digital media

Ordering our outrage

It has been difficult to avoid succumbing to the atmosphere of anger and despair that has developed in the wake of the havoc wreaked by Typhoon Yolanda, internationally known as Typhoon Haiyan, especially when, by most accounts, relief and rescue operations led by the present administration have been and continue to be slow while thousands of people starve, sicken, suffer, and die in the devastated areas of Visayas. The frustration and resentment have been particularly pronounced among users of social media, who, prior to the current crisis, had already been up in arms for weeks on end over the Priority Assistance Development Fund (PDAF) scam involving several legislators and its most prominent—thus, most hated—face, businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, and had more recently been in anguish because of the effects of the 7.2–magnitude earthquake that had hit Bohol, Cebu, and their neighboring provinces.

Even after we had heard from our relatives in Kalibo, Aklan, which, though not as badly ravaged as other places, has certainly seen its share of death and destruction, I continue to feel weighed down by elemental helplessness, and it has been tempting to yield to the impulse to contribute to the rapidly rising tide of recriminations that I have observed among my colleagues, friends, and other contacts. There can, after all, be no denying that the response to Yolanda so far signals immense, perhaps criminal, failures on the part of the government, both at the local and national levels, in terms of disaster risk reduction, mitigation, and management, and therefore scrutiny and censure are more than called for. (In line with this, I would particularly like to know whether charges of treason would prosper against local officials who, despite being safe and sound, chose not to reach out to their constituents, but to ensconce themselves in Manila and issue statements to the press.)

The problem with social media, however, is that it can perpetuate a vicious cycle of validation rather than allow for catharsis: when we vent in Twitter, Facebook, or similar platforms, there is a distinct possibility that our fury and despondency may not drain away to create a space for clear, intelligent thought, or convert itself into energy for deliberate, effective action. Instead, it may simply go round and round and round, accumulating intensity and power while destroying our ability to ask ourselves what has so provoked our emotions and to consider if our reactions are still commensurate to the matter at hand. I do not wish to suggest that indignation cannot be productive—a cursory survey of our history as a people would prove otherwise quite easily—but any expression of such ought, I believe, to be accompanied by a strong sense of proportion, of responsibility: the best instances of criticism contain within them not only an invitation to dialogue, but also a commitment to it. Engaging in vituperation helps nothing and no one, as this reduces us to mere cogs in a mindless machine of rage.

If we are to converse on Yolanda and its aftermath in a manner that is meaningful and can lead to vastly improved disaster response in the future, I suggest that we begin with the following considerations:

First: Yolanda was one of the most powerful typhoons in the recorded history of the world—the fourth strongest, in fact, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii. While the Philippines is battered by about 15 to 20 typhoons each year, it does not seem reasonable to suggest that this has given us sufficient experience to face a monstrous weather event like Yolanda, which had one-minute sustained winds of 315 km/h, a speed that would enable one to traverse a traffic-free EDSA from end to end in less than five minutes. Prior to November 8, when it first made landfall in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, it is difficult to imagine any individual or institution being able to extrapolate from available data and set a baseline for preparations that would be good enough. How does one prepare a nation for a natural disaster of this magnitude?

The initial plans that had been made—and it must be acknowledged that plans were in place—were based on assumptions that Yolanda, precisely because it was so unprecedented, easily blasted, ripped apart and destroyed. The excruciatingly sluggish pace of the response is not necessarily a function of ineptitude, but it is definitely a function of lack of information: how can one plan when one does not know the reality on the ground? And how can one know what is out there when communication lines, roads, bridges, seaports, and airports are out of commission, wrecked, or otherwise unusable owing to safety and security concerns? Such situation has begun to be addressed, but repair and recovery work takes time. Anecdotal information may come in from several sources, but these reports still need to be collated, arranged, and made sense of from a broader perspective to facilitate the conduct of aid that is as efficient as can be, in light of prevailing constraints.

Second: Much of the rage that I have seen (hardly representative, admittedly) appears to be based on the heavily sensationalized—or, to use John Crowley‘s term, “catastrophized“—stories and images of agony that the media, especially parachute journalists like CNN celebrity anchor Anderson Cooper, can capture: as of this writing, various news entities have collectively served up seven days of post-apocalyptic poverty porn for the combination of the 24-hour news cycle and Web 2.0 that has proven so menacing to journalism and so soporific to the general public. The latter was something that cultural critic Neil Postman had warned about as early as 1985, in his book against television, Amusing Ourselves to Death:

In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action. Of course, in any communication environment, input (what one is informed about) always exceeds output (the possibilities of action based on information). But the situation created by telegraphy, then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote. For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.

Cooper et al. may not be malicious—a contentious point that I will leave on the table for now—but that does not mean they are not guilty of imperial and imperious condescension: a number of commentaries, academic and popular, have underscored the problematic, even racist, rhetoric of Western media when their reporters cover Third World events, as in the case of the 2010 earthquake that struck the Carribean nation of Haiti. Here, for instance, is Rebecca Solnit on the coverage of that specific tragedy:

The belief that people in disaster (particularly poor and nonwhite people) are cattle or animals or just crazy and untrustworthy regularly justifies spending far too much energy and far too many resources on control — the American military calls it “security” — rather than relief. A British-accented voiceover on CNN calls people sprinting to where supplies are being dumped from a helicopter a “stampede” and adds that this delivery “risks sparking chaos.” The chaos already exists, and you can’t blame it on these people desperate for food and water. Or you can, and in doing so help convince your audience that they’re unworthy and untrustworthy.

As well, it may be useful to remember that no less than the United States of America hardly seemed like the global superpower it styles itself to be following Hurricane Katrina, as evidenced by this timeline, or by this clip, in which Cooper interviews Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu:

(None of the foregoing, by the way, should not be understood as a tacit defense of broadcaster Korina Sanchez, who I understand has been pitted against Cooper in many discussions given her reaction to the coverage of CNN. As far as I am concerned, Sanchez, given that she is the wife of Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, should not be associated with any outfit that purports to report news.)

