I spent last week with a bunch of 18-29 year olds from 24 African countries. Thats why I was not in my Seminar class. And like previous times, I have to make a post of where I was and what I did.
One hundred youths gathered at a remote getaway resort in the Kenyan plains called Lukenya in a week of fun-packed youth oriented activities, activism and intense lectures, education on the tenets of democracy, the values of governance and the truths that is associated with international criminal justice. The role of social media seems out of place within this discourse but it became the glue that cemented all of these topics together and crystallized it into a whole that would seem to define the shape of future societies.
To give a context, these youths were aspiring political leaders, community spokespeople, activists who have themselves commanded respect for their engaging community development work. They have a number of followers and followership akin to school student union leaderships – which in most African countries have tended to produce leaders that have become vocal in parliaments and governing counsels in most African countries and societies. Most of them use the Internet for traditional forms of communications – emails, social networking. A few have gone on to leverage the wealth of the Internet to run advocacy campaigns such as a consumer complaint network purely run on social networking platforms. Some of them have held companies accountable to quality services though these social networks and have gotten them to meet up with their consumer quality mission statements or corporate social responsibilities. Some are gathering support and wrenching youths out of militancy into a social network citizenry of sorts that would use alternative means to quell political violence and advance the causes of peace in war stricken countries.
The place of social media in the discourse on governance and democracies may seem totally alien and a new field to venture into, to the majority of some who have not quite appreciated the affordances that technology or social media plays in our societies as they have been defined today. It may have seemed out of place at the inception but it became the “real meat of the matter” when they paid attention, contributed and went on to put into practice some of the lessons they had learned only moments later. The fact remained, that though they were engaged in discussions on issues of democracies and good governance, there were little avenues to practically implement some of these knowledge. No one could, for instance, change a political agenda by marching the street or speaking up for or against an open referendum, or print an op-ed in a national daily, impact on governments, change any parliamentary debate, issue, or challenge any societal ill doing – locked away at the resort, at that particular moment. But, with the application of social media, they seemed to unlock a certain type of activism and use such as knew no bounds and could not be restrained within the walls of the camp venue. It was as if they had discovered a means that gave them far reaching arms, beyond their small communities, societies and even countries. They bonded with youths and made pacts that would extend the struggles that they were going through beyond the borders of their countries. That would begin to put their own governments in check. The long arms of technology was at hand to extend the vibrant discussions that these youths were having to the worlds beyond the resort – societies and their challenges that their governments (some repressive, others, democratic but badly managed) were exhibiting during that week. The clashes in Uganda were being recorded and responded to – they twittered and blogged about them. So was the “#EnoughIsEnough” march by youths into the Nigerian parliament closely watched and supported by a group that was removed from the core of these actions by distance. Distance could not separate their voice though as they tweeted, blogged and socially participated in activism that led to some of these campaigns becoming some of the top most user generated content discussions (hash tags) on microblogging sites.
The media, especially social media has a reach that defies normal forms. The Internet, the underlying media (of infrastructure) is the carrier of content – social media (of applications) that can be applied with relevance to situations. In fact the affordance of social media goes beyond the social nature for which they were initial defined. While translating from the physical, face-to-face social relationships to an online space must have been the original intentions of the creators of social media networking platforms like facebook, twitter and flickr, their “action potential” goes beyond these to assembling like minded youths towards advancing a cause that they hold very dear and important to them and for general societal good.
It is not however, the affordances of media that I intend to highlight in this post. Nor the role that it plays in defining democracies, now and in the future. It is the discourse on the future of the Internet to the African youth that resonated more with me and I thought it would be useful to share some of this discussion with my class.
Scenarios have been used to describe any future state. It is not uncommon to hear “the best case” or “worse case scenario” as prefaces to certain decisions that need to be taken or made. The process of scenarios is critical, technical, intense, based on facts and information, historic while at the same time advancing of future trends. Scenarios are a depiction of the future based on carefully arranged and nicely aligned set of facts. Environmentalist and oil drilling companies decide to advance their causes because of the state of the scenario that they may have created based on the facts that may have in their possession. So the future scenario of immense heat wave in summer and extremely unbearable cold Winnipegy winters are future scenarios that may come from trends gleaned from data from the past. These warnings characterize global warming campaigns or the quest for green societies. Oil companies will prospect and drill based on the mouth watering future prospect of millions of barrels of oils. It wont be worth their while if the worse case scenario does not, in the least, cover their cost of operation with some mouth watering revenue. Futures scenarios are relevant for those seeking to preserve the future environment while at the same time equally important for those who may be putting fossil fuel into the hands of citizens.
