple levels. It’s creation myth is legendary, the content is compelling, and its a technical triumph. The first edition was admittedly a bit choppy and also neglected to address some critical perspectives that were introduced into the new edition. I am really happy with these substantive improvements, as well as the fabulous new cover art, web site, and distribution formats.

Special thanks to everyone involved in this project for inviting me along for the ride.

Now Playing: Nothing but the whole truth

sword-justice-not-blindI recently learned about a fascinating  trend in litigation that is quietly transforming courtroom testimony, and is spreading fast and far – video depositions.

I talked with a consultant who helps attorneys process video depositions. In the courtroom, attorneys are juxtaposing live testimony with segments from depositions.  Video clips of witnesses reinforcing (or contradicting) themselves are far more powerful than merely reading back the transcript. The courtroom has always been about performance, but these videos have taken this to a new level, as savvy lawyers manipulate appearances and emotions. Increasingly all depositions are being recorded, just as they are transcribed.

Apart from the ways that courtroom proceedings are being transformed, I am also intrigued by the software that is undoubtedly in development to support these operations. In addition to conventional A/V support, working effectively with hundreds of hours of video involves archiving, indexing, distributing, editing, and clipping.  At about a day or two of testimony per witness, and dozens of witnesses per trial, the numbers add up pretty quickly.

As cases accumulate, and multiple associates begin working with and analyzing video, law firms will quickly recognize the desirability of networked, collaborative, video annotation environments.  Some large firms (and their vendors) may have already begun developing solutions. However, the consultant that I spoke with was storing video locally on a laptop hardrive and tracking it with an Access database, so opportunities are knocking. Without a doubt many of the tools that will be highlighted at the upcoming Open Video Conferene (OpenCast, Kaltura, and CCNMTL’s Mediathread come to mind) have overlapping feature and requirements.

Once again the organizational digital divide looms, and I am deeply concerned that only the high end corporate law firms will be able to invest in the competencies and capacities to make this work.  Meanwhile, the impact law firms (along with journalists and social scientists), will be playing catch up, handicapped by this powerful new differential.

I wonder how quickly this practice will spread?

Oyez, Oyez, Oyez!

Humane Communications over Human Networks

emergency.broadcast.Today I attended a barcamp-style CrisisCamp in NYC  where volunteers from around the world  gathered physically and virtually to brainstorm, organize, coordinate, and work to help alleviate the suffering in Haiti (CNN CrisisCamp coverage). When people talk about crowdsourcing relief to this disaster, CrisisCamps around the country helped assemble the the sources (and faces) in these mysterious crowds.

Self-Organized Collaborative Production and Action

It was amazing to see these strangers converge, congregating around the familiar communication modalities of wikis, mailing lists, irc, and now twitter and google wave. While these torrential rivers of information are overwhelming, some subcultures are developing strategies for managing and synthesizing these flows. A main organizing hub is http://crisiscommons.org/ , and the hashtags #cchaiti and #haiti are being used to ‘tag’ disparate social media around these efforts.

Today’s NYC event drew over a dozen people, techies, community organizers, students, Hatians, UN reps, librarians, union workers, journalists, and beyond. I have been closely following ushahidi/swiftapp project, and their http://haiti.ushahidi.com collaborative filtering curation strategy is in full swing. Open Street Maps is proving to be an essential piece of infrastructure  around mapping data, and the New York Public Library has rescheduled the launch of their amazing new map rectifying tool to help make sense of Hatian geography – shockingly, there are very few maps of Haiti, and their collection might significantly help when overlaid on satellite imagery. This can assist relief workers who need to  know what neighborhoods are called, and which buildings were where, etc. If you are familiar with Hatian geography, you can help rectify maps here.

The Sahana Disaster Management Project is also looking for python developers to help scale their software.

Strategic Communication Flows

Strategically, I was struck by the asymmetry of information flows. Many of the efforts seemed to focused on collecting Hatian data, and representing it to Americans and NGOs working on the ground in Haiti. But, not too many Hatians have iphones…

There seems to be very little focus on creating flows of information back into Haiti – information from the outside world directed to Haitians, or, on creating infrastructure for Hatians to communicate with each other.  Beyond that, I am not aware of any coordinated efforts to establish non-corporate-mediated, 2-or-more-way channels of information between Hatians and Hatians in the diaspora.

