On Blogging in the Classroom

I'm leading the last session of Patrick and my Digital Democracy course tonight. To prepare, I was sifting through the fantastic set of student blog posts from throughout the semester. The diversity of topics, opinion and writing style reminded me of Andrew Sullivan's piece from November 2008 in The Atlantic. Andrew writes:

...as blogging evolves as a literary form, it is generating a new and quintessentially postmodern idiom that's enabling writers to express themselves in ways that have never been seen or understood before. Its truths are provisional, and its ethos collective and messy. Yet the interaction it enables between writer and reader is unprecedented, visceral and sometimes brutal.
I think assigning blogging in college (or high school) classes helps students develop their voice, not just within the bounds of formal writing, but by encouraging the exploration of the relationship between themselves and the content they are exploring.

Here are a few excerpts from some of the students in my class. They are representative of breadth of content we discussed in the class, but perhaps more importantly, they embody the wide range of voices we all take on when blogging.

Matt writes on Nerding Out on Undersea Cables:
The fact that a huge part of Africa relies on satellite to connect to the internet completely blew my mind, and when I found that even our connection to the internet here in Boston tenuously relies on the well-being of a few bottleneck points I decided to do some more research into the history of the backbone of the World Wide Web.
Sam reflects on the role of the Internet in the larger activism narrative:
“Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine; I’m on the pavement thinking about the government.” Bob Dylan said that in 1965. The midpoint of an era that shook, like a withdrawn junkie, with political unrest. And to put it lightly, ain’t shit changed — just the names, faces and places….oh yeah, and now we have this thing called the internet. Once upon a time, the markings of a true activist were physical action and the robust will to stand in harm’s way; bottles broken in streets, sit-ins, Molotov cocktails and marches. Today the political landscape has changed. Concurrently, the weapons we use to fight injustice on this terrain have evolved. After all, who wants to sit in a Humvee with paper thin siding when the freedom fighters* come?
Aaron critiques the DigiActive Introduction to Facebook Activism:
A DigiActive Introduction to Facebook Activism” gives a concise overview of how to best use Facebook to achieve a successful campaign. While I believe the advice given in the guide is fairly helpful, I believe it grossly overestimates the power of digital tools for grassroots movements looking to achieve substantial reform. There are three criticisms of the guide that I have which concern accountability, sustainability, and results.
Hui discusses jailed bloggers:

jailed bloggers = violation of human rights = repressive government = INJUSTICE

The above is a primitive expression of the thought process most individuals seem to take on when the subject of jailed bloggers is broached. Yet, for me, the subject of jailed bloggers immediately brought to mind the two Singaporean bloggers who were jailed for their offensive racist remarks. Here, another formula is proposed:

jailed bloggers = due punishment for action harmful to other persons/society = enforcement of law + maintenance of civil society = JUSTICE

Why this difference? Are they mutually exclusive?


Digitally Doing Business | A Hypothetical

Imagine two teams of engineering students, the first in Silicon Valley and the second in Nairobi. Each of the these teams develops an equally sophisticated and useful SMS-based mobile phone software application that will allow health clinics to create automated responses to reproductive health questions submitted to them via SMS. For example, women in the developing world who send SMSs about HIV/AIDS, pregnancy or condoms would automatically receive detailed information about these requests. They often have no other source of reliable information. Each group believe this product can be profitably marketed to health clinics and aid agencies around the developing world.

It is well understood that entrepreneurs in the developing world (the Kenyans in our example) face significant legal and institutional barriers from reaping the benefits of their good ideas. Measurements such as the World Bank Doing Business Index, as well as the management, political science and economics literatures have addressed these barriers in detail. They include, but are not limited to, the ability to secure seed capital, incorporate and legally protect a business, transfer money both domestically and across borders and efficiently and flexibly find employees well-positioned to perform. In short, much of the developing world suffers from a poor institutional ecosystem for doing business.

This post marks the start of a series of blog posts that ask the question: to what extent can new digital institutions help entrepreneurs circumvent poor institutional ecosystems and privately re-design their incentives landscape? As more of the machinations of global commerce go digital, new tools are emerging that would help the Kenyans in our example lower some of these barriers. The Digitally Doing Business series will explore new opportunities ranging from digitally registering as a US company regardless of physical location to securing previously unavailable venture funds and low-cost payments from abroad to distributing work to employees via mobile phones.

