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May 212012
 

Iceland’s media haven, doubts about social media in the Arab Spring and culture secretary Ed Vaizey’s fishy metaphors: Tom Midlane winds up Manchester’s great ideas fest with his head abuzz

Star turn on day two of the FutureEverything conference is Birgitta Jónsdóttir, the Icelandic MP, hacktivist, and poet, who played a major role in Wikileaks’ famous Collateral Murder video exposing war crimes in Iraq by US soldiers. She’s here to discuss the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative and direct democracy, and instantly earns the room’s trust by admitting to falling asleep during boring committee meetings.

Jónsdóttir’s talk focuses around a central question: What is democracy? As she puts it:

Is it just voting every four years for a party whose manifesto we haven’t read?

She derides the politics of left v right as “a dinosaur, a thing of the past,” and asks us instead to ask ourselves who writes our laws. Her own answer is simple: lobbyists, with parliamentarians on hand only to process laws “like McDonalds burgers”.

Our current democratic system is, according to Jónsdóttir, a “multi-headed dictatorship”, and she cites Iceland’s calamitous fall from most developed country in the world in 2007 (according to the UN Human Development Index) to the hardest-hit victim in the 2008 banking crash the following year as evidence of “a serious system error” in global politics.

Her solution? The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, a parliamentary proposal unanimously approved in 2010 to turn Iceland into a safe haven for freedom of information and expression. Jónsdóttir also draws a hearty round of applause when she reveals she’s just been victorious in suing the US government over the NDAA (National Defence Authorisation Act) which allows the US military to arrest anyone, anywhere on suspicion of being a terrorist. “I’m a cyber terrorist!” she declares gleefully.

Her talk repeatedly emphasises the need for citizens to participate in building a better society and move beyond mass consumerism. And as befits a former unemployed poet, she’s got a lovely turn of phrase – at one point she tells us:

We’re like a lobster, it’s really cosy in the warm water, we don’t realise we’re dead until we start to boil.

Jónsdóttir signs off on an optimistic note with a self-penned poem that makes me long for the days when politicians like Michael Foot actually seemed interested in language and the arts, rather than just being managerial technocrats.

Three other talks touch on social media’s role in civil unrest. First up, Sanaz Raji discusses the media fanfare around the role of social media in the Arab Spring. She says it is too glib to categorise Egypt as a ‘Facebook revolution’, Syria as the ‘YouTube uprising’, and Tunisia as a ‘Twitter revolt’, and gloss over the material and moral force of the millions of Egyptians, Syrians and Tunisians who took to the streets.

Raji discusses the role of 30-year-old Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim, head of marketing for Google Middle East and North Africa, whose Facebook page ‘We are all Khaled Saeed; helped fuel the uprising. Ghonim has been quoted as saying “If you want to free a society, just give them internet access,” but Raji says she feels activists like Ghonim are “techno deterministic”, giving revolution a shiny, western face and fetishising the net as an autonomous sphere, while ignoring groups like the Muslim Brotherhood who don’t comfortably fit into their westernized picture.

Later in the day we hear from Bilal Randeree, Social Media and Online Producer for Al Jazeera English. He reiterates the point that the cataclysmic Arab uprisings in 2011 were the result of vast human energy and effort, not the mythical power of social media, and discusses Ethan Zuckerman’s fascinating Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism. Randeree is honest enough to acknowledge that web archives can be a double-edged sword – while for the reader Al Jazeera is a source of knowledge about the world, it’s also monitored closely by repressive governments.

Farida Vis, a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, throws a more domestic light on the issue in discussing her work with the Guardian‘s Reading the Riots project. She documents the explosive growth in social media – in 2005, when she was analysing the online response to Hurricane Katrina, there were 235 Flickr pages by 106 individuals, whereas during the UK riots last year there were 2.6m tweets by 700,000 individuals.

Particularly interesting is her discussion of the role of Twitter rumours in the riots, which included the ‘fact’ that a 16-year-old girl had been beaten up by the police, rioters were cooking their own burgers in a chain of McDonalds, animals had been released from London zoo and, my personal favourite, that the London Eye (lest we forget, a large metallic structure) had been set on fire.

Elsewhere Juliana Roach discussed ushahidi.com (“Ushahidi” is the Swahili word for witness), her open source site which allows users to crowdsource crisis information. Originally created to help document instances of violence in Kenya (and remove what she calls the ‘deniability factor’ of massacres), it’s since been used to create the Christchurch Recovery Map after the earthquake in New Zealand last year, giving users information on the nearest sources of food, water, toilets, fuel, ATMs and medical care. As Roach evangelically puts it:

Geeks also want to save the world. The thing is, with their skills, now they can.

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey joins a panel for a discussion on The Space, and weighs in with some frankly terrifying metaphors about the need for “whales to mate with minnows”. Vaizey calls The Space “the most significant cultural intervention since the creation of the arts council,” although exactly what it is remains elusive as I have to dash off to catch the panel on Net Neutrality, which sees Loz Kaye, leader of Pirate Party UK, face off against James Blessing, Chairman of the Internet Service Providers’ Association. Kaye argues that net neutrality is under threat, but Blessing counters that it never really existed in the first place – the Internet, he points out, grew out of ARPANET, a military network created by the US Department of Defense.

The panel discussion also includes a fascinating presentation by artists Alison Craighead and John Thomson, showcasing their video work A Live Portrait of Tim Berners-Lee: An Early Warning System, in which they use two webcams in locations on the opposite side of the globe to create a monochrome portrait of the founding father of the Internet, with the image of Berners-Lee inverting every 12 hours as day turns to night.

As the conference winds to a close, my mind is abuzz with new ideas but my my attention span is shot to pieces. After two days in which our dreams of a glistening, frictionless techno utopia have been slightly overshadowed by the Museum of Science and Industry‘s stop-start wi-fi coverage, I leave feeling like I’m in need of a brisk hill walk.

You can read Tom’s report on day one of FutureEverything here.

Tom Midlane is a freelance journalist based in the north-west. He has written for Leeds Guide and DeHavilland, the parliamentary monitoring service, and is a regular contributor to Manchester-based news site Mancunian Matters. His blog is here and you can also contact him on Twitter @goldenlatrine


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