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An Original DocumentInternet - Community Development

by John S Veitch


Internet Literacy Enables Community Development

Communities on the Internet

There is plenty of room for people to do new and creative things on the internet.  We need more people who are engaged with other people in a meaningful way.  In the 1990's we expected that a cyber community would develop, and Howard Rheingold wrote "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution" and pointed to a cooperative community process on the Internet.  That means that he expected the peer to peer part of the internet needs to grow and develop.

But in fact it hasn't happened in the way anyone anticipated.  None of the cyber-places hoping to develop "community" based on membership loyalty have been successful.  There have been many brave attempts.  None of the efforts to make local communities more connected by using the internet have succeeded either.

There have been some brave attempts to create "online communities" with GeoCities being notable.  Yahoo Groups is another survivor from the early days of the internet.  New comers are social places like "My Space" and many other sites that mainly focus on dating. There are also business focused social spaces like "Xing" and "Ryze".  (There are 30 or more others) Perhaps slightly different is "Linked In" which is more like a yellow pages for personal CV's.

We might also note here the success of certain ideas that were promoted on the internet. Most notable is the "Cluetrain Manifesto" but also many other documents like for instance "The Earth Charter".

Truth, Honesty and Communication

The core question facing the world is the ability to speak honestly with each other.  If that doesn't exist then any notion of an information society is lost.  Can we avoid deception and take the risk of sustaining the truth in our dealings with each other? This is a community issue.

A scientist who is found to have falsified his research data and published misleading papers has committed a serious offense and would lose his rights as a professional.  An information society can demand no lesser standard from all it's professionals including it's businessmen and it's politicians.

If we are all members of a common humanity, the pollution of our thinking processes by lies and propaganda is a crime against us all.  Such acts dishonor us as members and destroy the trust on which the future must be built.

Honest sharing of information across the world is critical to a better future.  New understandings that are produced by quality information create a demand for action.  Such action now being demanded from international institutions and from governments, is frequently the very action that in the past has usually been successfully avoided.  Powerful elite's often benefit from the status quo.  Change is normally resisted and opposed.

For instance fraud in election processes is now usually exposed.  Even in the USA, where the election process seem to be very untidy in places, perhaps deliberately so.  Maybe the last two Presidential elections were stolen.  There's a history of that going back a century or more.  It doesn't seem to concern the politicians themselves.  The best evidence I've seen that something happened is this.

PhD Students in Ohio have reported that because of the long lines waiting to vote, many thousands gave up the wait and went home or back to work.  But hundreds of thousands of people after waiting 3-6 hours in line did get to vote.  Strangely after all that effort many thousands, apparently failed to cast a vote of any kind for any Presidential Candidate.  Why? How come? Nobody was asking that question on election night. 

Leadership Failure:

Sadly we don't yet live in an information society.  We live in a society that too often agrees to ignore the information, a society that constructs a fabric of mis-information or dis-information and agrees to call it "truth" if it helps us to gain some narrow advantage.  We live in a society facing serious problems; that continues to avoid the issue and calls that game business or politics.

We live in a society where our leaders say they will do things they have no intention of doing, and where they do things they swear they did not do, and could never do.  It's impossible to live in an information society when those we are supposed to trust are themselves unreliable sources of information.  Such behavior is not only unbecoming in a political leader, and it's also destructive of community values.

Such behavior pollutes the public mind-space and misdirects the attention people give to what's happening.  Such behavior is a crime against us all.  It demands our attention and our energy.  We spend our resources fighting shadows, while the opportunity to do things we should be doing drifts away.  Betrayal by short sightedness and entrenched bias of those we chose to be our leaders is a burden we do not expect.

Of course it can be argued that every community gets the leadership it deserves.  I would argue that in every nation there is pressure for change that is driven by modern access to better information.  This will create an irresistible pressure for changes in business, in public institutions and in government.

Even in the USA where the internet is most readily available, newspapers, television stations and the political parties try to proceed as though people don't have access to good information.  Traditional media has massive influence still.  It's a megaphone for those who have held traditional forms of power.

Events leading up to the war in Iraq, show that propaganda is more powerful than good evidence.  Look beyond the news stories, at the conversations happening on the internet.  Among those who wanted to know, the evidence was clear and plain.  People are better informed than our leaders seem to understand. Even so, the social and political skills to make effective use of the information that was online couldn't be mustered.

Creating Communities of Practice. If any community is going to be an information society the people need a consistent identity.  Members need to remain involved over long time periods, the "community" needs to be stable.  People need to make an effort to know and remember each other.  Slowly, as a group interacts there will be a development of status in the group.  Members of good standing will be widely recognized.

Speaking Truth to Each Other. To improve professional practice we need commitment to a desirable outcome, good training supported by a community of practice.  The ability to recognize and correct mistakes, arises out of the ability to speak the truth to each other.

For the information society to be effective we need the leaders of the world to commit themselves to a process of choosing to act on the basis of information, even if that is difficult to do.  That would be easier if we and the others could speak the clear truth rather than some concocted "political truth".  Unless we can name the problem, unless the community has quality data and real knowledge they can't begin to form valid opinions.

Secondly we need as many people as possible with a good education, and also the ability to collect and share accurate data.  If more citizens are information aware effective political action should be possible.  People need a certain amount of self confidence and self belief before they are happy to make public statement on something as wide open to public access as the internet.

