References to the shift in power to the consumer are now commonplace within the output of journalists, bloggers, analysts, researchers, futurists. I also speak about it all the time. And, if there is one dominant characteristic of web 2.0, it is that the fine line distinguishing actors from audience, sellers from buyers, politicians from voters is either blurring, disappearing or causing a complete role reversal. Banyak Film’s excellent documentary Us is Now, investigates some but not all these issues.
We have barely begun to appreciate the magnitude of this revolution, let alone the implications. Is transparency itself the most potent “agent of change?” Can transparency provide the protection and assurance that civil society needs to function effectively or will it unleash a wave of disillusion, a breakdown in trust, an unwillingness to delegate authority, a reluctance to step forward and exercise oth leadership and responsibility?
In the UK, two events – one recent and the other on-going – illustrate how difficult the next few years are going to be as we adjust to these new, transparent realities.
For the past 6 or more weeks, the UK media has more or less forgotten about the financial meltdown and the steady march of the recession deeper into all regions and sectors of the economy. It was as if the news of an empire in such rapid and indisputable decline was too much and the rabble needed to be entertained and their attention diverted. Romans sent gladiators and those pesky Christians to their deaths in the Colisseum and, just like in the “X factor” and “Britain’s Got Talent”, empowered the masses with the ability to determine the hapless fate of those in the ring by signing thumbs up or down ( now the rabble simply presses digits on their phones). So in sophisticated Britain, the so-called bastion of democracy and ordered, enlightened government, we send our elected representatives into the lion’s den.
For those living outside the UK, here’s a quick snapshot of events. A British reporter started to apply the Freedom of Information Act to investigate whether our political masters (MP=member of Parliament) were playing by the rules in claiming their living expenses. It turns out that many were “on the take”. It also turns out that the there was this “understanding” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) that the parliamentary authorities would turn a blind eye to all but the most excessive and fraudulent of claims, as expenses were viewed in Westminster as a way of compensating MPs who could not be awarded legitimate pay increases for political i.e. optical reasons. No “leader” had wanted to be seen to approve pay increases for MPs.
The Daily Telegraph found some sensational culprits and the story took on all the force of a juggernaut with MPs being named and shamed on a daily basis and generating revelations that ranged from bizarre to distasteful and back to ludicrous.
And so it became necessary to publish every expense claim of every parliamentarian for the past five years in order to assuage the justifiable anger of the British public. Clearly this was an auditing task too great for even the Daily Telegraph. So its competitor, The Guardian, saw an immediate opportunity to steal the baton of “Guardian of the Public Interest” by using web 2.0 technology and by crowdsourcing i.e. inviting the public to help with the analysis of nearly half a million documents online – see story here.
So what’s my concern? I’m all for public accountability and think it
makes absolute sense for politicians to have a clear set of hard and
fast rules regarding living expenses and be made to live by the rules.
But I’m not sure that we’re ready to devolve the responsibility for
fairness and wise judgement to a crowd – whose biases, motivations,
competencies remain completely unknown and where no safeguards for
slander and mischief have been set in place, let alone conceived. Even
prior to the Guardian’s intervention, the review by the media was
taking on the air of a witchhunt. Does crowdsourcing have the potential
to lead to an electronic form of mob lynching? Do we know what we’re
getting into here? Is it appropriate to be applying the brakes? Can we
ensure that transparency accords fairness.
Watching the Watchers – keeping an eye on the police
In response to the question that Plato asked a mere 2.5 thousand years ago and poet Juvenal posed in Latin a few hundred years later - “who guards the guardians?” or “who watches the watchers?” – a group calling themselves FIT watchers has been formed in the UK in response to the policy of police to film and photography anyone involved in a demonstration in case they become trouble makers. Climate change activists and other protestors are aware that that police have used this “evidence” to detain persons before a protest - a form of pre-emptive strike, I presume.
It is both ironic and highly disturbing to think that while we applaud the courage of men and women in Tehran fighting for their democratic rights and freedoms, individuals are been treated quite brutally by British bobbies and arrested simply for taking photos of the police taking photos. This article and very disturbing video, published in the Guardian today, reports on an incident in the UK recently, when protesters gathered to express outrage at the expansion of a major coal producing plant – Kingsnorth. In this case, the individuals weren’t arrested for protesting but simply observing and recording police behavior and conformity with the rules of engagement.
These two events are highly relevant to the topic “agents of change”. They remind us that change is rarely easy, often demands courage, results in bruises or worse, and can produce very contradictory and ironic outcomes. In the same week, a daily newspaper had engaged several thousand watchdogs from the public to scrutinize politician’s expense claims, while three individuals (heretofore anonymous members of the public) were arrested and roughed up by the police force that is supposed to protect them, simply for ensuring the police played according to the rules agreed by society.
In this case, the video, was not "user" generated content but had been recorded by the police themselves and obtained later. You'll see from the story that, while the women had to spend several distressing days in prison, all charges were dropped and the case is now under investigation.
So when you are watching the terrible scenes from Iran and thinking how lucky you are to be a free citizen, remember how fragile that freedom really is.