In July 2009, I attended the International School on Digital Transformation summer school held at the University of Porto – also referred to as ISDT09. As a first-time event, co-organized by the University of Texas at Austin (as part of their collaboration program with Portuguese universities), the summer school brought together around 80 scholars and professionals from different fields for an intense one-week program around digital innovation and its role for society, politics and culture.
When ISDT09 ended with a farewell dinner at a Porto wine cave on Friday, July 24, everybody I talked to had similar feelings – the school had been a highly inspiring event, connecting many people from all over the world and raising questions that for sure have been further discussed and advanced between the participants since then. In other words, both organizers and participants agreed the summer school was a big success.
This was the first event of its kind – envisioned by Gary Chapman, based on the model of the annual “International School on Disarmament and Resolution of Conflicts” (ISODARCO) in Italy. Regarding the core inspiration from ISODARCO, the idea to create a global network of friends and colleagues from all over the world around the topic of digital transformation, I believe this well-organised event has fully achieved its main goal. From day one, everybody’s mindset was to enjoy and utilise the offered variety of people, topics and networks to the highest degree – dialog, inspiration and sharing ideas were in advance set as the desired spirit for the school – and an apparently well-selected crowd of people did exactly that. Naturally, not every goal can always be met on the first run; in particular, there had been some critical voices about a lack of interaction between faculty and students outside the sessions.
With the design of the event deliberately open to a certain extent, a lot of things were “crowdsourced” during the week, for example a set of very productive Barcamp sessions (spontaneous meet-ups to discuss a certain topic in an informal setting) during the lunch breaks. Only the digital backchannels would have profited from a little more top-down management – with a forum, a blog, a wiki, Twitter, Zotero, Facebook and many other channels being added throughout the week, it was at times almost impossible to follow where to find the most relevant information. Also the archiving of the presentation files and presentation notes has been patchy, which means that quite some interesting material is no longer accessible.
The networking among the participants has continued to be very active ever since we left Porto; collaborative papers have been written, fruitful discussions have been continued and reports about “reunions” between participants are a regular sight in the Facebook feeds for many of us. 2010 will see a new edition of the ISDT, for sure with the learnings of 2009 applied and aiming at creating an evenly valuable event for its participants. And apart from that, there is no doubt new reunions, collaborations and projects are going to take place that can somehow be traced back to those hot July days of Porto 2009.
Digital transformation – a call to action for civic engagement
The program at the Reitoria, the main building of the University of Porto, started with the core topic of the school: “digital transformation”. The term already provides a lot of room for interpretation, but I believe there was a certain smallest common denominator in the participants’ understanding of what it means: the application of digital technology has become a – if not the – major variable in present society, policy and culture. This transformation into a “digital society” brings along considerable changes both in the realities we are facing and as a new set of tools waiting to be utilised.
Doug Schuler’s talk on “Reinventing Social Thought and Action with Civic Intelligence” framed the opening session as a discussion on the role of social innovation driven by activists in reaction to social needs. Doug’s presentation on how “problems are growing a lot faster than solutions” was spiced with examples of civic intelligence and the statement that we may be doomed without taking an activist approach to research, since elites can’t or won’t solve the problems we are facing. His call for civic activism and policies based on civic intelligence to make use of the creative potential and dedication of the masses for agency was a good start for ISDT09, which focused a lot on grassroots movements and civic activism.
Some of the points brought up in the following discussion were how the history of media is all about hackers packaging up and consolidating their inventions and that the use of commercial services for civic intelligence may mean loosing the chance to do something revolutionary. Open is winning closed, many of those speaking up agreed, and it was also stressed out that technology is no holy grail and the “web 2.0″ will not naturally lead to a democratic society.
Day 1 continued around the topic of activism and social change, with Nicholas Reville talking about “Social Change Infrastructure, Building Value into the Way our World Works”. Nicholas discussed how to achieve change by building a society of participation and engagement, providing two strategic approaches: by defining the debate (i.e. engaging in critical public discourse) or by building social infrastructure (Wikipedia and Mozilla, for example).
Nicholas illustrated the restricting factor of using already existing tools, as they are limiting the emergence of new modes of interaction and presented the two most famous examples for how closed many of today’s mainstream products are: Apple’s iStore, where the computer manufacturer regulates what software the users of their products are allowed to run, and the recent Amazon Kindle case where (ironically) Orwell’s book “1984″ was remotely deleted from the devices of users who had legally purchased it since Amazon was unsure whether they had the right to distribute it.
