The presentation by George Ayittey assigned for our next session on Digital Technology in the Developing World was a robust clarion call to the emerging generation of democratically-minded Africans – whom he termed the “Cheetah Generation” – to wrest Africa from the “Hippo Generation” of corrupt ruling elites. Yet, in envisioning the way forward for Africa, he harks back to the region’s rich history of democratic tribal organization and engagement in market activity prior to colonization. His conception of Africa’s path forward being rooted in the ancient values and practices of the region implicitly provides a compelling explanation for the success of digital technology in Africa thus far.

Applying Ayetti’s analysis, the burgeoning of digital technology in Africa is first due to its peoples’ long-standing recognition and employment of volition to keep their leadership in check and pursue their welfare. According to Ayetti, in pre-colonial times, an overwhelming majority of Africa’s tribes were typically characterized by an essentially democratic framework, wherein the decision-making authority of chiefs were mediated by advisory counsels of elders. Where leaders acted against the interests of their tribe members, people “voted with their feet”, abandoning these leaders to settle elsewhere. Ayetti seems to suggest that these practices indicate that the African peoples’ deeply understood and valued volition, and hence were discrete in their use of it to confer or retract legitimacy from governing parties. Extrapolated to the adoption of digital technologies, this understanding and discrete use of volition seems to elucidate the eager uptake of digital technologies by African populations, as means via which they pursue their welfare and freedom even in the midst of un-supportive political environments.

Ayetti also raises Africa’s tradition of entrepreneurship as a second necessary socio-cultural basis for Africa’s future progress. He puts forward that Africans were already actively engaged in marketplace interactions prior to colonization, decrying the myth of capitalization and market activity as a colonial imposition. With this understanding, the people and businesses of Africa can be seen to possess not only the ability for entrepreneurship, but extensive experience in it, which provided them with the capacity for the technological innovation they have demonstrated in the adoption of digital technology.

In so accounting for the success of digital technology in Africa, more questions are raised about the necessary conditions for the success of digital technology broadly and elsewhere: Are the principles of volition and entrepreneurship fundamental to the successful uptake of digital technologies? Must the local socio-cultural context possess a similar aptitude for exercising free will and innovation to do so? Or is the mother of invention simply necessity?

-Hui Lim

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A Force More Powerful (AFMP) is a non-violent strategy game that is focused on using non-violent tactics to accomplish a social goal, which can range from freeing an unjustly jailed social figure, to overthrowing a corrupt dictator.

Having played several strategy computer games in the past, I decided to jump right into AFMP. Gameplay takes place in one of several scenarios that range from overthrowing a dictator to convincing a local government to investigate the level of corruption in your city. I decided to go with the scenario, “bringing down a dictator”, which is named after the goal you try to accomplish; bringing down your nation’s corrupt dictator. Although there was a lengthy text-based introduction, and more than several pieces of background information (which unbeknownst to me was incredibly vital to any possible success), I decided to go straight into the game.

The actual gameplay consists of picking members of your organization, choosing a type of tactic for them to do, and choosing a target for their tactic. For example, you can tell someone to fundraise for your group through the local University Student Association, or tell your group leader to organize a vigil outside your city’s police station. However, it often takes money and a certain number of people (the game’s resources) to accomplish each task. Your movement’s money is generated by organizations that are a part of your coalition, along with successful fundraisers done by members of your coalition. The number of people available to your movement represents how many organizations have joined your cause (the game refers to your coalition as an alliance). To increase the number of people available to use for tactics, you must use strategies to shift unaligned or opposition organizations to your alliance. Ultimately, by bringing many organizations and individuals to your alliance you are able to carry out powerful tactics that weaken the support structure of the regime, and help you accomplish your goal.

My first stab at bringing down the dictator did not result well. Within three gameplay months, my leader and three quarters of my members were arrested, while my alliance only had the support of two local organizations. While I tried to use my jailed characters’ public images through both publicized hunger strikes and vigils that took place at the prison, the government would not release my members. Seeing that I was well on my way to failure, I decided to restart the campaign.

My second try was a bit more fruitful. I began to use more low-profile tactics (tactics that do not alert the current regime) to recruit new members and organizations. However, somehow my members were all once again arrested, and by the end of the first year I was left with only two members in my organization.