Film makers use scenarios to project into the future and create pictures that get us all wondering what that future might actually look like. The early directors of these techniques were for franchises such as “Back to the Future, (1985)” which depicted the use of time machines to project man (the characters) and our thinking (the audiences/viewers) into the future. Since then, there have been a barrage of sci fi movies such as Bruce Willis in the 5th Element, (1998) or Surrogates (2009), Will Smith’s, I robot (2004), Robo Cop (Sylvester Stallone) , etc. Guy Maddin may have used scenarios thinking to project into what Winnipeg was like in his movie, My Winnipeg. The frozen horse heads or other myths were, for instance, a “future” Madden must have projected “back” into. While he talked about it like history, it depicts a present and future Winnipeg that we cannot leave for the love of it. Madden must have retrogressively looked forward into the past.
The use of technology in these futures thinking is perhaps the only way that such scenarios can be arrived at. The world sees the role of technology as being an integral part of the future. More recent movies have resulted in the creation of cyborgs – man machines – with the emotions of men but the intelligence of computers (Surrogates, 2009). The criss cross of unintended consequences usually characterize these movies. The machines begin to develop certain tendencies that they were not initially designed to portray. The use of technology in these characters or even their use in creating graphical destructions of immense proportions, flying automobiles and robot propelled humans meandering through spaghetti like streets and roads hanging in vacuums; and floating homes with no known addresses or abyss like skyscrapers with the occasional plunge to the lower floors that seem to never end, makes us wander how much technology would influence our future, our thinking, our way of life and how we would relate with ourselves in this future. Technology has been able to allow us to expand and project our thinking way past our present.
In a similar fashion, social media has created opportunities for application developers to extend and project several “dormant” and otherwise plain platforms into more relevant tools. Social networks offers similar affordances. The opening of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) have allowed codes to be developed that have extended the use of the original intention of these tools. Take facebook for instance, there are thousands of applications that have been developed to extend the powers of the social networking platform. Programs ranging from “mafia wars” to health management applications have been created. And the possibilities continue to increase.
So when these youths thought about the affordances of these tools to extend the reach of their campaigns for better societies, it immediately sat with them and their causes. It was not long before they began applying some of them to their struggles.
But it is not these sci fi movies or the specific affordances of social media tools and their futures that interested these youths. Indeed they play some roles in defining how societies may be characterized in the future and the role that they will play in these societies. This is because some of the depictions of sci fi movies are far too extreme for our presently conscious minds to fathom. They, in actual fact do not incite some of our critical analysis but rather appeal to our fantasies and our hunger for entertainment. And social media, well, we use them as they evolve. However, futures scenarios thinking seemed to immediately catch a certain interest with them. And rightly so.
Futures scenarios thinking incites critical analysis. It demands a systematic step by step analysis of trends and an engaging process that should bring together the “future” as it should be seen through the eyes of different persons and through different contexts. Movies depict times that are usually well ahead of our abilities to reasonably project. 20 – 50 years are not uncommon future years to project in them. So we are left to the imagination of the script writer and the movie director and not to our common judgments or our systematic application of trends, facts and societal happenings to more realistic and reasonable futures which perhaps could only safely and more accurately be projected 5-10 years ahead.
The future of the Internet became a discussion that appealed to these youths and I will share with you what they thought it would be like by 2015. Five years seems to be a reasonable period to project into. We may not see flying cars by then but we may see an Internet that totally controls our lives. One that has become an extension of our daily existence. It will define how we relate to people. It may also define how we are governed. And it is best to know what that future will be like so we can take certain steps to avoid those aspects of it that may be detrimental to us while advancing the ones we think may be useful in shaping a common, free, open and democratic society of the future, if we can. That, usually, are the reasons for scenarios.
These youths thought there could be four possible scenarios in the African Internet future:
1.A fully government governed, 100% government regulated Internet society
2.A completely unregulated Internet
3.An Internet Commons scenario
4.An elitist, but liberalized, Internet scenario.
The themes seemed to tend towards governance and democracies and logically so as they all come from politically motivated backgrounds. What appeals to me mostly was the application of technology to these themes – the relevance of technology to the various futures, and the roles that youths will play in these spaces.
So, laid out in a spectrum, two extremes emerge; the “commons” being the best future scenario and the chaotic and “completely unregulated” Internet being the least wanted scenario. For the youths, it was not so much the impact that technology would have on their lives that was the most profound in the discussions that ensued but mostly the debate on why and how they cannot completely let go of their traditional lifestyle, societal values, integrity, culture, society to a fully dominated futures Internet scenarios. The debate split the house on that argument. It was interesting to see that the most exciting futures of the Internet should be one in which humans retain a certain level of control of its evolution. One in which they can determine how it works for them and in which, like a tap, they can shut off when it begins to work against them. They see the values it provides to governance and education but they would still like to retain books to read offline. They are conscious that an elitist Internet futures scenario may arise from an Internet that is currently out of the reach of millions of African youths. And though recognizing the Internet, and its affordance for communication and activism, transparency and accountability may not be the most far reaching tool for a commons society in five years.
So, why is this relevant? I think the African youth is not so different from the Canadian youth or any youth, globally. The same fears resonate with them. The fear that they may lose control of the future. The fear that they may have their lives governed by technology.