To overcome the naturally proprietary and narrow interest of corporations, Nicholas called for activism by different social groups to shape the world ourselves: he sees academics as the “climate scientists” (working on the meta-level of the development), suggests students to be activists and organisations to align their technology with their values. Last but not least, he emphasised the huge social return on investment for foundations like Mozilla and Wikipedia, calling for an emphasis on a venture approach to social infrastructure.
Micah L. Sifry rounded up the day with a critical presentation about “The Useful Myth of the Obama Campaign”, where he declared the “web 2.0 meets politics” interpretation of Barack Obama’s election campaign to be a myth while in reality it was just very professional 21st century marketing. His presentation aimed at showing how the campaign indeed had elements of “voter-generated activism”, but in the end the design of the campaign was not about sharing power (in the sense of real political participation through user-generated content) but about distributing the tasks of the election campaign (e.g. reaching more small donors, compared to the other candidates).
The current state of digital transformation
On the second day, the topics evolved around access and participation in the current online world, kicking off with Siva Vaidhyanathan and his lecture on “The Googlization of Everything”. Starting from his concerns about Google as a 7-year-old corporation having enough money to attempt scanning entire libraries, while public libraries don’t, the presentation lead to the main pillars of Google’s business: letting users express themselves through their behaviour and monetizing their passions by offering a “free” service (free in terms of marginal costs, but not total costs – in the end the user becomes a product herself).
Posing the provocative question whether we are so desperate that we are willing to let a corporation take on this utterly important task of making the web’s content accessible, Siva encouraged to consider the cultural, social and political consequences of “Googlization”. He presented the “dream of universal access to knowledge” as a dream of many a thousand years, and showed examples how far Google’s search results are from universality and neutrality. While Siva presented his vision of a public approach to building a global library, the following discussion also brought up the media literacy point of view: what Google is doing is not wrong as such, but there would be a need to make people more aware that Google’s results are a filtered view on reality.
Martha’s talk titled “Access Cultures and the Construction of Networked Citizenship in the American Technopolis” was about growing citizens’ communicative competence as a precondition for its use. Based on research carried out in Austin, Texas, she showed how the reduced funding for public internet access infrastructure led to the fact that people in poorer areas face more effort/costs to achieve goals through internet tools than citizens with an internet PC at home. The often-praised “open WiFi access” projects also do not neccessarily improve the situation, as the precondition of access to a portable computer is again subject to underlying social inequalities. Yet, networked citizenship demands the building of skills and knowledge capacities at a local level, with the ultimate goal being to ensure equal access for all levels of society.
The topic of Alison’s presentation was “The Future of the Internet from the Bottom Up”: autonomous internet infrastructure projects. A variety of projects from mash networks to open WiFi initiatives served as examples how citizen-built networks have played an important role in transforming the infrastructure of the internet (e.g. the Berlin Freifunk mash network project that enabled internet access in East Berlin after the German reunification and through their activism eventually influenced the telecom monopolist to reduce their prices). She asked to consider whether there is a bottom to the cloud and minded the audience to remember that organisations always lose some of their autonomy once they successfully grow to a size that requires management.
In the evening session, Jorge Martins Rosa talked about “Flow – Understanding the Latest Trend of Social Networking”, where he used a quote from Tim Berners-Lee, how the “web 2.0″ paradigm underlying current social networking is just a more immediate form of the original web (1.0). He described the fractions of blog mentions over time as a “heartbeat” and made analogies between the historical Netscape Navigator “What’s new” buttons and the rivers of news in Google reader, Twitter and other media.
After the first day with topics mainly around the potential of civic activism on the one side and the problem of corporate/centralised development on the other side, this second day discussed the role of access and participation from an overall perspective. We talked a lot about digital literacy, social inequalities and participation as preconditions if we want to interpret “digital transformation” as a phenomenon that really changes society.
Digital transformation and its manifestations
The third day of ISDT09 was taking the debate to a very concrete level. This day was all about presentations of cases, and the related learnings for an analysis of digital transformation. The morning sessions first featured two presenters talking about citizen participation in e-administration and e-democracy, then two presenters sharing regional insight into two less developed regions of the world. The afternoon line-up promised two very concrete talks about possibilities for social and economic development by the means of ICT.