At this point, I decided it was time to read the manual and pay closer attention to scenario details. This left me with a stronger appreciation of the level of detail that is found in this game. Outside of tactics, every person and organization in the AFMP game-world has a list of policy preferences that deal with taxes, immigration, corruption, due process, freedom of speech, etc. One of the hardest parts of AFMP is trying to increase the membership of your alliance while satisfying everyone’s ideology. In fact, I had ignored this the first two times playing this game, which in turn led to a high propensity of having infiltrators in my group that then led to most of my members were arrested.

While there are many more features of AFMP, I am still attempting to get a firm enough grasp on these details to write about them. However, I am 7 months into a new campaign with only two individuals in jail (a clear victory for me). Hopefully after playing through and succeeding in a scenario or two I can continue to reflect on my experience with this teaching-tool/video game. Next week, I hope to continue write about features of the game and also discuss the benefits and limits of using AFMP as a way to train activists.

– Aaron

Soft Power

March 31, 2009

SOFT POWER

Soft power is defined by international relations scholar Joseph Nye as being, “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” It is a means of governments and diplomats of interacting with countries and groups of people to achieve an end.
The movie “Bringing Down a Dictator” brings the debate of soft power to the forefront on the international stage. The movement developed by OTPOR which helped bring down the former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic was an incredible feat. Inspiring a crowd in order to achieve a goal is very plausible. Charismatic leaders and the demonstration of a tangible benefit in order to rouse the attention and passion of the masses, have created movements in the past. When watching that video, I thoguht back to, on a more popular culture level,The Wave showed how there is vast potential especially for youth to generate excitement and to create a dedicated group of individuals to work for a common cause. As was seen in that movie, creating a “cult” like atmosphere has the potential for creating erroneaus ends in which those not involved turn vindictive and destructive—discriminating and alientating individuals. Therefore, the goal has to be able to effectively use the attention that was harnessed. That is where the use of soft power comes in. With new technology, there are modern ways of utilizing the potential energy.
The United States had seen the failures of bombing in Serbia. Yes, the military tactics were effective in destroying the assets that they set their sights on; but they were not able to remove the creulty from the seat of power. With the absolutist authority evident in Serbia, the old saying comes to fruition: “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Thus, western ideas of removing that type of power and installing a democratic regime made sense. Yet the problem was that the movement had to come from the bottom up. Because the power in office had corrupted society into agreeing to what had always existed. There had to be a change in the culture. This is where soft power comes to play. As is seen with the movie, the US used assets to support the grassroots movement with experts and resources. This type of movement helped buttress the work being done by the students on the ground. It created a network of action that would ensure that the movement would not falter and fall into violent ends. That type of faltering would make the movement illegitimate, because not only would they lose the high ground but they would also lose the buy in from the millions around the country that had started to view the movement as an alternative movement that would better their future.
This notion of utilizing soft power is especially important in situations where using military force is just too complicated to become effective. In an insightful and intriguing demonstration, the ‘Counterinsurgency Seminar’ at Tufts University showed that with the modern availability of arms and technology—it is exceedingly difficult to orchestrate a campaign that will take into consideration all of the aims of the invader, the people being rescued, and the international community. Therefore the encouraging advocacy of “Smart Power” from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a testament to the fact that the future of diplomacy lies in utilizing more resources from internet advocacy, to digital activism, to cultural dialogue. This was one of the most important take-aways that I had from the “Bringing Down a Dictator” and the efficacy of the US using more than just boots on the ground or bombs in the air as a diplomatic approach to ending a cruel dictator.

–Mike Mandell

A couple years ago, the Australian government announced that they wanted to institute a mandatory internet filter. Despite opposition, the government seems to be continuing with their plan. This filter would remove content that is deemed illegal under Australian law, such as hardcore pornography, online casino-style gambling, some hate speech, and “R” rated computer games. This proposition was justified by claiming that NetNanny (which the government gives out to families for free) cannot possibly protect children from all the dangers of the internet. The government has also said that users will be able to opt-out of the filter, but only from the pornography part of the blacklist, other illegal content will still be prohibited.

As of now, no filter has yet been set up, but it is still being discussed. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) keeps a list of websites that would be blocked were the filter introduced. The list was leaked on Wikileaks a couple months ago, and the ACMA has threatened them with fines of $11,000/day, however, the list is still up. The website says, “While Wikileaks is used to exposing secret government censorship in developing countries, we now find Australia acting like a democratic backwater. Apparently without irony, ACMA threatens fines of up to $11,000 a day for linking to sites on its secret, unreviewable, censorship blacklist — a list the government hopes to expand into a giant national censorship machine.” The list posted in late 2008 totaled to 2,000+ websites, most of them appearing to be pornography websites. The ACMA has cut down the list in past months, and the change has been reflected on the Wikileaks website. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, “Already, a significant portion of the 1370-site Australian blacklist – 506 sites – would be classified R18+ and X18+, which are legal to view but would be blocked for everyone under the proposal. The Government has said it was considering expanding the blacklist to 10,000 sites and beyond.”

