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New technologies cannot substitute political will

New technologies have the capacity to both emancipate and control individuals and their choices. Our pre-occupation should then concern the intrinsic moral values of users and their commitment to democratic citizenship and human rights.

Ayesha Carmouche
29 November 2013

Too often we are bombarded by a series of arguments concerning the political implications of new technologies. So much so that we seem to be forgetting one fundamental issue: the political will of those that instrumentalise these tools, and what they seek to achieve. It must be recognised that new technologies are merely devices to further a cause, whether for social justice or a tightening reign of power.

Among the growing debates on data surveillance and the loss of privacy, Privacy International’s Anna Crowe has raised the dangers around the rapid spread of technologies through development initiatives. These points included the hazards of technological developments where the rule of law is absent and where access to information is collected and used against individuals.

Furthermore, Crowe comments on apparent gender disparities in mobile phone ownership in the developing world. Noting that in some circumstances male heads of the household control the use of a shared mobile phone, undermining services through which women can report cases of domestic abuse.

How then can digital enthusiasts respond to the novel challenges inspired and galvanised by modern technologies? For optimists, they point to the creation of a mass communications infrastructure which give campaigners the ability to challenge conditions of injustice and oppression. Activists can now use alternative spaces outside state control to call for collective action. Furthermore, others point to crisis mapping and the possible humanitarian uses of drone technology during times of conflicts and natural disasters to demonstrate the democratisation of information.

The truth of the matter is that there is evidence of both the abusive and revolutionary potential of new technologies. Indeed, we have witnessed the dark side of new technologies with the proliferation of new spyware technology, as used by repressive regimes such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. In such cases, individuals have been monitored, dispersed and controlled with greater 'efficiency'. The sad consequence of this is an intensified fear of retribution for those seeking justice, a mockery of accountability measures, and an asymmetrical power dynamic between the citizen and state.

Furthermore, inequalities in voice thwart the potential for inclusivity through new technologies. As with some cases of mobile phone usage in the developing world, social media participation tells a familiar tale of educational, urban and gender advantage. Consider the demographics of India’s second largest social media platform, Facebook. Accordingly 76% males use this platform, compared with a meagre 24% of females, while the common user is said to be a graduate degree holder. More alarmingly, Internet penetration among India's rural population is just one-twelfth that of the urban population - a big concern when a majority of Indians live in the countryside.  

On the positive side, we have seen some very inspirational examples of mobile technology usage. Take the recent fact-checking mobile phone initiative, which has been launched by the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention in Tana Delta, Kenya. Following years of conflict between the Orma and Pokomo groups in the region, a string of massacres and displacements has, in large part, been galvanised by malicious rumour spreading. These include beliefs held by the Orma community that Pokoma health workers have intended to poison their children, alongside Pokomo allegations that the Orma have been given weaponry to destroy Pokomo communities. While there has been no evidence to support these claims, “intentional disinformation” has the advantage of benefiting those with a political agenda.   

In response, the Sentinel Project initiative has set up a mobile phone-based system, enabling individuals to report incidents or allegations and to receive verification of its accuracy. Importantly, the project will act as a template for other conflict settings, whereby political pursuits of power and propagandist slander can be confronted before violent escalation.

An equally impressive application of technology has also been found in Kenya. In utilising mobile phone technologies, the country offers the most telling example of providing life-changing services. A few years back, the mobile network Safaricom introduced a service called M-Pesa which allowed users to store money on their mobiles. As a result Kenyans now use this resource to pay utilities bill and send money to friends. Individuals simply state the amount they wish to pay by text and the recipient converts it into cash at their local M-Pesa office. The device proves invaluable to some of the poorest individuals who cannot access bank accounts. It is these examples which honour the inclusive ideals of technological innovation - ones which empower individuals with tools to rise above their economic and social disadvantage.

Drawing on these examples, new technologies have the capacity to both emancipate and weaken individuals and their choices. It is crucial then, that we do not confuse the proliferation of mobile services as the main issue at stake. Human rights abuses have occurred with or without these tools. Instead our pre-occupation should concern the intrinsic moral values of users and their commitment to democratic citizenship and human rights. Importantly, technologies cannot substitute political will, nor can they remedy the inherent injustices within a society; most often they will only serve to reproduce inequalities in voice across the spectrum of gender, religious and economic divides.

More tellingly, just as there have been increasing calls on governments to respect individual privacy, likewise there have been similar abuses of individual security under the veil of privacy. To name one example, proponents have argued that instances of domestic abuse have gone unchallenged in the past due to the inappropriateness of “state intervention”, following the logic of a public-private divide. What does this mean? Simply that each ideological narrative or emerging technology has the potential to, both, empower and undermine citizens; and it is our political will which determines the fate of them. 

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