I was reminded of the recent Iranian uprising. A wonderful moment of microblogging glory, although few Americans appreciated how the Iranians were able to receive lifelines of information from outside of Iran (like where to find proxy servers), and were also using the platform to communicate with each other, within Iran.

I was struck by what an important role traditional mass broadcast media might play in a crisis situation. People on the ground need information, desperately.  They need to know which symbols indicate that a house has already been searched, where the next food/water/medicine drop will be, and that the biscuits are good, and not expired.  They also need entertainment, and news –

à la Good Morning Vietnam.  And messages of consolation, emotional support, solidarity, and even song and laughter. Maybe even Bryant Park style movie nights.

Hybrid Networks

Electricity and ISPs are largely down. There are trickles of bandwidth available, and some Hatians have made it onto facebook and cellphones.

So, what could a hybrid, analog-digital network look like?  Low-power FM? High-speed copy machines? Blackboards?

It’s actually not that hard to imagine a hybrid network, composed of people, FM radio, blackboards, printing presses, portable video projectors, cell phones, SMS,  and Internet.  Really, whatever is available.

The Earth Institute and UNICEF Innovation has been deploying RapidSMS on the ground in Africa, and they are working in villages where a single cell phone operator brokers vital information to a blackboard in the town square, transforming a cell phone into a mass broadcast device.  Reminiscent of the Wall Newspapers in communist russia.

And if there were a low power FM Radio station set up, the DJ could presumably retransmit messages coming in over the Internet or the cell phones (kinda the reverse of the activist who retransmitted police scanner transmissions over Twitter at the G20 summit protests).

Hatians would know that if they needed to get a message out to a loved one in Haiti, they could get to the radio station and it might be transmitted, back into local community. Messages would travel over human and technological networks, routed intelligently by humans where technology leaves off.

What would the programming on this radio station look like?  They could have hourly news and announcements, read out community messages submitted by listeners, convey messages of condolences and support from the outside world, play music, pray, talk radio, “call in” shows, anything really. Most importantly, this radio would be locally produced, with  the local community deciding what to play.  There was a precedent for local radio, KAMP, in the astrodome stadium after Katrina. The station was set up with the help of the fantastic Prometheus Radio Project volunteers, though authorities tried to shut down the “pirate” lifeline.

Turning Messages in Bottles into Skywriting

Today I met someone who is working with local Haitian communities in NYC.  We are both very concerned with CNN dominated the coverage, frittering away their 24/7 news coverage on looping segments, and circling like vultures waiting for violence to erupt. We have to understand the danger of a single story.

We were both very interested in creating alternate channels of communication for Hatians to speak for themselves, and engage in dialogue with their relatives in the diaspora.

Here is one project we could run over the kind of hybrid analog-digital/human-machine sneakernet described above.

Hatians could send video messages in a bottle.  The community here could gather to watch and reply to those videos.  Say the videos and the replies were limited to 3 minutes each. The original message and the reply could be bundled and sent back to Haiti – not unlike sending a letter before the postage service – you would give it to someone heading to the recipient’s town.

Initially, a few flip cameras on the ground in Haiti, with the video transmitted home over the Internet, or even back to the states by sending the memory cards home with a courier. Eventually, when bandwidth begins to open up, we might be able to imagine a live, synchronous, stream. But, before then, we can imagine ansynchronous video messages being sent back and forth, between Haiti an Haitian communities in the diaspora.

On the Hatian end, the replies could be projected and played back to groups gathered around projectors at night. On our end, distribution is trivial, but the message might easily get to the precise person it was intended for through community social networks.  A Haitian could send a video message in a bottle to Brooklyn, and it would not take long for their relatives to know they were safe.  Replies could include message of hope, compassion, and support.

Most importantly, independent lines of communications could be opened. As a secondary benefit, if the messages were disseminated publicly (say, on you tube), secondary waves of help could create journalistic highlights, extract crucial data to feed the informatics systems (sourced to the originating testimony), and we could start hearing each others voices.

At the moment, our aid feels like we are tossing a homeless person a few dollars while averting our gaze, when what they really need is for us to look them in the eye, recognize their humanity, and have a conversation with them. We are electronically strip searching the people of Haiti, when (forgive the Avatar reference) we need to see each other.

Theory and Practice

A few closing thoughts to this already rambling post.

