Critical Convergence, part 2: Knowledge Politics

Previous section: Prometheus 2.0 || The previous section explored the notion of ICT and social construction, particularly how new meanings, norms and practices are formed through our use of technology. In this section, I explore my insights on ICT and government as I’ve picked them up from the CIO Conference and iBlog 4. I think there are still some contradictions to consider, and challenges for our policymakers to surmount.

These days we talk about the knowledge economy, but how about knowledge politics? That somehow sounds odd, given that our popular notion of politicians have so little to do with knowledge. But that phrase, in all its ambiguity, is where we are headed. This does not mean to say that the same transformations we’ve seen in the market will be seen in government. I can’t see policy-making being outsourced, though I’m sure a lot of us won’t mind our politicians losing their jobs to those who can do their job better and more cheaply. Though of course that would raise questions of accountability, transparency and even patriotism, ideals which remain firmly entrenched within our borders in this age of intensifying globalization.

The impact of ICT on government will vary. The liberating nature of the Internet is a threat to closed regimes, while investments in ICT are necessary for thriving democracies. I suppose, the principle is similar to market reforms we’ve seen in China in the late 70’s and in Russia in the early 90’s: closed systems will have to be eased into the technology, and we must avoid shock therapies that hope to digitize politics en masse. What has to be struck now is a balance between the investments made by government, and the transformations demanded and generated by their citizens.

I have been fortunate enough to peer into both sides. From April 24 to 25 at the 2nd CIO Conference, I’ve had the pleasure of listening to captains of government and industry such as Dr. Fortunato dela Peña of the DOST; Sherwin Ona, Associate Director of the SPIDER Project by the DLSU; and Dr. Emmanuel Lallana, CEO of Ideacorp, among others. They delivered presentations on the relationship between government and technology in mobilizing communities. And on April 26 at iBlog 4, a panel with journalist Luz Rimban, columnist Manuel Quezon III and e-entrepeneur Janette Toral focused on blogging for the 2010 elections. From that I’ve picked up some insights on blogging and its delicate relationship with democracy.

I will keep this entry simple with the following three synthesis points.

FIRST. Investments in ICT are crucial but require foresight, long-term planning, and the economic leg room to redirect spending from basic needs and infrastructure towards higher technology. This is why ICT investments are not as politically attractive in a country that continues to deal with food crises, typhoon threats and political instability. I’ve written about this extensively in another article, The world is flat, but the Philippines isn’t.

The irony wasn’t lost on me that as I listened to speakers optimistic about high technology, the world was sinking into a food crisis. Food prices are rising and global stock is dropping, and one factor is the production of biofuel (a higher technology fuel) crops in lieu of food. This editorial cartoon captures it nicely, and in this article written a month ago, I summarized why, in some way, our industries remain archaic and feudal.

Now let’s point out one issue.

I would also like to challenge the notion that automating an election is a basic investment; furthermore, that automating our elections will lessen poll fraud. There remains a pessimism in our country for such a policy, and for good reason. A democratic election is a human exercise and not a technological exhibition. There is good reason to believe that automated polls will be manipulated anyway because chances are, they will. I will be more confident in automated elections once we can get the manual type right. For now, I rather we invest in voter education, polling facilities, and institutional reform in the COMELEC. Of course, there can be a strategy that integrates all that and automated counting machines, but what I want us to be wary about is the magic bullet mentality. This same concern I echoed with the Cyber Education Project.

SECOND. I disagree with the terms old/traditional media and new media. They suggest an adversarial relationship or a changing of the guard mentality between established forms of technology such as TV and radio versus emergent forms such as the Internet and the mobile phone. Instead, the prevailing paradigm must be one of convergence. Both media have the power to dictate the other’s agenda. We bloggers write about what the news media feeds us, and the news media picks up leads from what they find in the Internet. Recognizing this relationship will inform a good media policy, regardless of what side you advocate.

Both sides have their pros and cons. Mass media are called such because of their reach. The TV and radio remain dominant; however, as Al Gore points out in The Assault on Reason, these media can have mind-numbing effects on democracy. Because of the TV, democracy is now a battle of perception rather than a contest of truth. It is the latter which the Internet, especially the blogosphere, is host to. What we lack is the reach of mass media, and thus fostering a relationship between the two can only be healthy for democracy. I believe in this strongly. I’ve been following the US Presidential Elections for months now and have seen the unique convergence of TV, print and web. The lines have blurred between all the forms, helping the latest contest become the most frenzied one yet.

Thus, there is a question I would have wanted to ask the panel of Rimban, Quezon, and Toral. It is with regards to their plan, particularly Rimban and Toral, for blogging and the 2010 elections. I will be posting it in a separate entry because I feel it warrants its own attention.

AND THIRD. Information and communication technology will push governments to be more responsive, accountable and transparent. On the other hand, it will empower their people, enhance their agency and widen their freedom. We have only begun to see this transformation, and soon there will be a meeting of the two forces. It will be make or break when that happens. We have a long way to go.

If you haven’t figured out now, I am a gradualist. I believe in what Deng Xiaoping said, “We cross the river by touching the stones.” We do things step by step. I am a big believer in the power of technology, but I am also a staunch critic. I am both optimistic and wary of the changes it will bring. In our rush to embrace the knowledge economy, we only need to remember the cliche that knowledge is power in order to realize that the advancements this 21st century are no different from the 19th in its potential to leave many others behind. Indeed, we have not seen such immense levels of wealth, comfort and luxury; we haven’t seen such levels of poverty, overpopulation and environmental degradation too. There remains a wealth gap even as there is now a knowledge gap that remains to be filled. There is so much more for us to do in order to become competitive.

This entry was originally entitled 2084 until I decided to make it more grounded. But by 2084, it is too easy to imagine that you can e-mail your president, then an e-mail filter will categorize your letter according to its topic, and finally that e-mail is counted towards a folder together with similar e-mails giving the commander-in-chief an instant poll of what people need and want without even reading a single letter. By then I’m sure we would be texting our votes, and for that matter, voting on policies themselves. Who knows? There may be no senators or congressmen anymore; just those who know the most pushing buttons day in and day out (green for yea, red for nay). Governments will no longer have the monopoly of information, putting an end to intelligence agencies, spies and prohibitive legislation. In 1949, George Orwell wrote of a dystopian vision of the world where a dominant power had control over every technology, and therefore over every man. In 2084 the opposite may be true: every man will have control over technology, thus creating their own vision of how the world must be. The irony is that when every man is completely sovereign, there can be no government that is. What will the world be like then?

I am not in the business of predicting the future. I can only learn from the past and express confidence in where we are now. In this age of knowledge politics, we are in a unique and unprecedented position to chart where we will be, no matter where you are. Now is our time to regain our democracy, and thus the future may as well be here.


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