The Revolution Will Be Twittered
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Goldstein says the students in the class have a keen understanding of the participatory culture we are now living in—and that extends not only to technology but also to public service, as the YouthMap project exemplifies.
"They jumped at idea that we can impact the community through this class as opposed to being passive learners," says Goldstein.
Tools for Revolutions, and Regimes
According to Meier, while some resistance movements have been successful in using technology to promote their causes, repressive regimes are also becoming more savvy about controlling the information revolution within their borders.
As to which side of a given conflict is going to make better use of technology, "It is a cat-and-mouse game" says Meier, who notes that evidence is still being collected on the relationship between technology and politics. "If [technology] does matter, does it favor pro-democracy resistance movements, or does it favor repressive regimes?" says Meier. "Maybe in about three years I might have an idea… It's interesting to try to discover."
For the moment, anecdotal evidence shows that technology does seem to have some impact on democracy. One example of ordinary citizens using technology to bring about change involves Ukraine's "Orange Revolution," where nonviolent protests following a controversial presidential election were organized mainly through online networks and cell phone communication. Citizen journalists also helped expose elements of the story not covered in mainstream media. The protests came to a peaceful resolution when a second, "clean" election was held.
Another example is seen in the 2007 presidential election in Kenya, which was hotly contested and resulted in widespread unrest. According to a report co-authored by Goldstein, online networks and cell phones were used both to foment violent acts and organize peaceful demonstrations for human rights.
In his dissertation research on nonviolent democratic movements and technology around the world, Meier is exploring how the information revolution is aiding both resistance movements and repressive regimes. He believes that strategic application of information technology can aid nonviolent civil resistance movements, which he says are significantly more likely to transition to sustained democratic rule.
"We want to help empower local grassroots movements to put pressure for more transparency, more accountability," he explains. "If that can help them wage their nonviolent resistance movements, I think overall we would be better off. The underlying motive here is to make nonviolent transition to sustained democratic rule more frequent, more widespread, with less lives lost."
While working with USAID to help the Uganda government with post-conflict reconciliation, Goldstein witnessed the power of telecommunications.
"If you look at any of the practical challenges that we have to face, whether it's land distribution or, more abstractly, reaching the millennial development goals, all of these things are enabled by technology," says Goldstein, who also works with Google's Office of Global Public Policy and the Berkman Center. "As the path to a more prosperous world, you need certain infrastructure whether it's power or water. I think communications is equally vital."
Blazing a 'Unique Path'
The goal for Meier and his colleagues in the field is to collect anecdotal evidence about the effect of technology on democracy and begin to assess emerging trends.
"It's a new field where methodologies are still being refined," says Meier, who is also a doctoral research fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, working on conflict early warning and crisis mapping, and a contributor to the nonprofit DigiActive. "Does technology really matter at the end of the day? I have my own suspicions and ideas, but that's partly why I'm doing my dissertation research on this—to be able to see if this technology variable really matters at all."
Both Goldstein and Meier, looking to study in an emerging field without a firmly established body of work, were drawn to Fletcher by the school's willingness to let them find their own way.
"I felt that Fletcher was the place most open to encouraging following those unique paths and legitimizing those unique paths," says Goldstein. "They're very good at helping you study the things that may or may not be in the curriculum for an international affairs school."
Meier was particularly impressed by Fletcher's emphasis on interdisciplinary study. For someone who has dipped into multiple fields to gain a more comprehensive view of how digital democracy works, it was a perfect match.
Fletcher "brings together this scholarship and practitioner approach, which allows us as students to replicate that," he explains. "There's value to be gained from that approach. That fit me and my personality really well."
Their own class follows this example, with an engaged community of researchers and activists following and participating in conversations that extend to the course's blog, wiki and Twitter feed. Both Goldstein and Meier hope their course will serve as a model for future classes on the subject. As they see it, they are laying the foundation for a field they anticipate will only grow increasingly relevant.
"From a personal perspective as a researcher, I've always heard teachers tell me teaching is one of the ways to draw out theory and understanding of a subject," says Goldstein. "By doing this class, we're creating a canon of digital democracy literature and conversation."
And in the digital world, of course, that conversation never ends.
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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications
Homepage photo by Alonso Nichols, University Photography, taken at the Tufts Center for Scientific Visualization. Classroom photos by Joanie Tobin, University Photography.
This story originally ran on Mar. 2, 2009.