I attended the event for many reasons including:

  • My research interests in the politics of memory, information flux,  distributed cognition, collaborative production, and collective action.
  • A seminar I am participating in this Spring that is taking up the themes of collective memory, pedagogy, digital media, and trauma (using a the 9/11 Project Rebirth as a point of departure, but conceptualizing responses to collective trauma ranging from Katrina, to evironmental refugees, and beyond).
  • Because the situation is horrifying and desperate, and I have the sinking feeling that no one has a handle on how to help the Hatians.  Worse, I fear that many are already beginning to view this event as a rhetorical chip, and angling to advance their own agendas on the wave of this shock.

The importance of mass media in creating a sense of (imagined) community is well theorized in communications studies.  Haiti’s physical infrastructure is shattered, but we can very quickly reconstruct its communications infrastructure and help them reconstitute their sense of identity and community.

Cultural theorists have criticized the pacifying power of mass media – but the UN is forecasting a sharp increase in violence, riots and rape – if ever there was a time to distract and pacify the populace – or should I say, provide them with a constructive channel for them to express and vent their energies?

If we want to turn this disaster porn on its head, we should just give Hatians the IP rights to all the images pouring out of their country now. The profits would be enough to rebuild the country 10-times over.

The life saving importance of information should not be underestimated – The only thing more important than food, water, or medicine is hope.

Update: This brain[storm/dump] has now been transformed into an actual project proposal at the Crisis Commons wiki – The Open Solace Haiti Project , whose first priority is the Haitian Video Postcard Exchange Network.

[Special thanks to Mar Cabra and Rasmus Nielen for being a sounding board for some of these scattered ideas, John Durham Peters, whose brilliant thought broadcasts on Broadcasting and Schizophrenia induced my thinking, and Levanah and Stan Tenen and the work of the Meru Foundation whose spiritual teachings helped shape these ideas.]

The Organizational Digital Divide

ChasmAn emerging breed of collaboration tools, born and incubated in the free software world, is radically improving the ways that people work together. These aren’t just toys for techies anymore. Just as the word processor became an essential tool for every writer to master, the network is the new medium that advocates and activists need to embrace in order to be effective.

Organizations who fail to recognize this opportunity will waste valuable resources wrestling with the torrents of information they are responsible for managing. How many groups continue to collaborate on press releases or grant proposals by sending around multiple versions of word documents? How many organizations share a single email account to manage constituent relations and their common contact information? How many emails must be exchanged for a small group of people to schedule a meeting?

The “writeable web” has spawned a new generation of networked, web-based authoring environments that can significantly increase an organization’s ability to realize its goals. These environments are not a panacea – at best, they will catalyze and facilitate an improvement in communication and processes. While technology alone will not guarantee a change in a group’s culture, it can play an instrumental role raising the self-awareness around an organization’s processes, and in turn, help improve them.

These alternatives have the potential to help fulfill some of the Internet’s early promise by significantly improving the efficiency and productivity of non-profits, NGO’s and activist groups alike. Such tools can dramatically improve the management of knowledge, communities, and projects, and enable coordination and collaboration across thousands of participants. They are rapidly being adopted by corporations eager to move beyond the e‑mail inbox as the primary task management and collaboration platform. Organizations of all shapes and sizes need to evaluate and embrace these technologies, or risk falling behind in differential efficiency, victims of an organizational digital divide.

A simple mailing list combined with a wiki can thoroughly transform workflow and hierarchy within an organization. But this is just the start. Project management tools, collaboration platforms, and content management systems are transforming the functionality of intranets. By better balancing flows of communication and power, these collaboration tookits can boost an organization’s productivity, and increase the return on a philanthropic investment. With the proper tuning and
training , web-based collaboration tools can help an organization achieve important strategic objectives such as transparency, accountability, and sustainability.

Like the telegraph and the railroad in their time, the Internet has been heralded as the promoter of equality, freedom, and democracy. And like the technologies that preceded it, its impact will ultimately derive from the ways we choose to use it. We need to be more deliberate in our choices of communication technologies, since these tools shape the dynamics of the connections between us. Software has gone social, but it’s not just for socializing. There is important and hard work to be accomplished and we need to be using technology intelligently so that we
can communicate and act more purposefully and efficiently.
[I originally wrote this piece for an op-ed assignment in a class on Media and Rights in Development]

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