By Claude Almansi
Editor, Accessibility Issues
Has technology “reduced our social capital — the relationships that bind people together and create a sense of community,” as Dider Grossamy wrote in a comment to David G. Lebow’s Ten Dollar Computers and the Future of Learning in the Web Era ? Didier Grossamy himself adds: “Even though technological advances have contributed significantly to the problem of isolation, the emphasis on individualism in today’s society has compounded it.”
It might be the other way round: technology tools — the internet, computers, cell phones — are very powerful tools, but just tools. They can emphasize social trends, but they cannot create them. Read/Write tools like blogs, wikis, even Twitter — which might seem at first glance the epitome of self-absorption — can also be used very effectively for the defense of human and civic rights. See Don’t Block the Blog , Global Voices Online  and the Herdict  tool recently launched by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which allows users to report inaccessible sites and to see what site has been reported inaccessible in what countries, thus avoiding false censorship alarms.
Civic and Human Rights
These are great tools under dictatorships: when then President General Musharraf proclaimed the state of emergency in Pakistan in November 2007, the first sign was the blacking out of all independent televisions. Within a few hours, their political broadcasts were accessible again on the internet (with audio-only versions for people with low connectivity). Activists used twitter from their cell phones to let others know when they got arrested. And now that President Zardari is more and more emulating his predecessor’s autocratic behavior (look up Zardari in Google News), civil society is ready to use these tools again.
Of course, governments — and not only tyrannies — attempt to control these tools. In October 2004, at the request of the Swiss government, the FBI seized a server that hosted a page of Indymedia giving personal data of two plainclothes policemen who were inquiring about unrest episodes in Geneva during the Evian G8 Summit, with a not-too-veiled threat. The page was still retrievable through Google cache, and it was mirrored in a student’s page at the site of a US university. Indymedia responsibly deleted all attempts to link to that mirror, but it was very easy to find with a search engine (see, in Italian, L’FBI oscura vari siti Indymedia su richiesta della Svizzera e dell’Italia, ma…. ) – Oct. 10, 2004).
More dangerously, last fall, a Sicilian judge condemned historian Carlo Ruta for “stampa clandestina” (clandestine press) because he had published his research about the Mafia in his blog, using a 1948 Italian law that makes the official registration of press organs compulsory (see John Ozimek’s How an Italian judge made the internet illegal  – The Register, Sep. 26, 2008). As a result, many Italian bloggers now avoid this risk by adding a disclaimer saying that their blog is not a press organ.
Technology Education and Technology Scares
The point is, if these tools are to be used positively, people must learn how to use them, as with any other tool. Unfortunately, traditional media — from Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid?  (The Atlantic, July/August 2008) to David Derbyshire’s Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist  (Daily Mail, Feb. 24, 2009) — feeling threatened by these tools, are all too ready to demonize them. And as a result, education authorities tend to block access to these tools rather than face the responsibilities involved in using them at school, where students could learn how to do so responsibly and efficiently.
Most such scare-mongerers’ arguments can be easily refuted, of course. Either they lack scientific evidence, or they quote it only partially, or they use fallacies: Derbyshire, for instance, suggests that the fact that autistic people can express themselves more easily with computers might imply that computers induce autism.
However, we must also beware of the negative effect that an over-enthusiastic advocacy of these tools can have. In 1995, I attended a conference announcing the opening of the Università della Svizzera Italiana and its School of Communication Studies in Lugano (CH), pretentiously entitled “Oxford on the Lake.” I left midways: the zealot enthusiasm and sociological jargon of the “cybernaut” speakers put me off the internet for two solid years.
So it is important to pay necessary attention to serious criticism of these tools voiced by people really involved in using them for social and educational purposes. Two recent telling examples:
- In From Red Guards to Cyber-vigilantism to where next?  (Feb. 24. 2009): Rebecca MacKinnon reflects on the limitations of only exposing socially harmful behaviors and human right violations rather than acting to prevent them: “Just because people have an expanded ability to speak truth to power thanks to new technology, that doesn’t automatically lead to a more just society in the long run unless you have institutional change. I wonder whether people will be so distracted and excited about the ability to use the Internet to speak truth to power that they’ll have less interest in such institutional change.” As she is co-founder of the above-mentioned Global Voices Online , which aims at giving voice to people directly concerned by events that traditional media do not normally cover, her invitation to go beyond simple information is particularly interesting.
- In The use and misuse of computers in education: evidence from a randomized experiment in Colombia  (Feb. 1, 2009 — with links to the full report as downloadable 3.01Mb PDF  or plain text  files): Felipe Barrera-Osorio and Leigh L. Linden analyze the results of scientifically conducted statistical surveys of a Colombian project in which more computers were offered to schools and teachers were provided training. In spite of this training, teachers made little use of the increased learning possibilities of computers, and as a result, the impact on students was minimal. Providing computers and training teachers in their use in education — even if this training follows a constructivist pedagogical approach, as in this Colombian case — is necessary, but it is not enough to make teachers effectively use the available computers with their students.
Motivation and Follow-Up
Citizens who struggle to defend their rights under a dictatorship are more likely to be motivated to master the use of information and collaboration tech tools than teachers who have to help their students pass national tests that bear only on memorized notions. Motivation is essential.
But training offered to motivated people cannot be limited to a single initial course because technology evolves and, more importantly, needs to evolve. Therefore people must have the opportunity to further explore these tools “in action.” This can be done online, provided they are initially trained to use online networks where they can find or ask others for reliable additional information and help.
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