On the useleseness of digital activism academia
I’ve been taking quite a lot of heat lately for a somewhat promiscuous use of anecdotes in my quest to push against "Internet helps democracy" meme (see, for example, David Sasaki of Global Voices here and Patrick Meier of DigiActive here and here – Patrick’s are responses to my cover story in the December issue ...
I've been taking quite a lot of heat lately for a somewhat promiscuous use of anecdotes in my quest to push against "Internet helps democracy" meme (see, for example, David Sasaki of Global Voices here and Patrick Meier of DigiActive here and here - Patrick's are responses to my cover story in the December issue of Prospect; I also responded to him already on my blog).
I’ve been taking quite a lot of heat lately for a somewhat promiscuous use of anecdotes in my quest to push against "Internet helps democracy" meme (see, for example, David Sasaki of Global Voices here and Patrick Meier of DigiActive here and here – Patrick’s are responses to my cover story in the December issue of Prospect; I also responded to him already on my blog).
To summarize, in his two responses Patrick vehemently attacks me for basking in "anecdotal heaven" – as opposed, of course, to the "data hell" that he finds himself in – and does this probably a dozen times (and I do feel sorry for him – I hope Tufts, where he’s completing his PhD, will compensate him adequately for this struggle against anecdotes).
Let me make a confession first: I love sound and informative data as much as the next guy. However, when the data is missing, I don’t bite my lips – like some academics do – and strive to stimulate and enhance public debate instead. Why? Because it doesn’t really matter what I decide to do in the end – CNN, FoxNews and others would invariably jump to conclusions about the "Twitter revolution in Iran" or the brave Chinese bloggers taking on the government. Normally, they would also completely disregard whatever complexities and local nuances are usually present in authoritarian countries.
My choice is to step into the fray, take the risk of being wrong (as I have been – for example, on the question of the Twitter revolution in Moldova), and try to introduce a more nuanced perspective on the role/use of technologies. This way, the public can at least hear a more nuanced perspective. Do I feel happy doing it without having the perfect data to support my talking points? I don’t – but then again, I do know that I’ve made the best effort to acquaint myself with what is out there, both data and anecdote-wise. I can’t say the same of many other people talking about the Internet & democracy.
The major problem with Patrick’s criticism of my methods – which I think is representative of the new media academia in general – is that he believes in a world where not taking a public position – however flawed your data or arguments are – is a far better option than joining the public debate with imperfect data and arguments. On some issues, it probably is – many issues simply would not be discussed were it for people pushing them onto the public agenda – but to let much of the digital hysteria over the Internet’s impact on democracy to go unchallenged, unchecked, and unverified is simply too demanding of a thing to ask , because decisions taken by funders, governments, and NGOs have repercussions far beyond their control.
Had Patrick decided to drop his numerous extracurricular activities and instead get us his magic data two years ago, I would have been perfectly happy to quote it when I got on television or the radio to discuss Iran or Moldova. Unfortunately, neither television nor radio would wait until Patrick completes his PhD to inform their viewers and listeners about what happened in Iran and what role the Internet played there. That’s simply how public debate works in democracies and I frankly do not understand Patrick’s problems with it.
If my critics want me to shut up and cede the microphone to some pundit-robot from a DC think-tank, well, I am not going to do that. And it’s not just the media; it’s also the government and the foundations – all of those need to quickly digest and interpret the situation to decide what to do next. Unfortunately, they can’t wait for 10 years for some academic to tell them the exact role that new media played in Iran. Academics should either step up to the challenge and join the public debate – with data or not – or risk marginalization otherwise.
Would I feel more comfortable getting someone to pay me to spend the next 10 years to build a model that would tell me little that is new, interesting, or explanatory – just to be on the safer side in a public argument? Probably yes – especially, if I was an academic looking for a cool research gig. But I am not. I am not trying to build a model nor am I trying to test anything. My only function in this debate is to serve as a critic, i.e. take someone’s argument, engage with it and spot holes and inconsistencies in its structure. And yes, finding inconsistencies in arguments – at least as far as Karl Popper is concerned – involves finding examples that would disprove the initial hypothesis.
Why don’t I produce any data? Because I wasn’t trained to do it, don’t want to do it, and don’t believe that gathering/testing data on most issues connected to digital activism is going to get us far ahead in this debate. I do not collect data for the same reasons that orchestra conductors do not fly planes. I can, of course, further push the argument that much of the data that is gathered by academics is to a large degree useless and doesn’t really tell us much – but hey, I’ll pass on that opportunity here. It’s a bit silly to think that having over a gazillion data points from a gazillion countries gathered over a gazillion years would illuminate what really happened last summer in Iran. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply spends too much time in academia.
I doubt that Patrick is the first person to get hurt by my criticism of the field. I can even sense and understand a growing backlash against my ideas because I am attacking many of the key premises on which the very field of digital activism – and much of its philanthropic support – is based. My criticism is certainly not good news for many people working in this field, both from academic, professional, and financial perspectives. But it’s their problem not mine. As long as the mainstream media keep producing drivel about the Internet and academics continue shying away from the public debate, I think my role is justified and safe.
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