I found this interesting because when I think of Australia, I think of a liberal, democratic country, similar to the United States and the U.K., and it is surprising that they are emulating nations like China by instituting such a filter. Although it seems like they wouldn’t be filtering websites that oppose the political mainstream, they are still considering filtering out a large chunk of the internet, however perverted it may be, which can be alarming. What if the government is able to get enough support for this idea and finally institutes this filter and takes even greater steps toward filtering in the future? Will other liberal democratic nations follow in their footsteps and create even larger filters?

-Sylvia Avila

“Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine; I’m on the pavement thinking about the government.” Bob Dylan said that in 1965. The midpoint of an era that shook, like a withdrawn junkie, with political unrest. And to put it lightly, ain’t shit changed — just the names, faces and places….oh yeah, and now we have this thing called the internet. Once upon a time, the markings of a true activist were physical action and the robust will to stand in harm’s way; bottles broken in streets, sit-ins, Molotov cocktails and marches. Today the political landscape has changed. Concurrently, the weapons we use to fight injustice on this terrain have evolved. After all, who wants to sit in a Humvee with paper thin siding when the freedom fighters* come?

For North Americans, Europeans and citizens of other empowered nations (are there any others?), we have our armored Humvee! We may sit safely behind our computer terminals and type “smack” till our fingers swell. So we have a Facebook group and we all agree, with a click, that “we don’t like your injustice, foreign leaders!” However, we’ll still support conglomerates that aid in a quest for your total dominance and suppression — pinky swear! For our fellow citizens in the global community: we insist we feel your pain, even if we don’t know what ten years in Chinese prison (or a secret holding site in Iran) is like. Allow me to readjust my cynicism for a hot second. I’m frustrated.
When do we stop talking and start doing? Others in more oppressive nations do not have the luxury of hiding. Their words are actions; their dissent online is dissent in real life. Its easier to throw words around when they remain, as long smoke in a stiff breeze. What happens when they become the cinder blocks that comprise your new 4’x8′ condo in a desert outpost? We need to help our brothers and sisters with more than just civil debate, we must help them with action. What can we, as the fortunate, do for those without fortune? Here’s an idea: take it back to 1965 and get out in the streets. “God made us number one because he loves us the best; well, he should go bless someone else for a while and give us a rest.” Ben Folds said that. He’s playing in Davis Square tonight; you should probably go watch that because Hossein Derakshan can’t. He’s too busy fighting real oppression with real actions and feeling real consequences for it.

*read “terrorist depending on which side you’re on… you do have a side right?)”

Sam Neill

After reading Susan Shapiro’s article in the New York Times discussing the role of Facebook in the Egyptian pro-democracy movement, I was struck by two quotes she included from Harvard research fellow Ethan Zuckerman.  He characterizes the use of Facebook in political movements as “Cute-cat digital activism,” going onto say that, “Authoritarian regimes can’t block political Facebook groups without blocking all the American Idol fans and cat lovers as well.” Essentially Zuckerman sees the use of Facebook for pro-democracy organizing as a way for activists to hide in plain sight among the millions of other users simply posting photos or making mundane wall posts.  Building upon this idea he posits that repressive regimes will not bring down Facebook precisely because of this dearth of non-politically active traffic.  According to Zuckerman, shutting down a popular social networking site would create a backlash against the government from users who before were happy using the site purely for social networking.  This got me thinking about how this concept of a “Cute-cat” deterrent will fare as Facebook crosses into another repressive society, China.

The world knows by now that China meticulously censors and monitors most, if not all the internet traffic of its citizens.  When people create websites or forums directed at political activism it is easy for Chinese censors to either block access to these sites, or if they are within China, shut them down and arrest their creators.  If Zuckerman’s contention holds true a site like Facebook could possibly threaten these tried and true responses to digital activism because the government will not be able to only shut down specific groups, the whole website would have to be taken down. The question becomes whether or not China will risk alienating all the other users using Facebook for non-political purposes in order to crack down on dissidents.