Third: Whenever we are moved to slam the government, we must remind ourselves that “government” is not a faceless, monolithic entity or an arena populated entirely by corrupt, greedy, and incompetent officials who are hell-bent on looking after their interests, preserving their prerogatives, and perpetuating their political careers at the expense of lives.

The government is also made up of the tired, hungry, overworked, and utterly courageous police officers, soldiers, doctors, nurses, drivers, pilots, clerks, technicians, engineers, and aid workers who are contributing to the relief effort. The government is also made made up of people who have lost their possessions, their homes, their relatives, and their friends to Yolanda, and yet they are out there in Eastern Visayas, sifting through the ruins of various cities, towns, and barangays, to save who and what they can. The government is also made up of people who need to know that we completely support what they are doing, and that our appreciation and gratitude for their vital work are boundless.

Finally, the government is also made up of us—we who are, in ways large and small, inextricably bound to and complicit with the system as it exists, and if said system needs to be renovated, refurbished, or razed to the ground so as to establish a better one, then this could be the moment to seize and to shape, not by way of ire-driven status updates, but by sustained, collaborative action beyond the screen, in the real world for which the digital one, for all its attractions, will always be a poor substitute.

(This has been cross-posted from Random Salt.)

On Youth and Social Media: A Deck of Practical LOLcats

Fresh Look: The Role of Youth in Nation Building
Public Relations Student Society of the Philippines
August 29, 2012, 1:00-4:00PM
NTTC-HP Auditorium
University of the Philippines Manila

On Youth and Social Media: A Deck of Practical LOLcats

[SLIDE 1] Members and officers of the Public Relations Student Society of the Philippines, fellow speakers, students, teachers, and friends, good afternoon.

I’m from The Pro Pinoy Project, and we run a commentary web site that we envision to be a kind of global community center for all things Pinoy. I’ve been asked to speak a bit about “how the youth is utilizing social media […] in nation-building and how it is used as a medium to promote nation-building in social youth”. As the title of my presentation indicates, I’ve decided to structure my talk today around a series of image macros that are called LOLcats, which ought to be familiar to you. For the benefit of those who might not be, a LOLcat [SLIDE 2] is a picture of a cat accompanied by text that is usually wrong in terms of grammar and spelling—at least in standard English. In kitty English, which has its own rules too, the caption is perfectly correct.

Lest you be tempted to not take any of this seriously, LOLcats have already become the subject of critical academic attention in the form of a dissertation submitted to the London School of Economics. Media planner Kate Miltner, who wrote the study as part of the requirements for a Master of Science degree in Media and Communications, says, “Even if LOLCats were just a collection of silly cat pictures, they would have value simply because they, as [one of my study participants] said, make life easier. [SLIDE 3] But, as this study has shown, LOLCats are much more than that. They are a venue through which people express their emotions, connect to their loved ones, and define group identity. This not only gives them value; it makes them important.”

According to Miltner, the LOLcat is widely considered to be the “archetypal Internet meme”, and its enduring appeal, if nothing else, makes it remarkable, considering how short-lived its siblings tend to be. The LOLcat has been around for nearly a decade, and its origin can be traced at least as far back to the 2005 tradition of “Caturday” that was propagated by users of the imageboard 4Chan, the source of numerous other Internet memes. The main idea that I would like to put across with my use of LOLcats today is that the Internet functions as both a condition and a limit for human ingenuity, especially when we consider the Philippine social media situation—an idea that I will build on over the course of this presentation by making six key points. I don’t imagine that any of them will be especially original or surprising, but there is value to be had in reminding ourselves from time to time about what we already know—even, perhaps especially, the patently obvious.

[SLIDE 4]

1.    The social mediascape is still a small world.

One of the more exciting and disturbing effects of social media is how it has flattened the world. Politicians, bureaucrats, civil society leaders, advocates, journalists, celebrities, and organizations are now all as easy to reach as one’s friends and relatives, if not easier. The potential significance of social media conversations lies precisely in this unprecedented level of access to highly influential and powerful people. After all, if you manage to catch the attention of enough of them, you can speed up the dissemination of crucial information to the right parties, which could then have the effect of ensuring that said information will be acted upon. An example would be the coordination of rescue and relief operations during the recent flooding brought about by the monsoon rains—the nameless weather phenomenon that brought such devastation to several parts of the country earlier this month. If you were on Twitter or Facebook during this time, then you probably noticed a sort of purposive frenzy in the sharing of hotline numbers, the use of unified hashtags, the classification of calls for help into topical databases, and the creation of specialized maps, all made possible through the efforts of both public figures and ordinary citizens.

We must not be misled, however: Internet users in the Philippines make up less than a third of the entire population, are mostly young and concentrated in urban centers, and tend to be from the middle and upper classes. A majority of these users don’t even have private access to the Internet—the Internet café is still the place from which they are able to enter cyberspace. The circumstances are evolving, of course, but there are structural limitations. The costs of electricity, of computer hardware and software, and of computer literacy, among others, mean that, insofar as social media are concerned, there are at least 63 million Filipinos whose needs and dreams, which may be vastly different from ours, are not being heard, much less considered. Philippine society in general is seamed and raddled with various inequities, and this includes what has been referred to as the digital divide.

[SLIDE 5]

2.    Social networking sites and blogs, compared to other forms of media, do not enjoy high levels of public trust.

Because few have access to the Internet, the low levels of public trust accorded to social networking sites and blogs shouldn’t be unexpected. It’s worth adding that it’s through these two channels that a lot of misleading data tends to spread. While social media may be democratized media, the absence of a central authority and the lack of a system—not to mention the will—for verification, fosters an information ecology that is particularly hospitable to misquotations, distortions, rumors, and downright false claims. For instance, during the same week or so of monsoon rains that I mentioned earlier, a number of people spread around photographs of the destruction caused by Ondoy in 2009 without identifying them as such. There are also a number of bloggers who are attempting to practice what is called “citizen journalism”, but, as with mainstream media, clear editorial guidelines and a basic sense of responsibility for the sorts of stories that are published are fundamental to credibility.