First up, Rui Barros (“Technology Issues and Small Municipalities”) and Fiorella de Cindio (“Facilitating Participation and Deliberation at the Urban Level”) gave two case-centered presentations about the difficulty of facilitating citizen participation online in a top-down manner.
In his example of e-ASLA, an e-administration pilot project, Rui emphasised how the design of such services has to be anchored in the people’s knowledge of existing processes, not in pushing people to a different reality. Somebody said in the discussion that ideally, a public e-service would be discovered by the citizens in just the same way as people “found” MySpace and other fun-related web services.
Fiorella used the analogy of democracy as a three-legged stool – government, economy and civil society – to point out that e-participation requires a space where people feel acquainted to participate and that these are usually on grassroots level rather than in governmental services. She presented the design process of a community network with its underlying features such as authentication, registration and how to ensure fairness. In the following discussion, it was pointed out that deliberative democracy is not representative democracy, with passive participation having to be considered as a design factor. Also, the role of anonymity (still today one of the core features for many communities online) as a protection to participate was brought up.
Scott’s talk “Slouching toward digital apartheid in Latin America” addressed the inequality of online access (and literacy) in Mexcio due to the shift in public internet access policy from state-funded telecenters to privately owned cybercafes. He described how cybercafes gives only access to computers – to those who can afford – , but not the learning environment of telecenters. The core problem here, as was elaborated in the discussion, is that the elites who are the policy makers do not care about the digitally excluded and therefore no innovation in this field is to be expected from them.
Warigia started her part on “Challenges and opportunities for information technology policy in East Africa” with an outline of “Africa”. By no means is there only one Africa, but we are talking about circa 45 countries. Still, many of these areas share the lowest penetration rates of digital technology in the world and “information technology” mainly refers to paper and pen, radio and simple mobile phone devices (whose penetration is a lot higher than many Westerners may think). Apart from all the engineering problems (no undersea cable, with all of East Africa running the Internet on satellite, low bandwidth, simple devices etc.), the major challenges are how to develop literacy – possibly by combining digital literacy and literacy – and how to find socially and culturally appropriate solutions based on participatory design processes that consider Africans as agents not passive recipients of technology.
In the afternoon session, Katrin Verclas talked about “Mobile Phones and Social Development”. The talk started with an inspiring reconsideration of the term “online”, with Katrin proposing to use “connected” instead, as “online” puts emphasise only on the internet part of digital communication. A lot of research is still needed to gain proper insight into how mobile phones can really improve people’s lives – apart from all kind of hype about their impact on social development. Emphasizing the ubiquity of mobile phones, Katrin showed a variety of projects that successfully used mobiles for social change and advocacy. However, she added very critical notes that “we are not there yet”: from her point of view, the mobile phone is the next big thing after the traditional computer, but there is again a big risk of a (mobile) digital divide. For example it is very questionable whether cheap phones are really the right solution for poor people – what they would really need are sophisticated devices.
Katrin’s presentation was a call for action for researchers to put more emphasis on the use context of mobile phones (needs and patterns of use, capabilities) as well as on software, policies, operators, carriers etc. (topics like open source, bottom-up innovation and “mobile phone eco-systems”). The prevalence of the mobile phone is impressive, she concluded, but there is a huge unused potential for the open and universal use of the technology.
The following video clip was produced for Nokia during the summer school, featuring TEDx fellow Katrin’s non-profit and the event’s inspiring environment as well as some of the people of ISDT09:
Tapan Parikh‘s talk “Sustainable Economic Development and Information Systems” continued around the topic of mobile phones, with the presenter using examples of failed interaction design projects for rural communities in developing countries to illustrate how for example the support for voice makes phones such excellent devices. Couldn’t the concept of the internet be developed to support oral communication? Tapan had a variety of examples to show how the established “design thinking” of the developed world fails miserably in the context of infrastructural issues (power, connectivity), rural community users (culture, education, literacy) and human capital (designers, developers).
The success cases he presented made creative use of voice mailboxes for an agricultural knowledge exchange or enabled true two-way communication between fair trade farmers and their consumers – both based on participatory design with deep insight into the needs of the respective communities. He concluded with three “lessons learned” for success: 1) tools provided should help people help themselves, 2) existing institutions should be empowered instead of creating new institutions and 3) the systems should provide advanced feedback mechanisms in order to improve them.
