Monday, 14 March 2011

RSA Animate - The Internet in Society: Empowering or Censoring Citizens?

In this recent instalment of RSA Animate technology commentator Evgeny Morozov seeks to expose some of the 'cyber-utopian' myths he associates with the adoption of online social media by liberal ideologues as an inevitable spur to the spread of democracy: 'if you have enough connectivity...democracy is almost inevitable'.

Following the argument of his new book The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate The World Morozov suggests that this liberalist assumption of the correlation between connectivity and democracy ignores important political, cultural and sociological differences and confuses the 'intended' uses of 'technology' with 'actual' uses. As indicated in the video:

1. Liberal democracies are not the only one's that engage with the use of social media.
2. Repressive regime may actively seek the engagement of their citizen's in policing social media through crowd-sourcing intelligence against online dissent.
3. As much social media is publicly accessible it is not necessarily the best means for propagating dissent.
4. The younger generation of 'digital natives' may not necessarily be inclined to use the new technology for civic engagement, political activism or dissent: 'some of them will go and start downloading reports from human rights watch but most of them will still be downloading pornography'.

I've always been rather sceptical of social media and sympathise with Morazov's point concerning cyber-utopianism. The use of online social media is not a sufficient condition for social change. At the same time we should avoid being cynical. Perhaps the crucial role social media do play is to communicate momentum through commentary once change has begun.

In a recent post 'Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality' on the excellent Cyborgology blog the writer identifies the theoretical position of 'digital dualism' as a fallacy:
Digital dualists believe that the digital world is “virtual” and the physical world “real.” This bias motivates many of the critiques of sites like Facebook and the rest of the social web and I fundamentally think this digital dualism is a fallacy. Instead, I want to argue that the digital and physical are increasingly meshed, and want to call this opposite perspective that implodes atoms and bits rather than holding them conceptually separate augmented reality.
Digital dualists could be either cyber-utopians or cyber-sceptics, the common thread that links them being that they both subscribe to this bi-partition of reality. Morozov is included amongst a list of other digital dualists who are taken as subscribing to the view that:
...the problem with social media is that people are trading the rich, physical and real nature of face-to face contact for the digital, virtual and trivial quality of Facebook. The critique stems from the systematic bias to see the digital and physical as separate; often as a zero-sum tradeoff where time and energy spent on one subtracts from the other.
This of course is a caricature. Insofar as Morozov recognises the efficacy of crowd sourcing intelligence online we have to admit that digital dualists may admit varying degrees and directions of influence between the two realms. Indeed, politically speaking this might make all the difference. Hence the extent of theorists cynicism with regard to work with social media may prove to be a valuable index of their politics in an age coming to terms with the possibilities for augmented reality.

The video of Morozov's complete lecture can be found here.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Tower of David - Vertical Urban Anarchy

The video above accompanies a remarkable story from The New York Times (via Archinect) about an unfinished skyscraper in the centre of the Venezualan capital of Caracas that is currently inhabited entirely by squatters. Known as the 'Tower of David' the 45 floor building is named after its financier David Brillembourg who died in the early 90s before it could be completed.

Following the death of Brillembourg and a banking crisis in in 1994 the tower fell into the hands of the government and remained empty for over a decade until its occupation in 2007. Without utilities or services the dangerous building is now home to over 2,500 so-called 'invaders' who have been unable to find accommodation elsewhere due to the failure of Hugo Chavez's socialist government to provide adequate housing.

While offering hope to some residents it has become a symbol of 'decline' for others: 
“They call me an invader and I work in the credit department of Banco de Venezuela,” said Mr. Hernández, referring to the state-owned institution that he says employs him. “Society hates us, and the government doesn’t know what to do with us. Do they really think we want to be living in the Tower of David?”
This story reminded me of the the building hijackings in Johannesburg's Hillbrow district which first came to my attention after seeing Louis Theroux's BBC documentary Law and Disorder in Johannesburg in 2008. Following up on the story I found this 2010 interview by Africa Business News with Moses Ka Moyo of the Friends of the Inner-city Forum:

Undoubtedly the contrasts between these two situations have as much to tell us as any ostensible similarities.