My post hoc pre-interview for Guardian Activate 2010

Matt McAlister and Robin Hough of The Guardian were kind enough to ask me to speak at their Activate conference last Thursday, on which, more in due course, but I was also invited to give a pre-interview for their site.  I didn’t have time to contribute it before the day of the conference itself, but I thought I’d post it here anyway:

How, in your experience, have web technologies been employed to make the world a better place?

Improving access to information (for those that can access it), enabling people to share new perspectives (though there’s some way to go on diversity), and slowly and still a little randomly offering ways to challenge and hold power and authority to account.  Video specifically is very powerful – it offers both very direct and human ways to interact, and to see directly and feel more viscerally and authentically what is happening in many more places than we could before.  As more and more historical and archive visual material gets preserved, digitised and shared, it’s fascinating to watch what changes when people have access to their visual histories, especially in places where this hasn’t previously been possible.

And where for you are the real problem areas that remain that you think the internet and its associated technologies can help to tackle?

There are so many things we need to think about, and rethink – here are a couple of things that preoccupy me:

One of the big shifts I was working on at WITNESS was looking at how the human rights field is increasingly affected by new and emerging non-traditional players – technology/social media companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter, and hardware companies like Nokia.  Although these new players offer new arenas and publics for human rights work, their products weren’t designed with human rights challenges in mind, and therefore can expose many more people, and human rights activists in particular, to new, networked vulnerabilities.  These companies need to update and adapt their technology and policies to be more protective of human rights workers, and of wider populations – for instance, in the area of privacy and anonymity, or in thinking collectively about the legal/copyright status of human rights content online.

Beyond this, the perennial issue is overcoming barriers to access – whether we are talking about poor infrastructure or connectivity, a culture of censorship, literacy barriers, poverty or other kinds of exclusion.  Mobile’s important, but it’s only one part of a solution.  It’s good to see the UK’s Digital Champion, Martha Lane Fox, and Beth Noveck speaking at Activate – these aren’t just developing world challenges, they’re present in our societies too.  And we need to be a bit more realistic about what participation means, and understand better how online participation meshes with offline participation.

So what projects are you currently engaged in on a day to day basis and how does the internet fit into this?

Opportunities opened up by the internet, and through networks generally, to strengthen public understanding, debate and participation in human rights and social justice are pretty central to the work I do and hope to do with NGOs, media, foundations, and so on.  I’ve started gently since returning from New York to live in London last month – co-writing a series of posts about human rights video online as a collaboration between YouTube and WITNESS, doing some work for a US-based foundation, and interviewing psychoanalyst Adam Phillips about his new book On Balance, which touches on some of these topics, for BOMB Magazine.

Who do you admire in this space? Who’s inspiring you? Who’s pushing the boundaries and how?

Just so many people!  Here’s who comes to mind today…  Stamen for information design and visualisation; Berg London’s work and blog is professionally essential; danah boyd, Mizuko Ito, Molly Land and many other researchers; edge.org is always thought-provoking; there’s an incredibly good blog by the World Bank on communication and media in development; and I love Pete Brook’s Prison Photography Blog, where he talks about visual culture and activism; anthropologists/ethnographers Jan Chipchase and Dawn Nafus.  Got to stop there – too many people to mention – we’d be here all week.

And what can we expect from your presentation at Activate 10?

I’m going to talk a little about the recent history of human rights video online, the work I and colleagues did at WITNESS, and where I think things are going next – and I am really hoping that we have time for genuine conversation, as not just the list of speakers, but also the attendees I already know are pretty stellar and diverse.

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1 comment
  1. petebrook said:

    Sameer. Thank you very much for the mention. I’ve never thought of myself as an activist (in the traditional sense), but maybe I don’t see the logic behind prison reform as radical anymore … I feel as though I am making common sense arguments. Perhaps, that cajoling of audience is the biggest test of position-based commentary? Also, the other writers/critics you mention are a real treat. Exploring those will take me all week! Got to stop now.

    Best, Pete

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