Katrin’s and Tapan’s talks were followed by a lively debate, in which both had the chance to answer some critical questions posed. It was interesting to see how the development of design, technology and policy are going hand in hand regarding the challenges (use of appropriate and affordable tools) and the approaches needed (focus on the real needs of the user, development of existing structures).
I see day 3 mainly as a continuation of day 2, taking the topics of access, literacy and development to the next level. Also, this Wednesday quite naturally added the topic of design to the curriculum. After considering the circumstances of the digital transformation, it is a viable extension of the debate to also talk about its tools and how they are built.
After the lectures, the summer school went on an excursion: First for a guided tour to the Casa de Música, the impressive concert hall built for Porto’s year as European Culture Capital (though it was finished only years later, in 2005). There, we also got a short first-hand summary from a simultaneous summer school, the “2009 Summer School in Sound and Music Computing”. Then, we enjoyed a dinner party on board one of the river cruise ships on the Douro river (and eventually ended up in some bar downtown).
Digitally transformed means of activism
Thursday continued around the topics of tools and their design, again – as on the previous day – with many of the presentations based on real world benchmarks and their analysis.
Environmental movements and their websites are at the core of Laura Stein’s research, which she presented in her talk “Social Movement Communication”. Based on examples and strategies for web use by some environmental organisations, Laura showed some of the opportunities and challenges of the web for these groups.
The second speaker of the morning session was Tiago Peixoto, who presented his research on “Participatory Budgeting”, the process of citizen participation in public budgeting and the monitoring of public budgets. The increasing number of participatory budgeting projects worldwide are a good example for e-democracy as a process of participating citizens in decision making. One of the visualisations used by the lecturer showed an inverted pyramid, representing how the least popular schemes for participatory budgeting voting takes up the most screen space.
Some of the speakers, as Tiago in the previous talks, had already been utilizing powerful visualisations to support their message. Next, Tanya Notley from the Tactical Technology Collective gave a great presentation “Visualizing Data for Social Change” on the use of visualisation methods for advocacy – information activism, as they call it. Including the case studies of the Ushahidi and Frontline SMS project, Tanya’s lecture was an inspiring session on how to effectively use the power of digital media by making complex data easier to digest.
We continued in several breakout groups, each with its own topic. I attended the debate on “digital literacy”, where we discussed the problem that not only visualizing information is important, but also educating its consumers to frame it correctly. Afterwards, Tanya distributed some of Tactical Tech’s excellent guide books, which are a highly recommended read and available online.
Christian Sandvig shared valuable thinking about content distribution and its manifestations in the internet of today, in a talk titled “Networked Television Beyond Television Networks: The Policy Problems of Internet Video Distribution”. His argumentation contains the thought of two internets: the internet serving content people want to see – content that can easily be stored with a regular internet provider (think of blogs, “homepages”, documents) – and the internet serving content that is popular and therefore requires content distribution networks (CDNs) to serve it to the masses, such as videos etc. This division, and the enormous economical but also political power these CDNs (Youtube, AOL etc.) are aggregating, can be considered a major threat to the freedom of the internet and the independence of digital media.
Control and public policy
Friday’s topics were aspects of control and policy around the process of digital transformation, with three presentations. It is probably a good sign when a conference provides so much food for thought that a certain saturation point is reached already before it has ended. I perceived this last day of ISDT09 as challenging in that so many impressions had already to be digested from the days before. Reviewing my lecture notes and reflecting on the final sessions, I have to admit that my memories of the day are only fragmented and I focused on subtracting the core message from the presentations with an apparent lack of attention to detail.
Patricia Aufderheide’s lecture on “Copyright and Creativity: Correcting the Imbalance” took off with a brief overview on the history of copyright. Initially introduced to promote the creation of culture by rewarding creators with a limited monopoly and to encourage the creators of new content to build upon existing culture, the intent of copyright was to serve the interest of the public. Lately, however, copyright has been turned into the base of mass media’s business, where a strict enforcement of content rights is intended to protect the income of those companies.
