Monday, July 18

Democracy and ICT revisited, and China uses communications technology to help Mugabe suppress democracy in Zimbabwe

I received the following letter from Beth (at Beth's Contradictory Brain blog) in response to the Fire up the cell phone... post.

I immediately sent a reply that was somewhat critical of what I considered to be her naive or at least very limited understanding of development issues. But after rereading her letter and yesterday I realized that I had looked at the task of spreading democracy solely from the viewpoint of rural development and specifically from the angle of development bank projects. Thus, the dour warnings in my essay. (Perhaps a reason for Barber's dour warnings, as well!) I now think I over-applied Dey's arguments, which were purely concerned with rural development.

So with hindsight I think that in general Beth's comments point up a flaw in my argument. They also serve as a good warning to check against over-reliance on one's knowledge base while studying an unfamiliar situation.

I'd say her comments underscore that this is not a perfect world; the best technological means for spreading/supporting genuine democracy are not affordable or technologically feasible in many instances. Yet while "half a bridge is better than none" can make for really bad development loan policy, I think Beth's point is that many small half measures to spread democracy can add up to big returns.

Also included in this post is a letter from "Liz" in response to the same essay; her comments about ICT are more technical but also very interesting as applied to democracy and information flow; she points up how this flow can work against democracy as much as support it. I support the last point with grim news from Zimbabwe.

Regarding the comments by Atanu Dey you quoted:

"Basic functional literacy is a prerequisite to pretty much anything that one does. The use of high-tech depends on literacy and therefore if the population is illiterate, even gifting them with free hardware will not make a difference. The pre-condition for bridging the digital divide is therefore the bridging of the literacy divide. ...I grant that illiterate idiots can use a cell phone, but that is not what I would call the effective use of high technology."

I'm not so sure about this. The examples from North Korea show (at least to me) that even the basic technology of a cell phone allows the people in NK access to conversations with people outside NK, which in turns allows them a glimpse into life outside a strictly controlled country. And even that small glimpse can start a chain of change. I would never argue that literacy shouldn't be a top priority goal, just that it might not be as necessary as is being argued.

Re your comments:

"The literates control the information flow."

I again think conversations between people limit this -- especially if technology makes conversations easier to have among many people, literate or not. [...]

"As the African cell phone story indicates, ICT is critical to helping the rural poor stay connected about issues such as market conditions for their produce. But you don't want to assume that kind of connectivity automatically translates to more informed participation in the political process."

But why assume it doesn't?

"Pundita suspects that a lot of outmoded computers -- sold for a song by companies eager to dump them -- will find their way into the world's rural villages."

Probably so. One of my favorite parts of the North Korea story was the old VCR's making their way to NK and the people soaking up the soap operas. It's not as lofty as our classic American film idea,* but whatever helps oppressed people see (in this case literally) that there are much better alternatives, I think is a good thing.
Beth in the Midwest

* In an earlier published email exchange, Beth and I had discussed showing films about America's hardship days to peoples who were struggling to get their democracies off the ground.
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Re: cellphones, democracy and information flow

Good points re the DPRK [North Korea] and cellphone signals from the north as well as the south (could we get some floating platforms offshore east and west? A little power management does wonderful things for signal dispersion...).

However, there are two major caveats to remember about cellphones and information dissemination:

1. It's a tool like any other -- anyone can use an axe, for purposes which suit his needs. When it's a big enough threat, the threatened government may well respond in kind, with misinformation. Likewise, a threatened government can always jam/overpower a bootleg signal -- it is, after all, radio waves -- unless we want to engage in a "hot" info war, which I doubt at this point.

In a similar vein, Wretchard mentioned at Belmont Club (about a year ago, maybe)that jihadi camp followers/wannabes passed decapitation videos around via their cellphone multimedia services (report from the London Times -- by the time I tried to track it back, the archives weren't accessible to me, but I'll take Wretchard's word that he saw the report).

2. Text messages use the voice system (typically) while data connections use a separate-but-connected data network which (typically) is supported by a set of servers providing web pages customized for very small screens, etc., and which is connected to regular data networks including the Internet (depending on national and carrier connectivity).

Text messages are stored on servers in the voice system (just ask the boys in Aruba, or Paris Hilton) -- and may be retrieved later. Data networking may be filtered and and/or tracked for billing purposes. Billing, of course, is the sine qua non for the telephony world, because they charge by the call/time/bytes -- and the ability to bill more granularly (more for some bytes than others, depending on where the bytes came from -- think premium services) and to restrict access to certain sites on some accounts (a business wireless connection can access corporate sites and partner sites, but not sports sites) are both currently available.

Tracking and storage, accessible to the oppressing government, or to another government in opposition (implying treason, if it leaks and you're caught) are not trivial matters.

All that said, the simple availability of another channel of information dissemination is a force multiplier -- permutations of information paths become a larger set, and it becomes much more complex to block them all.

But don't expect too much out of cellphone systems -- simple voice connectivity outside the immediate control of the oppressing government is a great help. Asian cellphones are often much smaller than the "candy bar" models we see in the US (Nokia, e.g.) or even a typical American clamshell model. And smaller is easier to conceal....
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Pundita comments: Re your remark that the oppressing government can always jam the signals -- this is just what the Zimbabwe government has done with help from China. What the following report does not mention is that not only did the government receive jamming equipment from China but the PLA (China's military) flew Zimbabwean military to China for training on how to use the signal jammers. This training came in handy for suppressing news about the dis-homing of an estimated 300,000 Zimbabweans.
Although government has denied jamming SW Radio Africa’s broadcasts, investigations have revealed that the jamming appears to emanate from Thornhill in Gweru, using Chinese equipment.

It appears three jammers are being used to jam the three short wave frequencies used by SW Radio Africa. One kHz tone is used to jam the broadcasts; and is continued till the transmitters become too hot; then ‘noise’ is used to avoid over driving the jamming transmitters. The BBC Monitoring Services also confirmed the jamming saying “the interfering signals were present only for the period of the SW Radio Africa programming”.

Zimbabwe’s Media Monitoring Programme has condemned in the strongest terms this latest deliberate assault on freedom of expression.

“This act of sabotage against SW Radio Africa’s broadcasts, particularly in the run up to the March 2005 general elections, is a cynical attempt to deny the public their right to access information sources of their choice. It also demonstrates a blatant intolerance for the free flow of information, which is the cornerstone of every participatory democracy,” it said. [...]
For the rest of the report, which includes instructions on how to get around the jamming, see The Zimbabwean.

For latest news on the situation in Zimbabwe also visit SW Radio Africa.

For background on the dis-homing, see the Christian Science Monitor report Systematic Cleansing in Zimbabwe.

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