Top-down, down-up

Setting free the bears in the 'digerati' circus tent

subscriber | 03 April, 2013

What exactly does bears, the 'digerati' and circus tents have to do with each other, you might ask.

The answer: not an awful lot. To set free the bears is in psychological terms a way of letting your suppressed thoughts flow freely. So let's say it is a metaphor to make for a bit more interesting reading. With the intended underlying message that our collective suppressed thoughts - in particular the tech industry's leader's thoughts - are full of good intentions.

The "bear's'" can also be you and me, the consumer's, rich, in-between or poor. The digerati, as you know, is the new technology industry, the Google's, Microsoft's, Apple's and Facebook's of this world. And the circus tent, well that is this brave new tech driven virtually border free world of ours.

The issue is:

Social media is transforming our digital landscape and the way we are communicating with each other. We only need to think about the time we spend on checking out our Facebook page or Linked in and the answer is obvious. Even those of us who have arrived late to the social media party are spending more time on networking online than ever before.

But that is not enough for the manufacturers and service providers. For them to live up to pressure from investors expecting high yields from tech stocks they must invent new ways to expand their market all the time.

How they are doing it is obvious to a degree, more ad's, and less obvious to another degree, including the sale of access to their databases and intimate knowledge about you and me.

For every new open- or hidden activity the tech companies are introducing there is a corresponding debate about privacy, transparency, independent monitoring and regulation.

On an individual level one could argue that its quite easy, if you are unhappy about the trade off you make when you access Facebook for free you can decide to disengage. Take it or leave it. Just like with ad's on television two generations ago.

It is not that easy with the Internet though. Facebook alone has built the largest global directory of individuals the world has ever seen. The possibility of finding people is enormous. The same goes for Twitter, although Twitter does not have the same complexity of privacy issues as Facebook (yet).

So for me and you to drop out is not that easy. We do want to engage with family, friends, colleagues, potential business partners, its just that we are still fumbling around in the dark about exactly how to distinguish and make best use of the options that are available.

The issues and complexities differ between the various social media. But the bottom line is: most of us do not have time and energy either to get into the admin section of these services to click and tick the correct boxes to make it work for us and find the right level of privacy. It is simply too time consuming for most of us.

On the tech company side their lab technicians are busy trying to find new glue that make it stick, be it to fulfil real or imagine needs or interests by offering new forms of social engagement, advertising or quasi-sales efforts, like getting you to know what your best friends like in terms of personal affairs, events, media, products or services.

Most of the tech development in this department is, obviously, driven towards people with disposable money to spend. This is at the center of interest for new functions, gimmicks, cell phone app's, you name it.

This is what the 'digerati', the tech industry decision making elite, cares about.

Social media being exactly that, 'social', means there must be a balance, just as with 'old' media. If there is too much selling taking place in a seemingly intrusive way, the sales effort can easily turn against the carrier and the seller.

Being socially aware and do good is therefore important. It is part of the contractual balance in social media.

To put it simple, it only took Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder, a couple of years to realise that to give a way half of his fortune is not only the right thing to do its the only way for him to keep Facebook on the right side of credibility.

What have not yet been asked all that much, but that will be asked more and more is: how much of Facebook's or its founder's do-good activities will plug the most obvious global imbalances, NOT in the general charity arena but specifically to adapt and allow their services to cater for the majority of global citizens that are waking up to the opportunities new technologies offer them?

The global tech industry is not just a carrier of entertainment and selling global goods, its a carrier of transparency, health expansion, education, skills development and very basic entrepreneurial networking.

And they are the best ones to make development efforts stick as the overall technology and strategies to make the poorest of the poor in our world to get hooked is much the same as in the richer parts of the world or in the rich part of the same country even.

To get down to that kind of business it takes a massive amount of collaboration between governments, development agencies and business on a global as well as local level. And for new and old tech industries to settle their score on who is responsible for and paying for what: infrastructure, research and development of hardware and software, licenses, etc.

Kenya is one of the countries that have started to create the necessary 'digital common' for its citizens by going online with a massive amount of now accessible government documentation- and information. More will follow.

And most international agencies, UN agencies and donor agencies, are right on top of the issues. They know already that digital technologies and new media can revolutionise both access, the way Governments are run towards more transparency, and offer life changing opportunities for very poor people before many steps removed from those who rule them.

So where are the door stoppers? To a large degree its about building a new conscience around the world that new technologies are, just like money, not just dropping down and start working where the need is.

That is a process that must be master minded. But for the first time, this is the beauty, it is possible to actually talk about down-up, not just top-down interaction between those who make decisions and those who to a larger degree than ever can influence them.

We are also still stuck in the past. Old habits are not going away that easily. Old lines of confrontation are also still, there.

Some of them:

Politician's want to control and benefit from the outcomes, if they fear they will not they will not let it happen without a fight.

International institutions and development agencies are bound to what Governments want and sometimes have feet of clay. They are bureaucracies that need to reform themselves and adapt.

The tech industry is divided between the old and the new, where national states and the cell phone industry tend to be in one camp - they have after all paid for the Internet infrastructure - and the tech companies are frustrated and unhappy about being regulated as they are paying for tech development and are taking their own calculated risks

Civil society is fractured and have only recently started to communicate with each other across old boundary lines.

Where do we go from here to set the bears free in the 'digerati' circus? The "bears", we the consumers, can make sure that we are inside the tent but also to make sure the gates are open.

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