[SLIDE 6]

3.    The majority of people online are there to seek out entertainment.

Music, videos, and images are the types of content that are preferred by most Internet users—they’re not thinking so much about nation-building as about how cute, or funny, or weird, this cat is. (The sheer preponderance of pictures and clips featuring adorable animals on the Internet—I’m partial to pandas myself—sometimes makes me wish that such materials had some sort of miraculous, cancer-curing, poverty-eliminating, world-saving power.) Factor in the whole kit and caboodle of content designed chiefly to amuse, such as remixes, covers, parodies, and yes, memes, and it’s not hard to conclude that human beings have way too much time on their hands than they know how to spend productively—some of them, anyway. Further militating against the creation and popularization of serious, finely nuanced, and well-researched content are the difficulty of reading on a computer and a seeming aversion among Internet users to posts that can’t easily be skimmed over or summed up in a glance, especially long texts.

[SLIDE 7]

4.    The use of social media may tend to hamper empathy and critical thought.

Social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter can give rise to the impression that one is the center of a thoroughly customizable universe, made up of mechanisms and populated by beings that have no other purpose than to bend to one’s will. After all, it’s a ridiculously simple matter to make or unmake relationships, especially ones begun online. These same platforms also induce many to perform their lives with a degree of constancy and self-consciousness never before seen in the human story. A few psychological studies have suggested that there could be a connection between the use of social media and increased self-absorption, exhibitionism, and narcissism, and there is at least anecdotal evidence to support such a view: consider, for example, the recent outpouring of idiotic, savage, and violent hatred against Robert Blair Carabuena, the motorist who slapped MMDA traffic enforcer Saturnino Fabros over the course of a heated argument. Carabuena was clearly in the wrong, but that doesn’t justify the calls for his death that certain netizens made and, sadly, continue to make.

[SLIDE 8]

5.    A social media conversation doesn’t just need voices—it needs value.

Because social media platforms perpetually invite us to broadcast to the world at large what we’re thinking and doing, we may feel compelled or entitled—perhaps both—to crank out opinions on every possible topic and issue as quickly as we can. That doesn’t mean we should give in to the impulse. As exhilarating as rapid-fire exchanges might be, a good number of social media conversations—assuming they can even be called that—are about as useless as a floppy disk at a file-sharing party, if not more, because the participants are poorly informed or insufficiently open-minded, particularly when the discussions revolve around public affairs. Just because we enjoy freedom of expression doesn’t mean we should weigh in on absolutely everything, as doing so could merely contribute to the propagation of ignorance and the lowering of the level of discourse. The debate over the Reproductive Health Bill, for instance, is not helped by the extreme positions taken by certain factions within the groups that are for and against the controversial piece of legislation—in lots of places online, what debate there may be comes in the form of shouting matches in which the opponents regularly trade barbs and taunts.

[SLIDE 9]

6.    We cannot change a world that we do not live in.

While social media could eventually become indispensable to disaster response here at home, and have proven beneficial to diverse movements for change all over the planet, whatever information we’re able to access as a result of these tools is worthless unless we act upon it in the much larger realm beyond the screen. It is helpful to look back at the lives of our national heroes, whom we paid tribute to last Monday, or that of recently departed Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Jesse Robredo, whose tragic death we still mourn, and bear in mind that they were able to accomplish great things without the technologies that we are privileged to enjoy today.

I would also like to emphasize that we are human beings, not bits of data, and that we should strenuously resist any and all attempts to reduce our selves and our relationships to crude arrangements of bios and profiles, likes and favorites, followers and friends. “Only connect” is the famous epigraph with which the British writer E. M. Forster opens his masterful novel Howards End, but of course he did not mean “Only add friend” or “Only follow”. If we are interested in transforming lives for the better, in remaking society in the image of our highest ideals, in building a nation upon a bedrock of freedom, justice, and peace, then we must learn to connect with, which is to say live in, the world, which brims with more difficulty, complexity, and mystery than can ever be domesticated and mediated by any device, no matter how wondrous, sophisticated, or advanced.

Thank you.

Some notes on digitizing social change

What follows is a modified version of a talk that I, on behalf of The Pro Pinoy Project, delivered last 20 February 2012 at Saint Louis University, Baguio City, as one of the resource speakers for the Digital Technology for Social Change: Creating Impact in a Networked Society seminar series, a project of the British Council Philippines.

My fellow speakers were Niña Terol-Zialcita, Micheline Rama, and JP Alipio. Members of the British Council Global Changemakers network, namely Jecel CensoroJoseph MansillaAnna Oposa, Dwight Ronan, and Ponce Samaniego, also talked about their respective advocacy projects.

Some Notes on Digitizing Social Change

Good morning. Thank you to the British Council Philippines and Saint Louis University for having me here, and to all the participants for the gift of your presence—or your tele-presence, for those of you watching the live stream of this session.

That the Internet has brought about, and will continue to bring about, wide and sweeping changes all over the planet would appear to be a matter already beyond question. In 2006, the print edition of TIME’s annual Person of the Year issue bore a shiny, reflective panel on its cover—the reason being that the Person of the Year was “You”. Lev Grossman, explaining the choice, wrote that one of the stories of 2006 was a “story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes”.

Grossman was referring to the dramatic impact brought about by Web 2.0, an umbrella term, that, following Prashant Sharma, covers online services that were built to facilitate interactive information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design, crowd-sourcing, and collaboration. And while Grossman did warn against romanticizing Web 2.0—despairing at, among other things, the hatred and the lack of spelling skills that many of its users seemed to have in abundance—he nevertheless asserted that it gave rise to the “opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician, great man to great man, but citizen to citizen, person to person”.

