Archive for February 2011

Speaking in NYC

28 February 2011

Just a quick bit of horrible self-promotion.  Tomorrow, Tuesday March 1st, I’ll be in New York at two events:

I’ll be moderating an 8am breakfast-time discussion among Simon Rosenberg (my boss), Jose Antonio Vargas (great writer at Huff Post), and Oscar Salazar (web entrepreneur and cool dude). We’ll be talking about “A New Global Politics” — looking at how changes in demography and technology putting democratic power into the hands of youth around the world.  Deets/RSVP link is here: http://ndn.org/events/2011/03/new-global-politics

At lunchtime, I’ll be speaking on a panel at Columbia Law School alongside Anne Nelson of SIPA discussing the role of the internet in social change. It’s starting at 12:15pm in room 106 of Jerome Green Hall at Amsterdam and 116th St.

My mother will be attending both, and you can, too!



Social Media in Egypt: A Second Public Sphere

14 February 2011

I’ve been mostly silent on the “social media revolution in Egypt” meme because, frankly, I didn’t want to join an already crowded chorus until enough information had emerged for the beginning of an actual analysis.  Justly or not, the idea of the uprising in Egypt being a “Twitter revolution” or “Facebook revolt” has become one of the major narratives in the American media.  This shouldn’t be surprising, given the way the same narrative caught on during Iran’s uprising in 2009. And, as Luke Allnutt argued well, there’s an element of the “Twitter revolution” story that’s appealing to Americans because, in some vaguely imperialistic yet satisfyingly altruistic way, it gives us a bit of the credit for the empowerment of the disenfranchised people of Egypt, Tunisia and wherever else.

But it’s becoming more and more clear that in Tunisia and especially in Egypt, social media really have played pivotal roles in driving the uprising. “We are All Khaled Said,” the Facebook group originally created to commemorate the brutal death of a young businessman at the hands of the Egyptian policy, was created last June by Wael Ghonim, the Google executive and activist blogger who has become a reluctant face of the movement since his release from prison and an emotional interview on Egyptian television this week. The group is widely credited with helping catalyze the initial protests last month. The “April 6 Youth Movement,” another Facebook-based, youth-led democracy movement, also helped turn people out to protest, while Twitter has been a constant source of Egypt news for people around the world. (more…)



An Idea to Reshape Google.org

3 February 2011

A Times article last Saturday gave a pretty harsh critique of Google.org, the search giant’s philanthropic wing. Begun in 2004 with grand dreams of reinventing philanthropy and revolutionizing the non-profit world by leveraging Google’s powerful technological assets and unconventional approach to problems, DotOrg has foundered. Today, it operates not unlike a “conventional corporate philanthropy,” doling out cash to big nonprofits, with occasional cool, innovative projects like Flu Trends and Earth Engine. The article blames this on shifting, sometimes undependable leadership, and a disconnect between the social types of DotOrg and engineers of the DotCom.

The more core problem with Google.org, it seems, is their engineering-centric approach to social change. This is a widely-known, and yet very common mistake in the tech-for-development world. People get a powerful tool in their hands, and start looking for problems it can solve, rather than the other way around: addressing a specific problem, and thinking about how to solve it. To be sure, mobile phones and other new technologies have proven valuable tools for solving certain types of social problems, but only by taking a problem-centric, rather than solution-centric approach is any progress likely to be made. Google.org has been a consistent offender of this rule; after their brilliant algorithm solved the problem of search, it was easy to think that Google engineers could tackle any problem, provided they coded hard enough. But in the words of Professor Laurence Simon, quoted in the article: “there isn’t any algorithm that’s going to eradicate guinea worm.”

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