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[liberationtech] Liberation technology: dreams, politics, history

Yosem Companys companys at
Wed Apr 6 05:18:53 PDT 2011

 Liberation technology: dreams, politics, history
Armine Ishkanian <>, 5
April 2011
 The doctrinal commitment to new cyber and social technologies as a means of
solving political problems needs to learn from the past and take a more
realistic view, says Armine Ishkanian.
 About the author
Armine Ishkanian is
NGOs and development in the department of social policy, London School of
Economic. Her books include *Democracy Building and Civil Society in
Post-Soviet Armenia*
<> (Routledge,

The popular uprisings in the middle east and north Africa have invigorated
arguments about the power of new information and communication technologies
(ICT), even their potential to usher in the new world of democracy,
sustainable development and good governance that progressives wish to see. A
celebration of the emancipatory potential of these new technologies, the
social-network sites Facebook and Twitter in particular, is now a regular
current in their discourse.

Most “cyber-utopians” (as Evgeny Morozov <> calls
them) or “liberation technologists” (as some refer to themselves) recognise
the obstacles in their way: in particular, that authoritarian regimes are
adept at using internet censorship, surveillance and monitoring to blunt the
emancipatory momentum. But they go on to argue that further technological
advances can help circumvent the “the great
China” and its equivalents.

The new tools and technologies certainly provide unprecedented means of
connecting and coordinating. But there should be
reproducing technologically determinist and normative arguments which are
often unsupported by strong empirical evidence or rigorous research. The
danger is that such determinism combines with the eager expectation among
politicians, policy makers, and development practitioners that the
technologies can deliver immediate and dramatic results.

There is a vibrant debate between the “cyber-utopians” and their critics,
such as Evgeny Morozov, the author of *The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of
Internet Freedom*<>
John Lloyd, "Mightiest for the
25 March 2011). This, however, isn’t simply between those “for” or “against”
technology: it is about reaching for a more sophisticated, realistic and
grounded assessment.

*Civil Society 2.0*

The United States is playing the leading role globally in advancing
“internet freedom”, reflected in its award of $20 million in 2008-10 to
support the work of digital activists. A diplomatic initiative - 21st
Century Statecraft <> - aims to
make diplomacy more innovative by fusing the new technologies with
traditional foreign-policy tools.

Only four days after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation as Egypt’s president on 12
February 2011, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton committed a further
$25 million to its Civil Society 2.0
which aims to “help grassroots organizations around the world use digital
technology to tell their stories, build their memberships and support bases,
and connect to their community of peers around the world.”  The state
department’s website announces that under its auspices “experienced
technologists” will be dispatched around the world to teach civil-society
organisations how to blog, build a website and leverage social networks for
a cause.

Hillary Clinton, defining <> the
internet as the “public space of the 21st century”, commits to supporting
the struggle for internet freedom through investing “in the cutting edge
[technologies] because we know that repressive governments are constantly
innovating their methods of oppression and we intend to stay ahead of
them”. She also makes a
the struggle for internet freedom today and the experiences of supporting
dissidents and the production of *samizdat*(underground self-publications)
during the cold war. The struggle for internet freedom thus becomes part of
the struggle for human rights, freedom and dignity.

But will approaches aimed at developing ever more cutting-edge technologies
and tools really strengthen civil society and democracy? In considering this
question, I draw on the
experience<> of
democracy-promotion in the aftermath of the revolutions in east-central
Europe in 1989.

*Civil Society 1.0*

The fall of the Berlin wall in
the ensuing chain of revolutions was followed by a huge and expensive effort
from western donor agencies, led by the United States, to build and
strengthen the institutions of civil society in the post-Soviet countries,
and to train civil-society activists as a means of
good governance and the development of market economies. More than two
decades on, the US remains the largest single global donor of
democracy-building and civil-society support programmes.

The broad experience of these programmes during the 1990s suggests that
externally funded<>
projects are very good at creating institutions and structures, but less
successful at producing sustainable, vibrant and engaged democratic
constituencies and civil societies. In other words, they helped create a lot
of NGOs, but not civil society.

Moreover, these
most effective in those eastern and central European countries where
integration into the European Union acted as an “effective tool of
democracy-promotion” by providing incentives for the leadership of
democratising countries to pursue internal changes. There was progress here,
many democratic institutions and practices were established in the region;
but it took time, and the enlargement approach cannot easily (if at all) be
replicated elsewhere.