Regardless of whether “You” was the right pick, it is worth pointing out that succeeding Person of the Year issues saw TIME recognizing people who, without the Internet, might not have otherwise been thus acknowledged. In 2008, the magazine selected Barack Obama, whose successful campaign to be the President of the United States of America was driven in no insignificant way by online support. In 2010, the recognition went to Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of an immensely popular social networking company—you may have heard of it: it’s called Facebook, and it recently filed for an initial public offering (IPO) worth USD5 billion. Last year, TIME chose “The Protester” in view of the massive demonstrations that—with the help of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, among other tools—were organized and still roil across the globe: in Europe and North America, in the Middle East and North Africa.

Given the theme of this seminar series—“Digital Media for Social Change: Creating Impact in a Networked Society”—it might be the aforementioned protests that spring to mind when we, with an eye to our own history of revolutions, try to imagine what can be done in the Philippines today. Using digital media, can we bring about positive social change? Or—to paraphrase from the preamble of our Constitution, a document which is supposed to be an expression of our collective will as the sovereign Filipino people—using digital media, can we promote the common good? Conserve and develop our patrimony? Share and enjoy the blessings of independence and democracy? Establish a regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace?

Yes. Yes, of course. If I didn’t believe that, I would never have come before you to speak at this forum. (Incidentally, the girl in the picture has “optimistic” written across her hand in Arabic.) And yet the previous questions were more than merely rhetorical ones. Social change must always be understood as taking place within specific constraints, and especially so when we seek change by digital means in these islands. Such constraints cannot simply be conquered or transcended by sheer force of will—they form part of the unavoidable “social thickness” that must be lived through and negotiated with.

It hardly needs saying that I am not a Luddite: I own a mobile phone, a laptop computer, and an e-reading device; I have been a user of the Internet since the late 1990s, a time when a connection speed of 56 kilobytes per second—torturously slow by contemporary standards—was considered acceptable; I have been blogging intermittently since 2001, starting with Blogger.com, when it hadn’t yet been acquired by Google; and I spend several hours a day online chatting with friends, looking at pictures, watching videos, reading articles, and broadcasting banalities via social media platforms.

My stance as regards the Internet, however, is principally a cautious one. I am wary, even skeptical, of the various claims that are being made for it, verging as some of these claims do on what I would call “digital evangelism”: a zealous, fanatical conviction in the transformative power of digital technology in general, and the Internet in particular.  We must remember that the Internet is a relatively new development in the human story, and while many a commentator has declared that it will rival and eventually dwarf the printing press in terms of cultural impact, much of its potential, particularly in the Philippines, remains exactly that: potential. Digital change-makers who lose sight of this risk being engulfed by narcissistic self-regard.

All the same, you would not be ill-advised to take my words—as the fantasy writer George R. R. Martin might put it—well-salted. It may interest you to know that one of the first skeptics about technology was Socrates.  In Phaedrus, the Greek philosopher tells his titular interlocutor a story about the Egyptian god Theuth, who is credited with the invention of arithmetic, calculation, geometry, astronomy, draughts, dice, and, most importantly, the use of letters, or a system of writing. Theuth, desiring to make these inventions available for other Egyptians to use and benefit from, pays a visit to another god, Thamus, who is king over all Egypt, to show and explain each of the things that he has made. When they come to the letters, Theuth says that writing “will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit”.

Thamus replies with a gentle rebuke: “O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Socrates was not completely wrong about writing—certainly it had some of the effects on knowledge and memory that he had feared—but he could not have foreseen this: the world that the written word had made possible, as well as its attendant wonders, not least of which is our ability to revisit his thoughts, precisely because they had been written down by Plato.

The first part of my presentation is derived from an ongoing, if not entirely systematic, process of research into and reflection upon digital media and the ways by which it is reshaping our lives and labors, and my primary objective here is to raise to the surface questions and concerns that I hope will help all of us to gain a greater awareness of the context that we inhabit, and a better appreciation of the possibilities for action. The second part of my presentation deals with The Pro Pinoy Project, the organization that I represent, and some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for what may be called “participatory journalism”.

I will begin by drawing up a map of the local digital mediascape. The nature of a map is such that it is necessarily incomplete, and mine is a very partial one that focuses on the Internet, but I hope it will be sufficiently illustrative of some of the issues and limits that we must contend with.

Let’s talk about infrastructure.

Sometime last year, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) released a publication via its web site called Measuring the Information Society 2011, which features two tools that are used to monitor developments in information and communication technology (ICT) worldwide: first, the ICT Development Index, which tracks indictors pertaining to ICT access, use, and skills in a given economy, and then rates that economy on a scale of one to ten; and second, the ICT Price Basket, which considers the costs of fixed-telephone, mobile-cellular, and fixed-broadband Internet services vis-à-vis the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita of a given economy.

 According to the latest findings by the ITU, how did the Philippines fare? With regard to the ICT Development Index, our country got 3.22 out of 10, ranking 16th out of the 27 economies classified as belonging to the Asia and the Pacific region, and 92nd out of all the 152 economies that had been included in the study. As for the ICT Price Basket, the ITU computed that the composite cost of ICT services in the Philippines was about 9.2% of the per capita GNI, based on a GNI of USD2,050. As a point of comparison, consider that the top 28 countries included in the study have composite costs of less than 1% of the per capita GNI.

The situation is not much better for the global majority.  As the ITU remarked, “Despite […] encouraging trends, as at end 2010, some 70% of the world’s population (and almost 80% of the developing countries’ population) were not yet using the Internet, and even fewer via a broadband connection.”

 Another study of interest that came out online the year before is the Global Information Technology Report 2010-2011, which is a collaborative effort between the World Economic Forum and INSEAD. The report measures the degree to which countries are leveraging ICT for enhanced competitiveness using the Networked Readiness Index (NRI), which uses a scale of one to seven. The NRI is composed of three sub-indices, and each of these sub-indices is calculated using a particular set of indicators.

