The power of blogs & web 2.0 technology

With the advent of the web 2.0,  the tech-savvy were not the only ones out there pumping content – everybody could share their lives on a blog such as this one, pontificate on wikipedia, and imagine themselves a wannabe Spielberg. Although it is easy dismiss the content of much that is created using web 2.0 technology, the current crisis in Iran has shown the full potential of such tools. Iranians have been using Facebook and Twitter to coordinate protests and students at a Vancouver Film School created the following video about the way young Iranians have used blogs to share opinions and information with the rest of the world.

When I first accessed the internet in 1996, it blew my mind away for its potential – clear to me even back then – to break barriers and democratize access to information. Governments have tried to limit access everywhere, with only limited success. Watch the video above; it’s worth it. Read also this great article about Twitter & the protests in Iran. And as the Landismom put it:

It’s a little humbling, to watch in real time as a father in Iran worries about his daughter, and tweets that he’s just heard that there are military police in the park that she was last in. And it can feel so far away, that park, and that girl—so far away that there’s nothing we can do to help. But every person reading this can do something to help that girl, right now. You can pick up the phone, and call your congressman, and tell him or her to ask the US to intervene. You can wear green to work tomorrow, even though it’s not St. Patty’s Day. In most big cities, you can find a peaceful demonstration in solidarity with the Iranians, and you can attend it.

I couldn’t have said it better. And that’s what all this new media does. It forces us to care, to be engaged.

Clay Shirky, a NYU professor who recently gave a TED talk on the power of new media, gave an interview recently on the Iranian case. He calls it the first revolution catapulted to the world stage by social media. As he puts it,

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 where they chanted “the whole world is watching.” Really, that wasn’t true then. But this time it’s true … and people throughout the world are not only listening but responding. They’re engaging with individual participants, they’re passing on their messages to their friends, and they’re even providing detailed instructions to enable web proxies allowing Internet access that the authorities can’t immediately censor. That kind of participation is reallly extraordinary.

According to Shirky, of all the new technologies out there Twitter has had the biggest impact in this particular case. It is so simple and so open that although they’ve been trying really hard, authorities have failed to control it or shut it down.

But more than provide an outlet for those in Iran. Twitter has allowed people outside to feel engaged to what happens there:

When I see John Perry Barlow setting himself up as a router, he’s not performing these services as a journalist. He’s engaged. Traditional media operates as source of inofrmation not as a means of coordination. It can’t do more than make us sympathize. Twitter makes us empathize. It makes us part of it. Even if it’s just retweeting, you’re aiding the goal that dissidents have always sought: the awareness that the ouside world is paying attention is really valuable.

But perhaps more importantly, Twitter allowed people to connect without the veil set by governments and ideologies.

But whatever happens from here, the dissidents have seen that large numbers of American people, supposedly part of “the great Satan,” are actually supporters. Someone tweeted from Tehran today that “the American media may not care, but the American people do.” That’s a sea-change.

Indeed.

Obama’s Inauguration

Read the full text of the speech here.

The cynics will say that Obama’s plans are too lofty and could never be accomplished. It may be so. He certainly has an upward battle ahead of him and it is dubious whether he’ll be successful against so many powerful interest groups. As first lady, Hillary Clinton worked hard for accessible health care for all but the outcry against any sort of reform of the currently lucrative health care system run by private insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies was too strong. Al Gore understood only too well that a green platform would not get him elected in the 2000 elections.  There’s not guarantee Obama could succeed where so many have failed before. But the issues he raises are important ones that need to be discussed and brought to the agenda. He has been very clear that it won’t be easy and that whatever change that may come will not happen overnight. Yet, there’s hope. His astounding popularity might actually allow him to pull it off. If there’s one thing that congressmen listen to in a democracy is public opinion. Canadian PM Harper backed off from re-visiting gay marriage and abortion laws in Canada when he sensed the public was not behind it. The American government keeps the arrival of the bodies of soldiers who died in Iraq away from the public eye to maintain some degree of support for the war. Heck, even the Nazi government responded to public opinion by moving away from its plan to eliminate the mentally ill and handicap when the German people complained. So there is a chance that Obama can convince the American people to support his ideas, which would lead congressmen in Washington to listen. Who knows? It’s all up in the air at this point. But what if Obama fails? What if he just turns out to be another mediocre president? It won’t matter. Suddenly, even here in Canada, young black men and women as well as children of other minority groups can stand a little taller and trully believe that dreams are possible. It was fascinating to see young children across the Canada fascinated by his example. How many politicians have had that reach recently? It’s quite remarkable and it should be interesting to see what he does with that in the next few years.

Canadian Politics

It seems like it was only the other day that I went to cast a ballot in the Canadian federal elections. The Conservative party won another minority government and we were ready to settle for more of the same when suddenly, in a matter of days, everything has changed. Basically, the opposition was so incensed by the government’s backhanded tactics and inability to govern in a non-partisan manner (as minority governments should if they want to last in a parliamentarian system) that they have united in a coalition and it looks like they will table a non-confidence vote next week. It was all supposed to happen today but PM Harper has moved the vote until next week to gain some time.

There’s been a flurry of activities all weekend with the government accusing the opposition of being “undemocratic,” which is nonsense. Anybody who knows anything about parlamentarian system knows it is well within the rights of opposition parties to unite in a coallition in order to offer an alternative to the party who holds the government when the majority of the members of parliament feel that they have lost confidence in the government. As a friend of mine has written recently to the PM himself, “If parliament represents the will of the people, is it really democratic to accuse a coalition/arrangement that would represent the majority of parliamentary seats as being undemocratic?”

PM Harper has nobody but himself to blame for the mess he’s in.

If you want to know more, there’s plenty to go by on the CBC and the Globe and Mail.

Update: There’s a really interesting discussion at the Agenda, a TVO show presented by Steve Paikin

Check also Prof. Peter Russell’s explanation of the whole affair. He was one of the guests at the Agenda and has been rightfully appalled at the way Harper and his government are misinforming the public about the legal basis of the opposition’s move.

History in the making

It was an amazing feat. Americans turned out in record numbers and people of all kinds voted for Obama. States that had been red for a long time turned blue. I’m listening to the radio now and they were just interviewing some very conservative white farmers from a small town in the US that had always been strongly Republican. This is the demographic least friendly to Obama and yet they voted democrat. Some admitted that their families had voted Republican for generations and that they grandparents were probably turning in their graves. They admit Obama grew on them over time. They were particularly impressed with his calm maturity under pressure.

What I like about Obama is precisely that. Not only his calmness, which is a nice contrast to Bush’s volatile temper, but most importantly, I admire his capacity to bring so many different people together. The United States and the world need a leader like that. And although it sounds like empty rhetoric, he is very right to highlight the fact that a first generation, African-American man was able to be elected President of the United States is such a feat and such a message to a world marked by etnic conflict. I supported Hillary in the nomination process and wasn’t too keen on Obama. But like those American farmers, I grew to admire the man. I watched some of the debates and was very impressed by how prepared he was, how concrete his answeres were.

Obviously, being President of the United States is no easy feat and I have no illusions that Obama will be able to simply turn the US around overnight. That’s not going to happen. But he has good plans. He will get things started. And it is just good for the soul to replace a politics of fear with a politics of hope. For that alone, he would have had my vote.