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Contrarians of Philanthrocapitalism

A few months ago I drafted a technology for international development proposal for the Obama Administration. This was one piece in a broader effort to get the official foreign assistance community to embrace the values of the Africa tech community: experimentation, low cost innovation, local solutions and flexibility.

This largely tracks with Matthew Bishop's notion of Philanthrocapitalism:

While hopefully some of the world's problems will be solved using for-profit business models, many will not. But that does not mean they can not be addressed in a businesslike way, in the sense of serious focus on results; understanding where to use scarce resources to have the greatest impact through leverage; a determination to quickly scale up solutions that work and a toughness in shutting down those that do not; backing entrepreneurial, innovative approaches to problems; forming partnerships with whoever will get the job done soonest and best and taking big risks in the hope of achieving outsize impact.
In the latest issue of Dissent, Alix Rule offers one critique of philanthrocapitalism from the Left that can not be ignored:

The 'sensibility of giving a damn' isn't really much to commit to; conveniently, most everyone's already committed. But mere possession of a moral pulse doesn't provide much of a basis for decision-making. Yet, when good is like money, individuals do not need coherent approaches to it any more than institutions do; there are no trade-offs or hierarchies or conflicting loyalties here, either. In place of a critical moral framework, we're furnished with a sort of cabinet of curiosities, the decontextualized contexts of which are presumably to be enjoyed as peculiarly shaped artifacts of good...Absent the semblance of context- we're ill equipped to judge.
Any marketplace for good risks being overtaken by possible oligarchs (Gates, Soros), falling prey to glossy marketing at the expense of accuracy and context (Save Darfur) or simply continuing to exclude the recipients of aid. Overcoming these dilemmas is the challenge of foreign assistance community in our time.

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Net Effects in Moldova

via b|zzare's photostream

One of the great things about teaching about digital democracy is that every week there is a new story about the effect of the Internet on global politics. This week was no exception. 10,000 students emerged in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau to protest the communist government. One of my favorite new blogs, Foreign Policy's Net Effect, hosted by my friend Evgeny Morozov, has a great overview of the role Twitter played in keeping the Moldova protests popular online [for a while the Twitter handle #pman, short for the biggest square in Chisinau, was listed as one of Twitter's Trending Topics].

As he notes at the start of the post, Evgeny seems to find my Berkman Center paper on the role of technology in Ukraine's Orange Revolution to suffer from a bout of cyber-optimism. This is certainly not the case. My thesis of the paper is to challenge those like Michael McFaul who argue that "the Orange Revolution may have been the first in history to be organized largely online." I argue that:
In the case of Ukraine it is evident that pro-democracy forces used the Internet and cell phones more effectively than the pro-government forces, such that in this specific time and place these technologies weighed in on the side of democracy.
The successful revolution in the Ukraine was the product of really good organizers who leveraged technology to be more effective than they would have otherwise been. A few hours after his original post, Evgeny provided a great bit of follow-up analysis by pointing out the different role that technology played this week in Moldova and those five years ago in Ukraine.


mBanking 2009: Balancing Innovation and Regulation

Mobile banking in Africa has everyone's attention. Mobile companies are realizing a new revenue stream, banks furrow their brows over possible new competitors and NGOs hail a new venue for the poor to access capital. The Fletcher School's Center for Emerging Market Enterprises, along with the Central Bank of Kenya, are hosting a conference on May 25-26 in Nairobi to address how central banks and regulators should respond to the explosion of mobile banking:

M-Banking 2009: Balancing Innovation and Regulation” conference is:

a student-led initiative that seeks to bring together more than 100 key stakeholders in the mobile banking sector—regulators, financial institutions, telecoms, customers, and mobile service entrepreneurs—in an effort to shift the dialogue around mobile banking from the risks it presents to the social benefits and business opportunities it provides. The conference will focus on the identification of tangible m-banking policies that strike a balance between increasing access for the underserved and controlling misuse of these new systems. The current nature of the m-banking sector and potential future developments will be explored.
The announcement of this conference also marks a new focus on mobile finance on this blog. In the coming week or so, I'll be writing about the best ideas in both the industry and regulatory space of mobile banking. My writings have addressed the industry and civic implications of more and cheaper Internet on the continent. In parallel to this discussion of a freer exchange of ideas, I'll also be discussing about a freer exchange of capital.