Historically the size of the non-politically active portion of a site’s user base has not served as an effective deterrent to blockage.  Even hugely popular sites like Wikipedia and Google have felt the wrath of the Chinese censors in the last few years. In spite of this discouraging portent, it is important to note that when Facebook began offering a Chinese version of its site in July of last year it joined an already crowded market. Myspace, Qspace and a Chinese clone of Facebook (xiaonei.com, that already boasts 22 million registered users and has raised more money than Facebook) are already players on the mainland social networking scene.

The growth of these networks shows that the Chinese seem to be embracing the concept of social networking.  This is significant because it is a very different thing to block a search engine or encyclopedia but a social networking site is a different beast.  What I mean by this is that a page on Facebook effectively contains one’s online identity; a profile page is not portable or replaceable like a search engine or encyclopedia.  If Facebook, or any other site on which you have information goes away, so does your page and all the work you put into making and maintain the network attached to it.  Perhaps when Chinese citizens find that all their uploaded materials and friend networks have suddenly vanished due to the banning of their networking site there will be a larger domestic outcry than in the past. When this happens we will truly see just how powerful the “cute-cat deterrent” can be.

-Mike Stillman

Up until recently, I worked for a tech company for whom I reviewed business proposals submitted by staff, would choose ideas to be developed into business plans by our team, and would help initiate the launch of approved plans. Some ideas were fantastic, some were silly and ill conceived, and others seemed fantastic. The latter type of plan is often the most troubling. Depending on the skill level of the person proposing the plan, it could have been easy to accept the “game-changing” plan and spend endless hours trying to turn it into a venture.

Here is an example of a plan that seems fantastic: “PetroCat, Inc will change the energy market forever. After minutes of planning and testing, the PetroCat team has developed a process by which kitty litter can be turned into an environmentally friendly energy source.” Have you ever heard of PetroCat, Inc? Probably not. I just made it up.

People often have grand ideas that could change the world. Whenever confronted with such an idea, the most important questions to ask are: (1) Is the idea backed by legitimate research? (2) Is it feasible? and (3) Is it realistic?

In Chapters 1 and 3 of Technology for Nonviolent Struggle, Brian Martin proposes his own grand idea. Perhaps, his idea is a little bit more realistic than fueling the cars of the future with cat excrement, but its not much better. Statements like “if manufacturers, commanders or operators refuse to cooperate, weapons will not be created or used” are not constructive or realistic. Instead of presenting the utopian view, Martin should have used his knowledge of the world as it stands to present a reasonable course of action.

Maybe this is what he is trying to do; however, there are other major underlying problems with his argument. A number of the proposed “facts” that underlie his argument are simply wrong. Given that I was able to find a few and don’t have any real academic experience with international relations or world affairs, I have to assume that there are many more.

Competition vs Cooperation

Statement by Brian Martin in Chapter 3: “All the available evidence shows that human beings have no instinctual urge to physically harm other people. Indeed, cooperation is much more “natural” than competition. Without day-to-day cooperation, what is called society would be impossible.”

The first and last sentence may be fine. I simply don’t have the background to affirm or dismiss them. The second sentence, however, is clearly false. In fact, I would bet that a freshman that only took Introduction to Psychology for two weeks and then dropped would be able to guess with some degree of certainty that the second sentence is false.

The statement is true in some Eastern countries (e.g. some of China) but does not hold for any Western or Westernized countries. There are almost endless journal articles and reports that argue just the opposite of Martin’s statement. Martin did cite research for the first and second statements; however, you can find research that supports nearly anything. (If you ever watch the news, you’ve seen some of it featured there!) The good academic or researcher does extensive research to back up his or her statements rather than taking the ideas put forward in one article as the ultimate truth.

Examples are meaningless
Throughout his writing, Martin uses an arsenal of powerful and descriptive examples to support his ideas; however, examples are in themselves meaningless unless they comprise a general truth. If an academic uses examples to give deeper meaning to a correlation, trend, or effect, the example can produce greater understanding. On the other hand, using singular examples as Martin does to attempt to back ideas does not produce the desired result. It is as inane as saying that just because I have trouble sleeping that everyone in the world has trouble sleeping. What is true in one example is not necessarily true in all or any other examples or situations.

Martin should have been attempting to code all examples to find correlations. Since an academic cannot ethically manipulate level of violence or nonviolence, Martin’s research would have had to be observational. This produces another problem. Given that the situations he would have been coding for are complex and largely novel, it would be impossible to tell whether the correlation was truly between the variables of interest or if an intermediary variable was what really should have been of interest.
– Parker Noren