Mary Kaldor argues<>
after 1989 everyone celebrated the idea of civil society, but the idea was
“rapidly reduced within the framework of neo-liberal thinking to mean
western-supported NGOs who would help to smooth the path of neo-liberal
transition.” This NGO-isation of civil society in many former socialist
countries was but one unintended consequence of “Civil Society 1.0”

A more worrying problem was that the foreign funding of civil-society groups
led to a backlash against not only NGOs, but the very ideas of democracy and
civil society. The ex-post-facto justification for the Iraq war as a form of
democracy-promotion coupled with the perceptions of Washington’s “shadowy
guiding hand” in the “colour revolutions” in Georgia
and Ukraine <>(2004)
intensified scepticism toward democracy and civil society in (among others)
Russia, China, and Nigeria.

Some of the policy analysts and academics who were influential in shaping
the post-cold-war "Civil society 1.0 policies" are now engaged in the
development of the thinking around internet freedom. Several are affiliated
with the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of
Law<> (CDDRL)
at Stanford University, which runs a Program on Liberation Technology. They
include the CDDRL’s director Larry Diamond, Francis Fukuyama and Michael
McFaul; Evgeny Morozov is also a visiting

The Program on Liberation
Technology<> seeks
to understand how “information technology can be used to defend human
rights, improve governance, empower the poor, promote economic development,
and pursue a variety of other social goods.”  It plans to “evaluate (through
experiment and other empirical methods) which technologies and applications
are having greatest success, how those successes can be replicated, and how
less successful technologies and applications can be improved to deliver
real economic, social, and political benefit.”

A project that has human goals at its nominal centre yet focuses on tools
and technologies always runs the risk of technological determinism and
indeed fetishism. Moreover, the prior history of “toolbox” approaches to
political change (albeit before an era when the internet was widespread)
enjoins caution over making the discovery and spread of successful
technologies the key to achieving improvements in governance, development
and human rights.

It may be also that these technology-centred approaches tend to encourage a
context-free and amnesiac attitude that ignores the experiences even of the
very recent past. In any event, the extraordinary events in the middle east
and north Africa fuel the liberation technologists’ euphoria.

*The magic bullet*

A doctrine with the same strong technological focus is apparent in the field
of “ICT for development” (or “ICT4D”) since the mid-2000s. ICT4D supports
the spread of digital technology as a means of
development goals.

The interventions in this field have
implementing new tools and technologies to address issues of health,
governance, gender inequality, rural poverty, and education; projects
include providing <>
applications to help farmers and fishermen access market-price information
and to encourage income-generation among rural women. Again, there have been
successes in these areas, but also considerable obstacles; and these will
doubtless affect the internet-freedom agenda and the use of digital
technologies and tools for democracy-building <>

The absence of electrical power and the expense of
the internet and mobile networks are among these obstacles. The Harvard
Forum I <> Research ICT
Africa demand-side survey estimates that the bottom 75% of mobile-phone
users in Africa spend 11%-27% of their household income on mobile
communications, far more than the equivalent in developed countries. This is
one aspect of a digital divide that mirrors broader structural inequalities
in many parts of the developing world, which works to “deepen the vicious
circle between inequality and technology diffusion”.

Several experts in the field of
the lack of research and the difficulties involved in documenting the
specific impacts of new technology. Tim Unwin<>,
the Unesco chair in ICT4D, writes <>:
“Despite all the rhetoric of success, very few ICT4D activities, especially
in Africa, have yet proved to be sustainable.” Dipankar
Sinha<> highlights
the dangers of “injecting” technology into societies such as India that are
marked by “unequal and non-participatory structural relationships”, for this
risks becoming a “self-defeating endeavour that would do more harm than good
for the developing world.” None of this stops ICT, like the internet’s new
tools, being touted as a near-instant magic solution.

*The need for context*

The investment of money and empowered enthusiasm in the new technologies
will likely guarantee a continuation and increase of programmes aimed at
spreading digital technology around the globe. This makes all the more
important a detailed assessment of their potential benefits and
terms of the stated aims of advancing democracy, human rights and economic

James Ferguson<>,
writing about the failures of many development interventions,
problems often arise because development agencies implement technical
solutions to problems while ignoring the political and structural dimensions
which cause those problems.

While researching democracy-promotion programmes in post-Soviet
I found that many of the foreign experts and trainers often possessed very
little information about the country, its history, politics and culture,
even though their training had aimed at changing its social, cultural and
political attitudes, practices, and understandings. There were many
inefficiencies and wasted opportunities as a result (see  *Democracy
Building and Civil Society in Post-Soviet

Sarah Mendelson<>
the lesson of much of the experience of the 1990s and 2000s by saying that
foreign experts and trainers were good architects in that they knew how to
build structures, but poor interior designers because they
local knowledge that would provide the content for the structures they had
built. This is a profound lesson that many advocates of liberation
technology show few signs of learning.
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