Ordering our outrage

It has been difficult to avoid succumbing to the atmosphere of anger and despair that has developed in the wake of the havoc wreaked by Typhoon Yolanda, internationally known as Typhoon Haiyan, especially when, by most accounts, relief and rescue operations led by the present administration have been and continue to be slow while thousands of people starve, sicken, suffer, and die in the devastated areas of Visayas. The frustration and resentment have been particularly pronounced among users of social media, who, prior to the current crisis, had already been up in arms for weeks on end over the Priority Assistance Development Fund (PDAF) scam involving several legislators and its most prominent—thus, most hated—face, businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, and had more recently been in anguish because of the effects of the 7.2–magnitude earthquake that had hit Bohol, Cebu, and their neighboring provinces.

Even after we had heard from our relatives in Kalibo, Aklan, which, though not as badly ravaged as other places, has certainly seen its share of death and destruction, I continue to feel weighed down by elemental helplessness, and it has been tempting to yield to the impulse to contribute to the rapidly rising tide of recriminations that I have observed among my colleagues, friends, and other contacts. There can, after all, be no denying that the response to Yolanda so far signals immense, perhaps criminal, failures on the part of the government, both at the local and national levels, in terms of disaster risk reduction, mitigation, and management, and therefore scrutiny and censure are more than called for. (In line with this, I would particularly like to know whether charges of treason would prosper against local officials who, despite being safe and sound, chose not to reach out to their constituents, but to ensconce themselves in Manila and issue statements to the press.)

The problem with social media, however, is that it can perpetuate a vicious cycle of validation rather than allow for catharsis: when we vent in Twitter, Facebook, or similar platforms, there is a distinct possibility that our fury and despondency may not drain away to create a space for clear, intelligent thought, or convert itself into energy for deliberate, effective action. Instead, it may simply go round and round and round, accumulating intensity and power while destroying our ability to ask ourselves what has so provoked our emotions and to consider if our reactions are still commensurate to the matter at hand. I do not wish to suggest that indignation cannot be productive—a cursory survey of our history as a people would prove otherwise quite easily—but any expression of such ought, I believe, to be accompanied by a strong sense of proportion, of responsibility: the best instances of criticism contain within them not only an invitation to dialogue, but also a commitment to it. Engaging in vituperation helps nothing and no one, as this reduces us to mere cogs in a mindless machine of rage.

If we are to converse on Yolanda and its aftermath in a manner that is meaningful and can lead to vastly improved disaster response in the future, I suggest that we begin with the following considerations:

First: Yolanda was one of the most powerful typhoons in the recorded history of the world—the fourth strongest, in fact, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii. While the Philippines is battered by about 15 to 20 typhoons each year, it does not seem reasonable to suggest that this has given us sufficient experience to face a monstrous weather event like Yolanda, which had one-minute sustained winds of 315 km/h, a speed that would enable one to traverse a traffic-free EDSA from end to end in less than five minutes. Prior to November 8, when it first made landfall in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, it is difficult to imagine any individual or institution being able to extrapolate from available data and set a baseline for preparations that would be good enough. How does one prepare a nation for a natural disaster of this magnitude?

The initial plans that had been made—and it must be acknowledged that plans were in place—were based on assumptions that Yolanda, precisely because it was so unprecedented, easily blasted, ripped apart, and destroyed. The excruciatingly sluggish pace of the response is not necessarily a function of ineptitude, but it is definitely a function of lack of information: how can one plan when one does not know the reality on the ground? And how can one know what is out there when communication lines, roads, bridges, seaports, and airports are out of commission, wrecked, or otherwise unusable owing to safety and security concerns? Such situation has begun to be addressed, but repair and recovery work takes time. Anecdotal information may come in from several sources, but these reports still need to be collated, arranged, and made sense of from a broader perspective to facilitate the conduct of aid that is as efficient as can be, in light of prevailing constraints.

Second: Much of the rage that I have seen (hardly representative, admittedly) appears to be based on the heavily sensationalized—or, to use John Crowley‘s term, “catastrophized“—stories and images of agony that the media, especially parachute journalists like CNN celebrity anchor Anderson Cooper, can capture: as of this writing, various news entities have collectively served up seven days of post-apocalyptic poverty porn for the combination of the 24-hour news cycle and Web 2.0 that has proven so menacing to journalism and so soporific to the general public. The latter was something that cultural critic Neil Postman had warned about as early as 1985, in his book against television, Amusing Ourselves to Death:

In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action. Of course, in any communication environment, input (what one is informed about) always exceeds output (the possibilities of action based on information). But the situation created by telegraphy, then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote. For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.