The overall networked readiness of our country is 3.6 out of 7, with a rank of 68th out of 138 economies. For the Environment Sub-index, which gauges the market environment, the political and regulatory environment, and the infrastructure environment of a given economy with reference to innovation and ICT development, we got 3.5 out of 7, ranking 94th. For the Readiness Sub-index, which contemplates the readiness of individuals, businesses, and governments to use technology, especially ICT, in their day-to-day activities and operations, we got 3.9 out of 7, ranking 99th. For the Usage Sub-index, which measures the actual ICT usage by the main social sectors of an economy, we got 3.3 out of 7, ranking 71st.

At the risk of oversimplifying, what these two reports tell us is something that we may already suspect, if not know: the Internet in the Philippines is poorly developed and very expensive.

The Global Information Technology Report also includes a number of papers from contributors, including a team from management consulting firm Booz & Company.  Entitled, “Building Communities around Digital Highways”, the authors, led by Karim Sabbagh, make a case for the need for digital highways, which they define as “nationwide high-speed broadband enabled by a combination of fixed as well as wireless networks”, and evaluate their current state. They argue that, “[a]ccelerating the deployment of digital highways and deriving their full benefits […] requires fundamental changes in vision and action throughout the entire broadband ecosystem”, which means that policymakers, operators, device manufacturers, application developers, and other stakeholders should be actively involved in what they call the “broadband ecosystem” . Furthermore, those in the broadband ecosystem must also reach out and collaborate actively with adjacent ecosystems, such as health care, education, and energy, in order to help them maximize digital highways and the advantages these highways can offer each sector.

Obviously, one entity with an important role to play in establishing the broadband ecosystem is our government , so it bears asking what sort of “vision and action” we can expect from it. I will go over three pertinent aspects of the government framework for the Internet.

Last June 29, 2011, the Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT), headed by chairman Ivan John Uy, launched the Philippine Digital Strategy (PDS) 2011-2016, a five-year plan that professes to be animated by a vision of “a digitally empowered, innovative, globally competitive and prosperous society where everyone has reliable, affordable and secure information access in the Philippines”; “a government that practices accountability and excellence to provide responsive online citizen-centered services”; and “a thriving knowledge economy through public-private partnership”.

Can the PDS, in fact, be able to facilitate the realization of these grand goals? Pro Pinoy editor-in-chief Cocoy Dayao doesn’t believe so, and has suggested in a post that the PDS be scrapped—a point that I agree with, as careful scrutiny of the PDS would reveal that is concerned chiefly with establishing a broadband network for the government, and does not establish clear directions for how to deal with issues that directly affect the growth and proliferation of digital technology, such as the cost of electricity in the country, which, according to an October 2010 study by think tank International Energy Consultants, is the highest in Asia. Of course, any discussion of the merits and demerits of the PDS would seem to be useless at this point, because six days before the plan was launched, President Aquino, by way of Executive Order No. 47, virtually dissolved the CICT: the issuance renamed the commission as the Information and Communications Technology Office (ICTO) and placed it under the Department of Science and Technology, a move that several BPO companies protested. To what extent the ICTO is implementing the PDS, if at all, is not very clear. The administration has said that it does want to set up a national broadband network (NBN), but it will not happen this year, as Department of Budget and Management (DBM) Secretary has said there is no allocation for it yet. And of course, the very concept of an NBN is still politically sensitive—some of you may recall the NBN-ZTE scandal that erupted during the time of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Another matter that I would like to bring up is National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) Memorandum Order (MO) 07-07-2011 .

Let me talk about the context of this order briefly. An issue that had several quarters of the Internet community last year up in arms early last year was a proposed order from the NTC that, while requiring telcos to set a minimum guaranteed speed for connections, would have allowed them to impose bandwidth caps on its subscribers, too—ostensibly on “network abuse” and “anti-piracy” grounds, neither of which holds up under inspection. With reference to “network abuse”, it is simply too vague a term that readily lent itself to abuse by self-interested service providers, thus punishing consumers who simply wish to maximize what they are paying for—which for not a few might mean playing games on Facebook, watching videos on YouTube, and publicizing every stray thought on Twitter 24 hours a day, but there is nothing wrong with any of that. As regards “anti-piracy” concerns, let’s face it: no amount of data restriction could truly be used as a tool to further the cause of “anti-piracy”, because capping would only make piracy slower, not impossible. Several of our writers covered this issue quite thoroughly, and one of them, Pierre Tito Galla, drafted a position paper that was circulated among concerned Internet users before being submitted to the NTC for consideration, as well as published in Pro Pinoy.

Fortunately, as a result of the public outcry, the NTC decided against implementing the aforementioned order. What it issued instead, some months later, was MO 07-07-2011. In some ways, though MO 07-07-2011 looks better than the prior proposal, it is still “ampaw”, as Galla put it in a post. He remarks that while MO 07-07-2011 does require transparency in billing, provide for a minimum monthly service reliability level of 80%, and give Internet service providers (ISPs) flexibility in terms of packaging and pricing their products, it is deficient in terms of the following: it does not provide effectively for pre-paid Internet connectivity, given that reliability is measured on a monthly basis; it does not require service reliability to be measured at the subscriber end; it is silent on data volume capping, despite the NTC asserting that it could regulate broadband services, meaning that telcos, which consider broadband a value-added service, can still impose unreasonable limits; and it does not compel ISPs to establish customer-friendly mechanisms for getting rebates in case the minimum service reliability level is not met. (If you’ve ever had to complain to your ISP about poor service, like I have, you know how absolutely hellish the experience can be—so much so that sometimes the problem almost seems to be your fault all along, starting with the decision to subscribe.)

Allow me now to discuss a recent legislative development . The Senate recently passed Senate Bill No. 2796, which is entitled the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, and has Sen. Edgardo Angara as its principal sponsor. While the bill may be well-intentioned, it suffers from a number of significant flaws, some of which I will identify.

