THE BLOG
14/11/2013 09:21 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

A Brave New World: The Revolutionary Potential of Modern Technologies?

The revolutionary impact of fast spreading digital and mobile phone technologies underpin an on-going conversation, yet to reach its conclusion. From the perspectives of non-violence and social development, optimists argue that a mass communication infrastructure enables campaigners to challenge the conditions of injustice and oppression. Activists can now use alternative spaces, outside state control, to call for collective action. On the other hand, sobering accounts point to the failure of digital participation tools to integrate the most vulnerable and excluded voices. Technologies are seen here to sustain and reflect inequalities in voice.

Both arguments have weight. For those of us wishing to understand the participatory nature of mass communication, we must ask ourselves the following questions: who uses such modern tools, for what purpose, and can we be confident that these tools reduce violence or poverty? Furthermore, If mass communication is the promise of modernity, the standards of accountability demands evidence that digital participation means all communities are heard - regardless of income and social or religious status. Against the heady heights of viral YouTube videos and rippling tweets, the real quest is to gauge whether the Internet challenges traditional forms of oppression or reproduces them.

This last question finds its roots in the revealing analysis of social media users in countries such as India. The uncomfortable fact of educational, urban and gender advantage is no truer when considering the demographics of Facebook users, India's second largest platform. 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. Furthermore, Internet penetration among India's rural population is just one-twelfth that of the urban population - a big concern when a large proportion of Indians live in the countryside.

This point is not made to denigrate the impact of online platforms. Yet far too often, the words "revolution" and "citizen journalism" are banded around, offering only hollow gestures of emancipation. Interestingly new buzzwords like the "Digital Revolution" find a historical parallel to the rise of Print Press as an instrument to mass communication. While Western Europe benefited from a proliferation in written word from the eighteenth century onwards, low literacy rates among the poorer classes meant this was often a privilege of education and income.

Furthermore simplistic statistical overviews of technology usage can be extremely misleading. One case in point: this year the International Telecommunication Unionannounced a staggering number of 6.8 billion mobile-cellular subscriptions, corresponding to a global penetration of 96%. Alarmingly, this figure overlooked a significant number of individuals with multiple sim cards. Furthermore by crudely suggesting a 96% penetration rate, the organisation projected a disingenuous account of mobile phones being used by nearly the entire global population.

With a nod to the optimists, there are indeed inspirational examples of Internet based activism. In particular, the sharply reduced costs of creating, organising, and participating in protest have demonstrated the reduced need for activists to be physically together in order to act together. Furthermore, victims of conflict can share their experiences anonymously, allowing them to undermine the self-serving narratives of economically or politically powerful groups. Albeit an increased use of sophisticated cyber surveillance technology is now making anonymity harder to achieve.

Take for example the "Oct 26 Driving Campaign" in Saudi Arabia. Here a growing movement of Saudi women have shared videos and pictures of themselves driving as part of their demand for greater gender equality. Furthermore, the women hosted a petition on their campaigning website, which received almost 16,000 signatures for women's right to drive. Evidence of their impact was clear when the website was hacked. Allegedly, religious leaders and pro-government supporters wanted to stall an increasingly confident movement of women by sabotaging their demands for justice. The point here is that this online platform allowed for anonymous participation, thus enabling many Saudi women to speak to an external audience. As a consequence, this strengthened a collective solidarity, with the view of increasing pressure on the repressive regime to reconsider their policies towards women.

An equally impressive application of technology has 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.

All in all, the picture is mixed. This intention is not to dampen the emancipatory vision of our modern times. The point is quite clearly this; we should not look to digital and mobile phone technologies to repair the injustices of our world. A culture of justice must underpin these tools should we wish to see a real revolution. Until then technologies will only serve to reproduce inequalities in voice - whether it be across conflicts, gender or religions - the choice is yours.