Cooper et al. may not be malicious—a contentious point that I will leave on the table for now—but that does not mean they are not guilty of imperial and imperious condescension: a number of commentaries, academic and popular, have underscored the problematic, even racist, rhetoric of Western media when their reporters cover Third World events, as in the case of the 2010 earthquake that struck the Carribean nation of Haiti. Here, for instance, is Rebecca Solnit on the coverage of that specific tragedy:

The belief that people in disaster (particularly poor and nonwhite people) are cattle or animals or just crazy and untrustworthy regularly justifies spending far too much energy and far too many resources on control — the American military calls it “security” — rather than relief. A British-accented voiceover on CNN calls people sprinting to where supplies are being dumped from a helicopter a “stampede” and adds that this delivery “risks sparking chaos.” The chaos already exists, and you can’t blame it on these people desperate for food and water. Or you can, and in doing so help convince your audience that they’re unworthy and untrustworthy.

As well, it may be useful to remember that no less than the United States of America hardly seemed like the global superpower it styles itself to be following Hurricane Katrina, as evidenced by this timeline, or by this clip, in which Cooper interviews Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu:

(None of the foregoing, by the way, should not be understood as a tacit defense of broadcaster Korina Sanchez, who I understand has been pitted against Cooper in many discussions given her reaction to the coverage of CNN. As far as I am concerned, Sanchez, given that she is the wife of Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, should not be associated with any outfit that purports to report news.)

Third: Whenever we are moved to slam the government, we must remind ourselves that “government” is not a faceless, monolithic entity or an arena populated entirely by corrupt, greedy, and incompetent officials who are hell-bent on looking after their interests, preserving their prerogatives, and perpetuating their political careers at the expense of lives.

The government is also made up of the tired, hungry, overworked, and utterly courageous police officers, soldiers, doctors, nurses, drivers, pilots, clerks, technicians, engineers, and aid workers who are contributing to the relief effort. The government is also made made up of people who have lost their possessions, their homes, their relatives, and their friends to Yolanda, and yet they are out there in Eastern Visayas, sifting through the ruins of various cities, towns, and barangays, to save who and what they can. The government is also made up of people who need to know that we completely support what they are doing, and that our appreciation and gratitude for their vital work are boundless.

Finally, the government is also made up of us—we who are, in ways large and small, inextricably bound to and complicit with the system as it exists, and if said system needs to be renovated, refurbished, or razed to the ground so as to establish a better one, then this could be the moment to seize and to shape, not by way of ire-driven status updates, but by sustained, collaborative action beyond the screen, in the real world for which the digital one, for all its attractions, will always be a poor substitute.

Some notes on digitizing social change

What follows is a modified version of a talk that I, on behalf of The Pro Pinoy Project, delivered last 20 February 2012 in Saint Louis University, Baguio City, as one of the resource speakers for the Digital Technology for Social Change: Creating Impact in a Networked Society seminar series, a project of the British Council Philippines.

My fellow speakers were Niña Terol-Zialcita, Micheline Rama, and JP Alipio. Members of the British Council Global Changemakers network, namely Jecel Censoro, Joseph Mansilla, Anna Oposa, Dwight Ronan, and Ponce Samaniego, also talked about their respective advocacy projects.

Good morning. Thank you to the British Council Philippines and Saint Louis University for having me here, and to all the participants for the gift of your presence—or your tele-presence, for those of you watching the live stream of this session.

That the Internet has brought about, and will continue to bring about, wide and sweeping changes all over the planet would appear to be a matter already beyond question. In 2006, the print edition of TIME’s annual Person of the Year issue bore a shiny, reflective panel on its cover—the reason being that the Person of the Year was “You”. Lev Grossman, explaining the choice, wrote that one of the stories of 2006 was a “story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes”.

Grossman was referring to the dramatic impact brought about by Web 2.0, an umbrella term, that, following Prashant Sharma, covers online services that were built to facilitate interactive information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design, crowd-sourcing, and collaboration. And while Grossman did warn against romanticizing Web 2.0—despairing at, among other things, the hatred and the lack of spelling skills that many of its users seemed to have in abundance—he nevertheless asserted that it gave rise to the “opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician, great man to great man, but citizen to citizen, person to person”.