Patricia presented the four core problems of copyright imbalance, as she titled the emphasis on business rather than the promotion of culture: 1) The licensing of content is a very complicated process, with a global media being subject to many regional laws. 2) Abandoned property – “orphan works” – cannot be used even somebody might have use for it. 3) Technical protection of content to enforce copyright hinders its fair use as well, since breaking the protection even for a legal purpose is a crime. 4) There is no international regulation on “fair use” or other balanced use of copyrighted material. In the end, we discussed some of the example solutions how to expand the rights of use for copyrighted material both on governmental and civic level, such as Creative Commons and others.
Next up was “Legal and Technical Control and Resistance on the Internet”, presented by Sunil Abraham. His talk was structured into three threads: legal, alternative and illegal – elaborating on how IPR have turned the internet into a sphere where civil rights and accountability have eroded, how open standards and open source attempt to undermine the rules of this internet lock-down and how piracy is effectively circumventing it. Maybe the most striking example from the presentation was the story of Indian medical students who cannot afford the expensive books required for their studies and therefore are photocopying them – eventually those societies owning the copyright (the West in particular) are indirectly profiting from this act of piracy by recruiting highly qualified personnel from India.
Last but not least, Leslie Regan Shade gave a talk about “Public Interest Activism in Canadian ICT Policy: Blowin’ in the Policy Winds”. She presented three milestones in Canadian ICT policy and the involvement of academics and citizen activists in their creation. Showing how “the public” is participating in policy making regarding information technology, Leslie pointed out how important it is that academics in the field consider grassroots movements as an important player in the policy making process.
Leslie’s presentation, which she ended with a brief summary of ISDT09 from her point of view, smoothly concluded the program of the summer school, taking us back to where we started from – the role of activism in the process of digital transformation.
A visit to a Porto wine cellar with a delicious dinner accompanied by some sweet Port wine and traditional Fado music closed the first International School on Digital Transformation and the next morning mostly everybody went their way.
How I was digitally transformed by ISDT09
All this – and my report above is for sure only a very compressed, subjective and selective summary – was accompanied by tens of hours of face-to-face discussions (and some simultaneous live chatter on Twitter) that complemented and continued the topics from the sessions – apart from getting to know the beauty of Porto and the great variety of food and pastry in the nearby restaurants and cafes. Portugal and our Portuguese fellows have been great hosts, that is for sure the least disputable statement regarding the event.
To put it short: ISDT09 was a blast. My expectations were high but unspecific, and in retrospective this summer school turned out to be pretty close to what I had been hoping for. I enjoyed the unique combination of enthusiasm and criticism, the discourse between academia and practitioners and – while at some point there was some criticism the event would be a little bit too US-centric – I had a great time spending so much time surrounded by Americans. For us Europeans, collaboration with people from Northern, Southern, Western and Eastern Europe has become almost a matter of course (and by emphasizing the presence of Americans I by no means intend to say I didn’t enjoy everybody else’s company just as much), that I personally perceived it as an enriching factor to have so much time to engage in cross-Atlantic discussions and exchange of opinions.
On the downside, I have a feeling that a lot of people did not have the chance to express most of their opinions and comments during the sessions, due to the very lecture-based format of the school and the big amount of participants – even though every session included a Q&A debate. Personally, I recall the most interactive sessions to have been classes where the speakers involved the audience as part of the presentation (for example in Katrin’s session), changed the seating order from a classroom set-up to a big circle (two/three sessions, if I remember correct) or split the audience into breakout sessions (as Tanya did). As far as I have understood, this issue has been addressed by reducing the number of participants in 2010, hopefully also by considering alternative formats for the sessions.
Many of the presentations were highly critical of the current state of the digitally transformed society, of the role of corporations and established mass media and plenty of the talks were connected with a very clear call for civic action. I share quite a few of the concerns brought up, and trust in many of the presented approaches towards advancing the digital transformation of the world from a grassroots level. Anyhow, this does not mean that all of us need to become full-time digital activists. I understand this insight as a call to reflect what everyone involved with digital media can do in their field – be it as part of a big corporation, a volunteer in some development project or those active in policy-making. I take the learnings from this week as a motivation to reflect even more carefully about how to put my effort into turning the digital transformation into something positive for society and communities and I am grateful for the faculty and the fellow students who shared their insight and learnings for all of us to advance.
I want to express my sincere thanks to Sarah and Susannah who took the time to review a draft of this report and provided valuable comments! I’d be more than happy to read more feedback in the comments below.