Mitchell Baker: Technology is Not Enough!

The panel discussion among Internet pioneers started innocently enough, with Vint Cerf and David Farber reminiscing about the early days of the Internet and the other titans of personal computing. Engrossing stuff, even if I knew most of it before.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the Internet Society hosted a panel last week called “The Internet Age: Founders to Future” last week. The panel featured Cerf, Farber, Mitchell Baker of Mozilla, and Sebastian Thrum of Udacity.

Resolving the Digital Divide

When the discussion turned to the future, though, things got a little testy. Farber and Cerf were talking about how about the global digital divide is being bridged by the increasing use of mobile phones in the underdeveloped world. This is a common meme among Internet optimists.

Česky: Mitchell Baker na OSCON 2005. Deutsch: ...
Mitchell Baker at OSCON 2005, with the same kind of look she had at the Smithsonian last week. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you watch the recording (below, at about 57 minutes), you’ll notice Baker start to fidget in her chair when this came up. If this were a grade school classroom, she’d probably start raising her hand in the air for recognition. Something is missing in this narrative.

“I don’t think technology’s enough,” Mitchell said. “It’s so comfortable to say ‘We have mobile phones, so the digital divide is just going away on its own. The bottom of the pyramid, the two billion people who are starving  will magically be able to get phones and access and a data plan – everything is going to open up.’”

Mitchell argued that progress in technology has a “positive direction,” but tech alone will not resolve every human problem. “It will continue to be an act of will of nation-states and individuals to assist in (fixing) not just the digital divide but the starvation divide. Just having a cheap phone is not going to fix that!”

Cerf said that Mitchell had a legitimate point, but noted that poor people have used smartphones as a way of transferring value. Making electronic payments through phones allow people to avoid some of the corruption involved with cash payments. “Don’t blame starvation on the Internet.”

Vint Cerf, North American computer scientist w...
Vint Cerf, North American computer scientist who is commonly referred to as one of the “founding fathers of the Internet” for his key technical and managerial role, together with Bob Kahn, in the creation of the Internet and the TCP/IP protocols which it uses. Taken at a conference in Bangalore. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mitchell said that “Human beings still have to care and make some effort with our policies and our wealth distribution and social stigmas in order to address the divides.“ A rising tide may lift all boats, but you may still have “haves and have-nots.”

Tech as tool for democracy

Farber said the Internet can function as an important tool for making change. “Without technology, the little people are separated. … We provide the vehicle for people to get together.” Thrum had raised a similar point earlier, citing the 2011 Egyptian uprising and the Arab Spring as the prime example of the Net as a democratic tool.

Let me interject here: Egypt represents another common analogy when talking about the connection between the Internet and activism, but fails to note a key fact. While Hosni Mubarak is not president of Egypt anymore, the military was really the power in Egypt at the beginning of the decade, and has returned to power now. Far too many of the youthful revolutionaries of Tahrir Square are either quiet, in jail, or in exile.

Women on Tech Panels For the Win?

Now I don’t want to suggest that Cerf (who helped create TCP/IP), Farber (an originator of academic use of the Net) or Thrum are the bad guys here, but this discussion doesn’t happen without Mitchell Baker. She may not have the “founder of the Internet” credentials of the others, but she may have a better sense of the real social value of the Internet and associated technologies.

It’s easy to view the mass adoption of the Internet and the changes that personal computing have made with a sense of triumphalism. It’s truly been amazing! Just the same, Mitchell had it right — technology by itself just doesn’t cut it. People have to be empowered for the world to change. As I’ve said before, Democracy is not a spectator sport.

Bringing a different set of (non-engineering) life experiences, and being involved in one of the bigger open source projects, Baker forced the founders to think about the role of human beings in building democracy. Putting the whole Internet (not just the sites Mark Zuckerberg approves of) on cheap cell phones is important, but the Internet is just a tool for people to expand and exercise their power.

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Je Suis Charlie: Long Live the Global Free Press!

Je Suis Charlie

Some random and probably disjointed thoughts on Wednesday’s events in Paris. As a onetime journalist (and a lifelong news junkie) I’m still a little numb.

Satire is a hard business. Just ask Jon Stewart, Bassem Youssef, or any Onion writer. Editorial cartooning is even harder, as it is part of the point to draw a hard and unmistakable line. I won’t pretend that I’ve ever read Charlie Hebdo, in translation or in French. Yet it’s clear that we must stand in solidarity with them, for they were brave and uncompromising.

My union is among the 35 journalism groups on board with Charlie:

Writers Groups Back Charlie HebdoDan Gillmor has tweeted a bunch of useful things today. Here’s my favorite:

My hometown newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, had two editorial cartoonists for years after the morning and afternoon papers merged. A year or so ago, they dumped the last full-timer, in favor of two syndicated editorial cartoons a day (usually one just left-of-center and the other just right-of-center). A month ago, they dropped the separate op-ed page and drastically cut the number of letters they published. Oh, and there’s just one syndicated cartoon left. It will probably be on the right side of free expression, but in a relatively bland and inoffensive way.

