“The future ain’t what it used to be”

Technology and human rights, or human rights and technology?

The Amnesty ICM 2011 technology and human rights session opened with an inspirational introduction by Yutaka Ogita, an Amnesty International Japan activist since the 1970s. A handful of others stood up who have also been Amnesty members since the 70s, an impressively long time to be part of one of the original social networks.

However, Amnesty’s history is composed of approximately 40 years of offline activism, and so far, around 10 years of dedicated online work. The offline actions, far from being threatened by contemporary social media, are more relevant than ever for the countries that are most in need of human rights. Technology itself isn’t necessarily the challenge here, but it is essential to consider how human rights work may evolve in the future.

Owen Valentine Pringle, Director of Digital Communications at Amnesty International chaired this session’s panel, and opened by stating that “the idea of participation is beyond that which we have ever known.” Although in the global North, we might consider this to mean the many forms of social media in terms of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and now Google +, these mediums can in fact be limited in their scope in the global South.

In some countries in the global South, Owen described how technology, arguably like democracy, does not necessarily have to be perfect (whatever perfect may be taken to mean, democracy not being an easily transferable template), but it is indeed a necessity.

Necessity too, comes in different forms, and for technology to have the most impact, it must be as relevant and accessible to as many people as possible, whether they care to call themselves activists or not.

In an excellent video demonstrating what could be expected if the Amnesty ICM 2011 travelled in a  time machine forward to 2015, as Yogi Berra has stated, and Owen quoted, “the future ain’t what it used to be.” In the video, there featured a futuristic news piece talking about Burma suffering an uprising under the hands of the junta. In 2015, the time travelling machine reported that the junta would cut the internet access to Burmese citizens as a result of an uprising, but they could access the internet through suitcases distributed throughout Burma, using up excess bandwidth. However, even this technology of internet in suitcases is not as useful as technology that maybe we often take for granted in the global North.

Technology is limited in human rights work if the latest computer or the most advanced smartphone cannot be used for empowerment, impact, and active participation, and if others in our community do not have access to the same technologies as others, using them will not always mobilise as many people as is necessary.

Salil Shetty, Secretary General, discussed the importance of the immediacy of mobile phones and FM radio, which facilitate the ability for urgency when communicating with individuals and communities, giving case studies of Nepal and parts of Africa. Amnesty has distributed many FM radios to individuals in Burma, as this is the most effective way of communicating news to many communities. The campaign was launched two days after Aung San Suu Kyi’s release in November 2010. The impact that the use of FM radio can have on human rights action is huge, very quickly mobilising communities, and not requiring a privacy policy like social media – listening to radio can be anonymous.

Emin Milli, a guest speaker who talked via Skype from Azerbaijan elaborated on this, suggested that rather, it is the human part of technology that we must concentrate on, as opposed to the inverse. How you expose injustices and get attention is what is most essential.

On the other hand, Rakesh Rajani, talking via Skype from Tanzania, suggested that offline media will always have restrictions whereas online media will not. However, even though there will always be a place for your view online, what is the difference online between rights and responsibilities? Do the same responsibilities apply in both the on and offline worlds?

We were also privileged to have the insight of Ramy Raoof from Egypt on Skype, and what all speakers agreed on is that the most important kind of action is offline activism and impact, and finally, that online movements cannot exist without some kind of offline participation. When thinking about how to best utilise technology for human rights work, we should not necessarily strive to use the latest and most advanced, but what is most relevant to the people who want to fight for their rights, and being creative whilst doing so.

About Michelle Kelly

Michelle Kelly is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York, UK. This blog is produced by students on her Literature and Human Rights MA module.
This entry was posted in Blogs, English, Tech for human rights. Bookmark the permalink.

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