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Making Room for the Third World in the Second Superpower
Alex Steffen, 10 Aug 04

The emergence of the Second Superpower is of primary concern to worldchangers. Ethan Zuckerman (formerly of Geek Corps) has done us all a service by challenging the idea that as the Second Superpower emerges, it will look like a bigger version of what we have now:

"It's my intent in this essay to explore the challenges we face in ensuring that the community growing around online newsgathering, deliberation and action includes the entire world, especially the developing world. I hope to flag situations where techniques and behaviors appropriate for the communities currently served by these tools will likely fail in developing nations. And I attempt to recognize efforts to ensure that these tools have as broad applicability as possible, as well as efforts in the developing world that parallel developments in the online community space. (The absurdity of a white male technologist from Massachusetts giving the "developing world perspective" on these issues is not lost on me - I think of my authorship of this essay as an object lesson in the need for more participants in the digital democracy movement from the developing world.)"

This point in particular struck home:

"When journalists don't cover parts of the globe, webloggers are like an amplifier without a guitar - they have no signal to reinforce. There aren't enough bloggers in eastern Congo to give us a sense for what's really going on, nor will there be for many years to come. None but the largest news agencies are able to pay the travel costs and insurance for reporters to cover these stories. Most choose not to cover a conflict that's bloody, dangerous, difficult to summarize in a soundbite and unknown to most of their readers or viewers. The net result - we simply don't have information about many parts of the globe relevant to world debate."

(more...)

and his proposed solution rings true as well, at least as a stop-gap:

"we need a media capable of covering the entire globe. That media will look a great deal different than CNN - it's going to be built of citizen reporters reporting local events and travelers with sharp eyes and interesting perspectives reporting on more closed societies.

"Rebecca MacKinnon, a former bureau chief for CNN in Beijing, has recently launched a weblog titled NKZone, which attempts to cover North Korea from afar by asking journalists, businesspeople and tourists to write about current affairs in North Korea. Using her editorial skills and subject knowledge to filter the inputs of a diverse group of contributors, the site does something most mainstream news sources are incapable of - it provides complex, nuanced pictures of a country usually displayed in black and white."

as does this challenge to the idea that what democracy advocates in developing nations most need are tools resembling those deployed for US presidential campaigns:

"Apathy is not the primary problem in many other nations. In nations with a high degree of political repression, the enemy of activism may be threats to personal safety. In these situations, transparent public debate leading to action is likely an unwise path to political change. Can we expect democracy to emerge from Internet communities in countries where political activity is constrained and the Internet is censored? Or are we assuming that these democratizing technologies are only applicable in places where democracy and accompanying rights of free expression are already well protected? While there is no guarantee that these tools will be used for democratization in closed societies, we have the power to ensure - technically - that they are unusable to help create more open societies."

There's much, much more here: thoughts about how to bring the lives of people in distant countries into our spheres of concern, discussions about how to bridge translation barriers, ideas for making social software and other tech bloom tools available to those who speak minority languages, ways of using the Net to defeat censorship and corruption, and so on. Read this essay, if only for the conclusion:

"Given the challenges of involving the developing world in the world of online reporting, discussion and activism, it's worth asking whether it's reasonable to try to make room for the Third World in the second superpower. Are technologists in developed economies being absurdly arrogant in speculating that a set of tools and behaviors used by less than one percent of the world's population - a disproportionately wealthy and powerful group of people - can help change the political lives of people around the world?

"My strong suspicion is that the answer to this question depends a great deal on the actions of the people using and developing these tools in the First World. In designing the tools to enable communities, are we thinking about the full spectrum of people we'd like to use these tools? Are we helping people join our dialogues, or are we content to keep them out? If we are committed to the long, hard project of ensuring that the whole world has a chance to participate in our conversation, there's a chance that emergent democracy can be a force in emerging democracies. If not, we help ensure that the community phenomena that have developed around social software won't extend to the people who could be most positively affected by this technology."

These questions are essential. If we hope to redistribute the future in such a way that people in the developing world get access to new tools, models and ideas for creating their own paths to sustainable prosperity, we must figure out how to make the tools we've got at hand now work for everyone.

A Second Superpower without the developing world is really just a small group of us making a lot of noise.

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Comments

Hmmm. I do feel that there is a particular attitude of arrogance around what we catagorise as a universal need - to join this revolution in "digital democracy". There are a large number of assumptions that underlay our (techo-determinist, techo-positivist) paradigm that very rarely see the light, let alone get discussed.

"Digital democracy" at least in its current form requires a lot of industrial infrastructure which may well be at odds with local and indigenous cultural ways of beings. Maybe we think the trends is inexorable but that doesn't mean local cultures won't get destroyed by the spread of digital culture. And it doesn't mean we shouldn't try and do something about it.

I just wish we thought and talked more about these issues and took them more seriously.


Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 11 Aug 04

A lot of blog software already supports RSS. This technology makes it easy to spider blogs and link them together. Manual intervention is definitely required but a good spider can take care of most of the searching for you. If you're able to link blogs together you're able to create a more centralized voice and understand the issues for a particular region. Additionally, if you use IP blocks to determine geographical location you can tune your spider even more. Of course, this all assumes that a lot of people in developing nations are writing blogs (which they're not).


Posted by: Ryan Nitz on 26 Aug 04



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