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.

http://livestream.com/accounts/686369/events/4119762/player?width=560&height=315&autoPlay=true&mute=false

“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.

Digital Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport

Been reading a lot lately on one of my favorite topics: How to realize the democratic promise of the Internet.

You have to do more than vote periodically to call yourself a citizen. Especially true when it comes to the Internet, where no one really votes to decide on the critical issues.

That’s why the impending US Federal Communications Commission vote on net neutrality is so important — because we all had a role in moving the bureaucrats toward the right answer.

That’s not what I’m on about today, though. There’s a convergence of coincidences to tell you about.

Consent of the Networked

Sunday, I finished Consent of the Networked, Rebecca MacKinnon’s book from 2012 (and an update for the 2013 paperback edition) about the “worldwide struggle for Internet freedom.” MacKinnon is a former CNN correspondent in China that now manages Global Voices Online. This is a good, if occasionally dated, outline of the various battlegrounds facing human right activists when taking their struggles online.

centre

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As is typical of these types of books, it closes out with a manifesto intended to describe the perfect online world. These are usually quite inspiring, but lacking in ways of getting from here to there. While I don’t agree with everything MacKinnon wrote in these pages, she does indeed realize that without a social movement, we won’t ever get her manifesto realized, or anyone else’s vision. Democracy isn’t a spectator sport.

(Something else I’m not on about today, but might be some other time: In a perfect world, the global Internet might be rightfully managed by a global organization that might have a name like the International Telecommunications Union. MacKinnon persuades me that in this world, that’s a really bad idea.)

MacKinnon proves her commitment to this principle (of action) by maintaining the book’s website consentofthenetworked.com, years after its publication. She blogs actively there, but more importantly she maintains a directory of digital democracy activist organizations on the Get Involved! tab of the site. I know it’s real and current because some of the listed organizations weren’t born yet when the paperback came out.

Building a Bottom-Up Internet Movement

Monday, I was going to begin working my way through the list to find places for information and the best places to channel my own energies, but then this piece on Medium showed up in my news feed. It’s called “Building an Internet Movement from the Bottom Up” by Tim Karr, one of the leaders of Free Press. Fabulous essay, with a couple of very important reminders:

It’s a fight not playing out between smartphone packing protesters and security forces, but among the Internet governance community — a globe-trotting tribe of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international agencies, world leaders and corporate CEOs.

For as long as the World Wide Web has existed these groups have debated its control and administration. What rules should govern a network that transcends national boundaries to connect people everywhere?

It’s a discussion — replete with international agency acronyms and jargon (“multistakeholderism” anyone?) — that leaves the rest of us scratching our heads.

and there’s a new coalition of civil society organizations:

The coalition is organized on the belief that the Internet must evolve in the public interest with the full participation of the billions of Internet users who aren’t in the mix at Davos.

It plans to build a global network of grassroots groups that can better organize and amplify the concerns of those people often on the wrong side of the digital divide. The group plans also to convene the first Internet Social Forum later this year.

And hey, there’s going to be another manifesto developed! But not just out of a single mind, this will be (theoretically) the result of a crowdsourced process over the coming months. With a global coalition of organizations that (theoretically) will commit to realizing it.

I hope there’s some way for folks like me to get involved in this process, though. Seems focused (for now) on organizations.

Will follow this process closely. Let’s make it work!