Regardless of whether “You” was the right pick, it is worth pointing out that succeeding Person of the Year issues saw TIME recognizing people who, without the Internet, might not have otherwise been thus acknowledged. In 2008, the magazine selected Barack Obama, whose successful campaign to be the President of the United States of America was driven in no insignificant way by online support. In 2010, the recognition went to Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of an immensely popular social networking company—you may have heard of it: it’s called Facebook, and it recently filed for an initial public offering (IPO) worth USD5 billion. Last year, TIME chose “The Protester” in view of the massive demonstrations that—with the help of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, among other tools—were organized and still roil across the globe: in Europe and North America, in the Middle East and North Africa.

Given the theme of this seminar series—“Digital Media for Social Change: Creating Impact in a Networked Society”—it might be the aforementioned protests that spring to mind when we, with an eye to our own history of revolutions, try to imagine what can be done in the Philippines today. Using digital media, can we bring about positive social change? Or—to paraphrase from the preamble of our Constitution, a document which is supposed to be an expression of our collective will as the sovereign Filipino people—using digital media, can we promote the common good? Conserve and develop our patrimony? Share and enjoy the blessings of independence and democracy? Establish a regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace?

Yes. Yes, of course. If I didn’t believe that, I would never have come before you to speak at this forum. (Incidentally, the girl in the picture has “optimistic” written across her hand in Arabic.) And yet the previous questions were more than merely rhetorical ones. Social change must always be understood as taking place within specific constraints, and especially so when we seek change by digital means in these islands. Such constraints cannot simply be conquered or transcended by sheer force of will—they form part of the unavoidable “social thickness” that must be lived through and negotiated with.

It hardly needs saying that I am not a Luddite: I own a mobile phone, a laptop computer, and an e-reading device; I have been a user of the Internet since the late 1990s, a time when a connection speed of 56 kilobytes per second—torturously slow by contemporary standards—was considered acceptable; I have been blogging intermittently since 2001, starting with Blogger.com, when it hadn’t yet been acquired by Google; and I spend several hours a day online chatting with friends, looking at pictures, watching videos, reading articles, and broadcasting banalities via social media platforms.

My stance as regards the Internet, however, is principally a cautious one. I am wary, even skeptical, of the various claims that are being made for it, verging as some of these claims do on what I would call “digital evangelism”: a zealous, fanatical conviction in the transformative power of digital technology in general, and the Internet in particular. We must remember that the Internet is a relatively new development in the human story, and while many a commentator has declared that it will rival and eventually dwarf the printing press in terms of cultural impact, much of its potential, particularly in the Philippines, remains exactly that: potential. Digital change-makers who lose sight of this risk being engulfed by narcissistic self-regard.

All the same, you would not be ill-advised to take my words—as the fantasy writer George R. R. Martin might put it—well-salted. It may interest you to know that one of the first skeptics about technology was Socrates. In Phaedrus, the Greek philosopher tells his titular interlocutor a story about the Egyptian god Theuth, who is credited with the invention of arithmetic, calculation, geometry, astronomy, draughts, dice, and, most importantly, the use of letters, or a system of writing. Theuth, desiring to make these inventions available for other Egyptians to use and benefit from, pays a visit to another god, Thamus, who is king over all Egypt, to show and explain each of the things that he has made. When they come to the letters, Theuth says that writing “will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit”.

Thamus replies with a gentle rebuke: “O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Socrates was not completely wrong about writing—certainly it had some of the effects on knowledge and memory that he had feared—but he could not have foreseen this: the world that the written word had made possible, as well as its attendant wonders, not least of which is our ability to revisit his thoughts, precisely because they had been written down by Plato.

The first part of my presentation is derived from an ongoing, if not entirely systematic, process of research into and reflection upon digital media and the ways by which it is reshaping our lives and labors, and my primary objective here is to raise to the surface questions and concerns that I hope will help all of us to gain a greater awareness of the context that we inhabit, and a better appreciation of the possibilities for action. The second part of my presentation deals with The Pro Pinoy Project, the organization that I represent, and some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for what may be called “participatory journalism”.

[Read the rest in The Pro Pinoy Project]