Professor Larry Diamond, one of my dissertation advisers, recently published a piece on “Liberation Technology” (PDF) in the Journal of Democracy in which he cites Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS amongst other tools. Is Ushahidi really a liberation technology?
Larry recently set up the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University together with colleagues Joshua Cohen and Terry Winograd to catalyze more rigorous, applied research on the role of technology in repressive environments—both in terms of liberation and repression. This explains why I’ll be joining the group as a Visiting Fellow this year. The program focuses on the core questions I’m exploring in my dissertation research and ties in technologies like Ushahidi which I’m directly working on.
What is Liberation Technology? Larry defines this technology as,
“… any form of information and communication technology (ICT) that can expand political, social, and economic freedom. In the contemporary era, it means essentially the modern, interrelated forms of digital ICT—the computer, the Internet, the mobile phone, and countless innovative applications for them, including “new social media” such as Facebook and Twitter.”
As is perfectly well known, however, technology can also be used to repress. This should not be breaking news. Liberation Technology vs Digital Repression. My dissertation describes this competition as an arms-race, a cyber game of cat-and-mouse. But the technology variable is not the most critical piece, as I argue in this recent Newsweek article:
“The technology variable doesn’t matter the most,” says Patrick Meier […] “It is the organizational structure that will matter the most. Rigid structures are unable to adapt as quickly to a rapidly changing environment as a decentralized system. Ultimately, it is a battle of organizational theory.”
As Larry writes,
“Democrats and autocrats now compete to master these technologies. Ultimately, however, not just technology but political organization and strategy and deep-rooted normative, social, and economic forces will determine who ‘wins’ the race.”
That is precisely the hypothesis I am testing in my dissertation research. As the Newsweek article put it,
“The only way to stay ahead in this cyberwar, though, is to play offense, not defense. ‘If it is a cat-and-mouse game,’ says Meier of Ushahidi, ‘by definition, the cat will adopt the mouse’s technology, and vice versa.’ His view is that activists will have to get better at adopting some of the same tactics states use. Just as authoritarian governments try to block Voice of America broadcasts, so protest movements could use newer technology to jam state propaganda on radio or TV.”
Larry rightly notes that,
“In the end, technology is merely a tool, open to both noble and nefarious purposes. Just as radio and TV could be vehicles of information pluralism and rational debate, so they could also be commandeered by totalitarian regimes for fanatical mobilization and total state control. Authoritarian states could commandeer digital ICT to a similar effect. Yet to the extent that innovative citizens can improve and better use these tools, they can bring authoritarianism down—as in several cases they have.”
A bold statement for sure. But as Larry recognizes, it is particularly challenging to disentangle political, social and technology factors. This is why more empirical research is needed in this space which is largely limited to qualitative case-studies. We need to bring mixed-methods research to the study of digital activism in repressive environments. This is why I’m part of the Meta-Activism Project (MAP) and why I’m particularly excited to be collaborating on the development of a Global Digital Activism Dataset (GDADS).
Larry writes that Liberation Technology is also “Accountability Technology” in that “it provides efficient and powerful tools for transparency and monitoring.” This is where he describes the FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi platforms. In some respects, these tools have already served as liberation technologies. The question is, will innovative citizens improve these tools and use them more effectively to be able to bring down dictators? I’d love to know your thoughts.