So spend some time with your favorite satirists today, and recommit to exercising your freedom of expression. Start a blog!

If you haven’t got a favorite satirist, you can start with a couple more of my favorite satirists (feel free to share your favorites in the Comments):

One Writer’s Process: Email to Pocket

I’ve been a news junkie all my life. Raised on the Milwaukee Journal, Milwaukee Sentinel, and the Huntley-Brinkley Report. In retrospect, I’m a little surprised I was never one of Walter Cronkite‘s acolytes, but I think NBC always had a stronger signal than the CBS affiliate in my youth.

English: American broadcast journalist Walter ...
American broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite (b. 1916) on television during 1st presidential debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 23 September 1976. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Long before I ever touched a computer, I thought I might become a full-time journalist. My then-fiancee put it this way: There must be some way to combine your writing and your news addiction. I gave that a shot, but out-jostling other reporters to get a “scoop” was never my style. Covering and explaining technology turned out to be a better bet for me.

But I still keep up with my responsibilities as a citizen, and try to stay informed on a range of issues. With the US elections coming up on Tuesday, let me tell you one way I keep up: It’s called Pocket.

Originally called Read It Later, Pocket allows you to save articles and just about any other kind of web content for review when you’re not so busy. I make so much use of it, I pay for the Premium version (I get long-term storage and tagging suggestions for the privilege).

The Morning News Funnel

My news funnel largely consists of:

  • Emails that many news sites (specialized and mainstream) send me every morning
  • Newsfeeds that I subscribe to (with Feedspot, if you want to know),
  • Twitter links

I scan these over for a half-hour or so in the morning, and right-click on links to interesting stories. The Pocket extension to Firefox and Chrome offers me a Save Link to Pocket item on my context menu. A dialog box appears that allows me to tag the article (sight unseen), and then save it to my Pocket.

Following Up

I can use Pocket’s mobile app to read offline when I’m eating lunch or riding the bus home. Sometimes I’ll just go to the Pocket website after dinner and read stories in my browser.

You can also share Pocket items via email, Twitter and Facebook. Sharing to Buffer lets you schedule when you share an item. Because they save the page, you can also use any share buttons a site includes.

Oh, by the way – If you find this (or any other post here) interesting, you can save it to Pocket with the share button below.

How do you stay informed? Does your news reading habit feed your writing or blogging addiction? Add something to the Comments!

If you live in the United States, go out and vote!

A Kid’s First Memory: JFK’s Funeral

If you’re in the United States (or elsewhere in the English-speaking world), you’ve probably heard by now: 50 years ago today, they buried John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, DC.

Now many people a bit older than me can tell you where they were when they first learned of the president being shot, or dying from his wounds. I can’t really do that; I was five years old, in the first weeks of (I think) afternoon kindergarten at 35th Street School on the north side of Milwaukee. Since so many recall being let out of school early that day, I’m inclined to think I was too, but that’s not what this post is about.

One of the first things that I have a conscious memory of happened today. It’s a little funny, but may also tell you a lot about me, and how I became a news junkie pretty early on. Here’s how I remember it:

The initial CBS news bulletin of the shooting ...
The first CBS news bulletin of the shooting interrupting a live network program, As the World Turns, at 1:40 p.m. (EST) on November 22 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My mom and I were living with her parents at that time. I always watched a lot of television as a kid, and that weekend, there was literally nothing else on but coverage of the assassination and its aftermath. It was the birth of live TV news, for better or worse. As part of the anniversary coverage, CBS News streamed its round-the-clock coverage (and ABC News ran its coverage on Friday) in real-time this weekend; the CBS stream is still running as I type this, but may be broken by the time you read this.

English: Publicity photo of Rosemary Prinz as ...
English: Publicity photo of Rosemary Prinz as Penny Hughes from As the World Turns. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Monday, my grandfather was a little tired of it all. A retired letter carrier, strong union man and Democrat, he still was a little cranky at times. Definitely a creature of habit. And so it was that my grampa turned on the TV Monday afternoon as he always did. Instead of seeing his favorite daytime soap opera, As the World Turns, he saw the late president’s state funeral and started sputtering. Don’t remember his words, but he was not happy. My rather emotional response, however, I remember clear as a bell. “But Grampa, the president is dead!” I may not have been entirely clear on what that meant, but I sure got why people cared. We kept the TV on that day.

We can always debate what news is, but sometimes there’s no question about what ought to be on the air. I guess this incident suggests I always had a pretty good news sense.

English: The eternal Flame at President John F...
English: The eternal Flame at President John F. Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)