First, the bill, as Sen. TG Guingona pointed out when he voted against it—the only senator to do so—“legislates morality” when it defines cybersex as a crime in this manner: the “willful engagement, maintenance, control, or operation, directly or indirectly, of any lascivious exhibition of sexual organs or sexual activity, with the aid of a computer system, for favor or consideration”. Evidently this provision is designed such that law enforcers can go after operators of cybersex dens, which unfortunately are burgeoning in the Philippines. Note, however, the qualifying phrase: “for favor or consideration”. If we were to compare it to, say, the definition of prostitution under Republic Act No. 9208, or the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003, which is “any act, transaction, scheme or design involving the use of a person by another, for sexual intercourse or lascivious conduct in exchange for money, profit or any other consideration”, then doesn’t the provision in the bill appear stricter, because broader? “For favor or consideration” and “for money, profit, or any other consideration” do not mean the same thing.

Second, the bill affirms that acts of libel, as set forth in the Revised Penal Code, can be committed in cyberspace. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that our libel law is rather medieval. A case in point: the United Nations Committee on Human Rights ruled in October 2011 that the penalization of journalist Alex Adonis for libel constituted a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Adonis was imprisoned after he lost a defamation suit against former House Speaker Prospero Nograles.

Third, the bill has no provisions that pertain to stalking, bullying, or harassing people in cyberspace, which means that these acts, regardless of duration or degree, would be perfectly legal in the event that the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 is passed into law.

Do our leaders really understand what goes on in cyberspace? I myself am not sure, and it’s a question worth thinking about, because the decisions that our officials make will have an impact—positive or otherwise—on all of us who use the Internet.

 Who are we that will be affected? Who are the Filipino netizens?

The figures I will be citing during the next several slides come from Digital Philippines 2011: Yahoo!-Nielsen Net Index Highlights, a study that was conducted in 22 major cities, including Metro Manila, among 1,500 male and female users, aged 10 and above, across socio-economic classes.

Let’s start with geographic distribution . In the period covered by the report, only 30% of people in national urban Philippines used the Internet in the past month, with 26% in Luzon, 30% in Visayas, and 17% in Mindanao. In Metro Manila, the figure is 43%, while in Cebu and Davao, the figures are 34% and 37%, respectively.

 In terms of age, Internet usage was highest among those aged between 10 and 19 (53%) and between 20 and 29 (43%). Among 30- to 39-year-olds, it was 21%. Among 40- to 49-year-olds, it was 11%. And among those aged 50 and above, it was 3%.

 Where are people accessing the Internet? There are several options, of course, but the dominant option is the Internet café at 66%, nearly double that of the next option, the home, at 35%. Other places of access, such as school or work, have an aggregate of 13%.

 With regard to socio-economic class, usage was highest, unsurprisingly, among classes A, B, and C, at 66%. Among users in class C2, it was 53%, and among users in classes D and E, it was 24%.

These findings tie in with what the social scientist Raul Pertierra pointed out in “The new media and politics? Or the politics of new media?”, a paper that was published in the 2010 anthology The Politics of Change in the Philippines . There, Pertierra said, “With the exception of class, cellphone and Internet use in the Philippines is comparatively neutral. […] Class is the main impediment to a more equitable access to the new media […]”

To put it more starkly: at least 70% of Filipinos have no Internet access.  I say “at least”, because the Yahoo!-Nielsen study focused on urban areas. When we try to think about using the Internet as a means for bringing about social change, we have to remember that we are not reaching a significant majority of our fellow Filipinos: at present, 63 million of them—assuming a conservative population figure of 90 million—are not online.

 What about those who are online? What can we know about their patterns of behavior?

 In terms of content, the five most preferred types are: international music at 68%; local music at 65%; interesting photos and videos at 59%; games at 56%; and technology and gadgets at 55%.

 The top five online activities are: social networking at 82%; search at 80%; instant messaging at 69%; visiting Internet portals at 67%; and visiting public chat rooms at 65%.

The fact that Yahoo!-Nielsen identifies social networking as the top online activity is interesting to juxtapose with data from Wave 3 and Wave 4, which are studies on social media that were undertaken by Universal McCann in 2008 and 2009, respectively. If we put together the numbers from these two latter pieces of research , we find that the social media activities done most frequently by Filipinos are: watching videos at 98.1%; reading blogs at 90.0%; uploading photos at 86.4%; creating a profile on a new social network at 83.1%; and uploading videos at 67.5%.

What should we make of these numbers? When we go online, most of us aren’t there to promote a cause or to advance an agenda, to research for class or to do work—we’re there primarily to amuse ourselves: we listen to music, watch videos, and interact with friends. This preoccupation with entertainment isn’t necessarily bad, of course, but it is something that we do have to bear in mind.

British Council Philippines Digital Technology for Social Change

 One point that I hope should be abundantly clear by now, after all those statistics, is the existence of what is referred to as the digital divide, which is not so much a single chasm as a series of gaps between the Filipinos who are privileged enough to have access to the Internet—which includes us who are gathered here now—and the Filipinos who are not similarly privileged: gaps in knowledge, in literacy, in resources, and in power.  We should ask ourselves, then, whenever we access the great fund of information that is the Internet, how we are using our privilege, and why.

In 1980, the year that Polish poet Czesław Milosz  was hailed as the Nobel Laureate in Literature, he intoned what seems to be both observation and warning during his Nobel lecture—one that is even more germane today: “Our planet that gets smaller every year, with its fantastic proliferation of mass media, is witnessing a process that escapes definition, characterized by a refusal to remember.”

Whether that is true could well be debatable.  It is more difficult, however, to dispute what technology writer Nicholas Carr has said: “As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our ‘intellectual technologies’ […] we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of those technologies.” Or, as the Jesuit John Culkin put it more succinctly, “We shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us.”

Perhaps, before asking how we can use digital technology to change the world, we should ask how that same technology is changing us. While some of these changes may be for the better, I’m sure all of us are aware of disturbing behaviors that appear to be specific to cyberspace, and my contention is that these are not isolated incidents, but symptomatic of larger problems to which the Internet tends to contribute or exacerbate as medium, and against which we must guard. I will cite two examples.