Finally everyone in any "knowledge society", the public, civil servants and the political classes need legal protection so that people are encouraged to speak the truth.  Where mistakes have been identified we must be able to admit those mistakes.  Where the truth is hidden and where failures are denied, the system gets forced into a cycle of repeated error that compounds the injustice and the pain.

Choosing a Future

Encouraging widespread use of the Internet in a community is a commitment to a process where the outcome is uncertain.  Who can tell what people making free choices will choose to do? Will they use their access rights to become terrorists or criminals or to trade pornographic images or to encourage a rebellion? They might just do that.

Of course authorities are uncomfortable with that notion.  But far more likely people will try to learn about things that interest them, they will improve their language skills, they will learn about other people, they will learn some technical things, they will learn some things they can use and apply in their daily lives.  If there is some reason to have hope for a better future there is every reason for people to make the best use of the Internet.

Surely in every country the social connection and goodwill toward each other, the desire to sustain a community in which people to have hope for the future is a massive positive force that needs to be enabled to improve the future.

Media V Peer to Peer Conversations

Peer to peer networks are distinctly different from traditional media.  There is a message, but there is also a possibility of effective reply.  Traditional media like television, radio and newspapers don't engage their audience as strongly.  People using traditional media tend to passively attend to the message.  They may not be well informed at all. 

Sadly to be connected to modern media is to become a target for propaganda.  Hence the plea for freedom of personal peer to peer communication, in every country.  Let people learn about the world from each other.  If my friend tries to indoctrinate me with some propaganda he ceases to be my friend.  Businesses or governments may chose to "spin" the truth, but my friends never do.

Here's a contrast.  Newspapers and television stations, particularly in the USA but also across the world were very happy to broadcast the calls of GW Bush and Tony Blair for a war against Iraq.  They accepted the propaganda without question and became willing accomplices in the disinformation process that was occurring.

On the other hand at the BBC, one Andrew Gilligan told the world that the government had "sexed up" the intelligence about Iraq.  His report was wrong in some very minor detail and he lost his job.  A highly respected British scientist, Dr David Kelly, who had been involved in Iraq, told more of the truth than he was expected to utter, at an inquiry.

The governments case for war was tarnished and Kelly was attacked and hounded by the government, which made his name public.  Distressed, Dr Kelly apparently took his own life.  An enquiry by Lord Hutton blamed the BBC.  Because of political pressure the Director General of the BBC was forced to resign.

In the peer to peer world of the internet, while there was strong debate, the sort of misrepresentation that was occurring in the mainstream media wasn't generally being accepted.  Kelly was seen as a truth teller.  Andrew Gilligan was seen as over-enthusiastic but doing his best ot get an important story out.  Lord Hutton as the trusted peer who would deliver a whitewash to protect his political masters.  The BBC as another unfortunate victim of bad public process.

In Russia during May, 2005, there was a Social Forum, modeled on the events of the same name held in Brazil, India and many other countries in the last few years.  There was no official support for this forum.  There was no money for it.  The fact that it was to happen wasn't reported in the newspapers or on television.

It was organized peer to peer across the internet, and 1000 people turned up.  They had all sorts of problems.  Apparently, they couldn't agree among themselves, but it's not any wonder.  The organization that over time that might make general agreements possible hasn't had a chance to develop.

Recognition of Information Workers

Information workers "learn their jobs" in a very real way.  For this reason one information worker cannot be replaced by another with the same result.  Both the information workers and the people who employ them are trapped by their existing belief structures.  These structures limit the scope of legitimate questions and the data sources one might consider to be valid.

It may be difficult to understand what an information worker is doing.  It may also be difficult to appreciate why an information worker comes to accept a particular "truth" if one has not taken the same journey.

For this reason information workers are subject to the Martin Luther principle, their expertise may lead them to conclusions their superiors do not yet share.  As Martin Luther discovered, that is a dangerous situation.  Both local and international law should recognize this potential problem and offer some protection to information workers who in the process of doing their jobs honestly and well develop a view contrary to their employers.

Take for instance Dr Joseph Massad of Columbia University.  He teaches a course in Middle Eastern Studies, and one of the topics is the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people.  This course has history as it's focus, it's not new.

But this year, 2005, a small group of students complained claiming that Massad was adopting a strong stance against Israel's action and policy position.  They demanded his dismissal, they got the story in the main newspapers and they put huge pressure on the University to relieve Dr Massad of his job. 

In a certain Southern State University, the elected University Council has decided that the teaching of geology and evolution will be discontinued because the prevailing theories in those subjects are anti-biblical.  Several staff will lose their positions because of this decision. 

Information Work

Artists and knowledge workers can have a lot in common.  When you are working with lots of data, nobody can be sure what secrets it might contain or what the output may be.  Artists create music, sculpture or paintings where there was nothing before.  New understanding is just like that.  There was nothing before and now we have this potentially useful or potentially destructive idea.

Information workers can only function in a climate where there is freedom to experiment and communicate and a high degree of trust and acceptance of differences.  You can see the problems this creates, in education, in religious matters and in the challenge to the way we organize our communities.

Even in science this has become a problem.  it's very hard to get funding to search for useful ideas, but if you can promise something somebody wants you might get support.  Sometimes the process of getting funding is corrupted by people who make ever more grandiose promises in the hope of getting a share of the cake.  (Ronald Reagan's Star Wars) This contributes to making a mockery of the ideals of the information society.

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