Posts Tagged ‘flat worlds’

Social Networking for Justice – Flat worlds, ‘access’ and Online Activism

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

As mentioned in my previous post I have recently returned from lovely Greece and the Networked Learning Conference, so now it is time to return to some of the issues and presentations that I found thought-provoking and interesting.

The conference actually started off with a very interesting keynote delivered by Charalambos Vrasidas with the title ‘Social Networking for Social Justice: Challenges and Possibilities‘ (Grainne Conole has already posted a good summary and discussion of the keynote on her excellent blog where she has also commented on other presentations from the conference).

The keynote was a thought provoking reminder of the unequal access to education in the world (and the general inequality in terms of the economical and social distribution of power and goods) – something we should really keep in mind every time we talk about “open education”, “digital generations” or the “world wide web” which is really not that “world wide” in terms of access and the capacity to utilise the online resources (a good point I shall return to).

Charalambos Vrasidas argued against the notion that ‘the world is flat’ (adopted from Friedman) and drawing on Richard Florida he suggested instead that the world is ‘spiky’ – meaning that even though we are indeed seeing new power centers and super economies emerge (e.g. in Asia) there are still billions of people around the world (in both developing and developed countries) living in (extreme) poverty not benefiting from the apparently ‘flat world’.

The notion of a ‘flat world’ also seems to include the idea that more people have been given access to information through the ‘world wide web’, which to some extent is also true. Here, however, I think that Charalambos made a great point! While initiatives like MIT Opencourseware and OER Commons (open educational resources) give people free access to wonderful resources for teaching and learning two questions should be asked: whom are they actually open to – or rather what languages are they available in? But actually more important – where are the infrastructures (e.g. teachers, context and networks, accreditation systems etc.) to make sense and use of these resources? While having access to material is of course a great thing it may not be enough in and off itself.

If we assume that learning arises, not only from reading/internalising information, but equally through participation, dialogue and students’ active self-governed, problem-based and collaborative activities, then we might need to think about how we can leverage the access to active networks, dialogues and spaces of meaning making – just as much as access to materials and resources.

One other point (out of many others) mentioned in Charalambos’ presentation was the idea of how social networking and ‘Online Activism’ might be a way to promote and strengthen social justice. He used a video from Amnesty International and mentioned the power of networks in (virally) distributing the video, thereby raising awareness about Human Rights and that ‘your signature counts‘. Distributing videos and utilising the power of networks certainly help in getting messages across to a broader public, and Charalambos also gave other examples of how technology and social networks can be used to promote social justice (e.g. games such as food-force or the empowerment experienced by peasants being able to check crop prices on the net).

However, I have come to think of if certain forms of ‘Online Activism’ may actually lead to a sort of ‘laid back’ or even ‘lazy activism’. For instance it is great that just by using Facebook I can (apparently) help reduce C02 emission, give rice to poor people and save the rain forest by nursing my (Lil) Green Patch…but on the other hand – do they actually engage me or disengage me (one is helping while maybe not being particularly aware of or reflexive about it)? A lot of great work is going on within the field of ‘motivating design’ or persuasive design’ (for instance I would recommend the blog Architectures of Control? Design with Intent that is maintained by Dan Lockton). Here one of the ideas is to embed ‘good, sustainable practices’ into the design and function of various technologies causing people to automatically save water, electricity and so forth. Like many of the Facebook-application this is a really great idea (assuming that they actually do work), but I do have one concern! While such ‘persuasive or motivational’ designs surely can change people’s behaviour, do they also raise awareness and engagement – do they change our minds and not only our behaviour?

Likewise, it is great that I can easily sign petitions at Avaaz.org and hope that politicians will listen and take action correspondingly – also it is wonderful that I can quickly send an sms to the Danish Red Cross to donate money for the victims in Myanmar. But do such initiatives and ‘the easiness’ also eschew our collective focus from long-term, difficult efforts of capacity building, sustainability onto ’causes’ and ‘immediate solutions’. Not that these two are mutually exclusive, but some Danish charity and developmental organisations have pointed out that while people are willing to donate a lot of money for specific ’causes’ and ‘events’ it is harder to promote and ensure support for more long-term and slow-moving projects which may take decades to succeed. With ‘direct’ support and aid we can see the value and results (or imagine the impact) quickly (people get rice, blankets, water or the popular ‘donate a goat’ presents etc.), whereas with an ‘indirect’ support (building up public administration, training teachers, collaborating on building up capacity on Universities or in other sectors) it is somewhat more difficult to see immediate and concrete results.

Of course this is not to argue that we should not engage with motivating or persuasive design and embedding good practices into technology; that we should not easily be able to donate money, school books, goats etc. to poor people needing the help – or raising awareness by distributing widely videos like the one from Amnesty International. However, what would be very interesting to study is how and if such initiatives and technologies affect or transform our ways of engaging with the world and our ways of taking action?