 Take, for instance, mobbing.  I’m sure all of you know who this guy is: he’s Christopher Lao, who was caught on video by a media outfit trying to drive his car through a flooded street. He failed in the attempt, and his car wound up floating in the water for a while. He immediately became an online sensation when, in reply to an unaired question from the reporter, he cried, “I was not informed”, as he looked like a spoiled brat whining about a thus far inevitable Philippine reality. Vicious comments and hate pages proliferated at dizzying speed online.

His critics neglected to ask some questions, however.

Why did Lao take such a foolish risk? It turned out that he had been rushing home to be with his young daughter, because his wife was stranded in her office.

More crucially: how was that footage taken to begin with? The existence of the video proves that members of the media outfit were present at the scene. Did they think to warn Lao from proceeding down the street? Did they try?

 In any case, as the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) said, “[Apart] from sharing the news, people had started to call Lao names—used rude and/or insulting words to describe him and the incident—in other words, a clear abuse of social media.”

Another example:  failing to exercise critical thinking. The Mosquito Press, a satirical news site, released a story saying that a Harvard study had named Filipinos the most gullible people in the world—a story that was promptly picked up and treated as genuine by no less than a professional writer, The Philippine Star columnist Carmen Pedrosa. This set off a round of much-deserved scorn from several quarters for Pedrosa, but she was unapologetic: in her next column, she declared that it was still true that Filipinos are generally gullible, and her citing the spurious study was precisely to make that point . Manuel Buencamino, another of Pro Pinoy’s writers, had this to say in response: “I’m still in pain from the steaming hot coffee I blew through my nose after I read her column and the ‘correction’ she made the following day.”

 While we’re on the subject of thinking, we might as well ask: How is Internet changing our brains—not only metaphorically, in the sense of the “mind”, but also physiologically? There is quite a lot of literature on the subject, but one paper that I think is worth mentioning was written by child development scholars Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai.  In “The Importance of Deep Reading”, Wolf and Barzillai redeploy Aristotle’s concept of three lives to talk about how the transition from a print culture to a digital one affects learning. In their view, society at present is able to pursue the life of activity and the life of enjoyment, and the digital learner is well-suited to both these lives. The life of contemplation, however, in spite of its increasingly diminished place in contemporary life, is also important, and is vital to what they call deep reading—“the array of sophisticated processes that propel comprehension and that include inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical analysis, reflection, and insight”—which encourages deep thought, and in turn leads to the formation and development of structures in the brain that would otherwise not be so formed or developed. A world that makes no room for the life of contemplation, then, might be one filled with individuals who are less analytical and less purposeful about the information that they encounter: perpetually distracted and easily deluded.  As Wolf says in her book, Proust and the Squid, “We are not only what we read. We are how we read.”

Of course the dangers of distraction and delusion are already very much with us: ours is the age of information overload. And while information can be empowering , it is not always so—mere possession of information does not guarantee action or transformation: an issue that was recognized long before our time. Cultural critic Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, his famous book on—or rather, against—television, locates a watershed in history with the invention of telegraphy, saying that the from this point forward, the information-action ratio of people began to become problematic : “For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.”  For instance, we are bombarded daily, offline and online, by tidbits of data such as what X celebrity was wearing an outfit by Y designer at Z event, but are these things we have to know? Should we care?  Can this information be acted upon in a meaningful way? The Internet has served to increase by leaps and bounds the amount of information we are exposed to, but so much of it is simply distracting—however one understands the Internet to be, it is also, by design, a gigantic distraction machine that, in forcing us to respond—and quickly—to multiple stimuli every time we use it, makes us feel busy and productive even if we’re not actually accomplishing anything.

Henry David Thoreau made a relevant point in Walden when he said, “We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”

As I said earlier, this part of presentation is derived from an ongoing process of research into and reflection upon digital media. This process was, in many respects, prompted by my experience with The Pro Pinoy Project, which I will now turn to and talk about.

Pro Pinoy began in late 2009 as a volunteer-run web site that was intended to achieve the goal of increasing public awareness of the national and local elections that took place in May 2010, with a particular focus on the hotly contested race for the presidency. It was propelled by the idea that the ballot is the most powerful tool with which the future of the country could be secured.

The site served as an online database of news articles and blog posts on issues of national significance, as well on the track records and promises of the presidential candidates. Over the course of compiling content for publication, we sought to curate the data that they had gathered, occasionally selecting reports that were important but had not received much attention in either the mainstream or new media arenas. Of course, the veritable flood of election-related information was too much for us to keep up with, and therefore updates were made irregularly.

Following the relatively successful conduct of the elections, we decided that the site could serve as more than just a vehicle for voter education. As crucial as this task was, elections occur only once every three years, and, in any case, voting is only one aspect of citizenship. Good citizens must also be sufficiently informed and involved in everyday politics so that they are ready to hold all public servants to their duties, responsibilities, and promises, participate in the contentious process of nation-building themselves, and inspire others to do the same.

We re-launched the site in July 2010, this time offering original, syndicated, or partner-provided content, still mostly on news and current affairs. In February 2011, we decided to go the official route, establishing Pro Pinoy as a non-stock, non-profit corporation.

Pro Pinoy is a very young organization—we turned a year old just a few days ago—but I’m happy to say we’ve managed to rack up a few accomplishments in the short time that we’ve been operating. We have a great team—I’m not saying that just because I’m part of it—producing excellent posts and have been able to form strategic partnerships with other groups. Some of the content that we’ve published, such as the position paper on the broadband capping issue I mentioned earlier, has been cited by mainstream media outfits, and we were recognized in 2010 by the Philippine Blog Awards as the winner in the Society, History, and Politics category. We’ve also managed to maintain a good level of site traffic, even on slow days, and have a fairly active, if not always pleasant, comments section.

Some of our future plans include: redesigning the site, which is ongoing; increasing our lifestyle content; exploring multimedia content options; participating in and facilitating seminars and workshops; and focusing on community news, and it is in that last area that I think all of us here will be able to collaborate: we would be more than happy to help you tell your stories about what is taking place in your neighborhood and your organization.

What exactly does Pro Pinoy do? We’re engaged in what has been called “participatory journalism”. In point of fact, there are several terms for this practice, such as “citizen journalism”, “guerrilla journalism”, “networked journalism”, “open source journalism”, and “street journalism”, and one question that might immediately spring to mind is, “Is it even journalism?” My answer: “At its best, yes, it is journalism.”

Participatory journalism is defined by media consultants Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis in their paper We Media as follows: “[It is] the act of a citizen, or group of citizens, playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information.” This runs the gamut from taking part in a text poll to undertaking investigations of an issue, and marks a departure from the relatively linear news model, which involves a media organization, influenced to some degree by advertisers, filtering and packaging information first before delivering it via a platform, such as a newspaper or a television show, to a mass audience.

In theory, members of the audience have always been able to speak back. If I want to react to a story, I can write a letter to the editor or express my response with my remote control or my wallet. What makes participatory journalism interesting and exciting, however, are all the conversations that take place simultaneously throughout the discursive environment, allowing the community to make itself felt in shaping news agendas.

I want to make it clear that participatory journalism is not a second-rate, trying hard copycat of traditional journalism, but a very different model altogether—one that is more about complementing, rather than competing with, how the business of news is being carried out by mainstream outfits. (Most of you probably don’t recognize this because you’re too young—it’s a screen capture of the legendary scene in Bituing Walang Ningning, where Cherie Gil throws a glass of water into Sharon Cuneta’s face.)

What, then, is participatory journalism for? Why do it? It allows for a more collaborative and more transparent process of information-gathering, admits a wider range of views, and facilitates the creation of richer, more intimate stories and conversations—the information we receive takes on tones and textures that it might not otherwise have, and therefore the quality and relevance of such is potentially higher. It also fosters in us a stronger sense of responsibility and control over our world, which is critical to a vibrant democracy.

2010 was actually an important turning point for participatory journalism, because for the first time in Philippine history, the Commission on Elections issued accreditation IDs to bloggers and online media organizations covering the elections—a development paralleled by the candidates’ incorporation of a wide array of digital tools, including social media, into their respective campaigns.

The Internet, as I’ve already shown, is a highly limited platform, and thus little that was done there could be said to have had dramatic impact on the outcome of the polls, but as Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist John Nery observed, “[…] what online does very well, even in the Philippine setting, is to create buzz. It […] can certainly be used to create word of mouth, to pique public curiosity and interest, to drive old media coverage.”

The CMFR also weighed in, saying, “[The coverage of online sites] provided a deeper look into issues overlooked by the mainstream media [and] provided a holistic approach to understanding the 2010 elections by balancing the sensational reports with critical stories.”

The Internet, of course, has a long way to go before becoming a true game-changer: while a 2010 Pulse Asia survey conducted from February 21 to 25 showed that media was the most influential source of information in choosing a president (64%), the most influential medium was TV (56%).

It might be helpful at this juncture to go over some of the findings in a study conducted by communication consultancy firm EON, Inc. from May to June 2011. Called the “Philippine Trust Index”, it sought to measure the level of public trust in key institutions: the church, the government, private industries, non-government organizations, and the media.

Among the 500 respondents, 64% said that they trusted the media “Very Much” and “Somewhat Much”. Asked to express their trust in an array of media channels, the results (“Very Much” and “Somewhat Much”) were as follows: 74% for television; 68% for online news sites; 66% each for newspapers and radio; 47% for social networking sites; and 37% for blogs. The latter two figures present an obvious challenge for participatory journalism, which, after all, relies on and is generated by social networking sites and blogs.

What, according to the same study, are the key drivers of trust in media? Fifty-eight percent said truthfulness; 35% said adherence to fairness; 3% said balanced reporting of good and bad news; and 2% each said delivery of news with social relevance and other reasons. It does not seem unreasonable to infer, then, that barriers to trust for participatory journalism include lack of editorial oversight, unethical practices, and the refusal to take responsibility—barriers that are not unrelated to the problematic behaviors of mobbing and uncritical thinking that I discussed previously.

If you’ve been following the impeachment proceedings of Chief Justice Renato Corona online, you may be familiar with what befell Raissa Robles, a professional journalist and a blogger. The Manila correspondent for the South China Morning Post, Robles has been assiduously working to bring out into the open, via her blog, issues and materials that are related to the charges that have been filed against Corona, and her laudable efforts have earned her no small amount of controversy. Recently, accusations surfaced that Robles was the “small lady” who had given Rep. Reynaldo Umali, a member of the prosecution panel, photocopies of documents pertaining to Corona’s deposit accounts in Philippine Savings Bank (PSBank). The information spread very quickly in the Internet community, in the manner of many a sensational story, but what facilitated the rapid dissemination of this particular rumor was a popular citizen media site that reported it without bothering to verify with Robles herself, who had issued categorical denials through Twitter and, later, in her blog. Mulling over the incident, Robles criticized the site and said, “This first-hand experience has given me a ringside view of how gossip turns viral and mutates in the process. And how people feel they can say anything on the Internet without any consequences or care.”

What happened was appalling for us at Pro Pinoy, of course, not only because it was downright irresponsible, but also because it would have a detrimental effect on how the public perceives participatory journalism. That said, we are more than willing to face the challenges that lie ahead of us, and look forward to overcoming them as a team.

By now, I’m sure I’ve brought up more issues and questions than we have ready, final answers for. My purpose, however, is not to befuddle unto paralysis—as I said at the beginning of my talk, I think it important to be keenly conscious of our context. As would-be change-makers, it behooves us to be aware that the task of social transformation, particularly using digital means, is freighted not only with promise—which the succeeding speakers will doubtless be able to show in their respective presentations—but also with peril, and we cannot realize the one without dealing thoughtfully and carefully with the other.

Thank you very much.

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