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]

Should Pedrosa be fired?

Eric Tomas of Daily Musings apparently wrote to The Philippine Star when he caught Carmen N. Pedrosa plagiarizing Dave Berman back in 2006, but to no avail. He also believes that Pedrosa should leave the Star, comparing her case to that Hilarion “Larry” M. Henares, Jr., whom Philippine Daily Inquirer sacked back in 1990 when he was caught plagiarizing from the International Herald Tribune. (Funnily enough, Manila Standard, now Manila Standard Today, praised Inquirer for “upholding the standards of professional journalism“, then hired Henares shortly afterwards. Would it be a stretch to say that this move presaged the reinstatement of Malu Fernandez?)

I posted my entry on Pedrosa primarily out of pique, not realizing the extent to which the problem of plagiarism pervades Philippine journalism. (Consider, just as an example, this article by Hector Bryant L. Macale of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility). That it is apparently rampant should be disturbing, at the very least, because, as pointed out on Eye on Ethics: Asia Media Forum, “The practice of journalism involves the use of power: the power to influence the way people look at themselves, their societies, and the world; the power to help shape the attitudes and values of others; and the power to help liberate men and women from the shackles of ignorance so they may exercise their sovereign human right to decide their destinies.”

I suppose it would be trite to quote Ben Parker, but great responsibility does come with great power. And the journalist who plagiarizes, as David Plotz of Slate puts it, “is the cop who frames innocents, the doctor who kills his patients. The plagiarist violates the essential rule of his trade. He steals the lifeblood of a colleague”.

On a lighter note, I found some indescribably lovely photos of Carmen Pedrosa, courtesy of Joe Galvez.

Carmen N. Pedrosa, serial plagiarist?

As I suspected, given that plagiarism all too easily develops into a bad habit, Carmen N. Pedrosa’s plagiarism of a Wikipedia article in her 20 June column is by no means an isolated incident.

A Google search led me to the blog Daily Musings, whose author, Eric Tomas, reads Pedrosa’s column regularly in order to “see what counter-arguments can be readied against her [pro–charter change] assertions”. (There are, in fact, several posts that specifically mention Pedrosa.) In a post entitled “Postnote to Pedrosa Article“, Tomas points out that Pedrosa’s 5 November 2006 column lifts a sentence directly from “Advocacy Journalism, The Least You Can Do, and The No Confidence Movement“, an article by Dave Berman, without any acknowledgement.

It may be observed that the same article–the same sentence–is properly quoted by the Wikipedia page on advocacy journalism. (The 16 October 2006 version, a copy of which I have uploaded to Scribd and included below, would have been the latest Pedrosa could have–and probably did–read prior to the publication of her column.)

Tomas, toward the end of his post, asks, “How can she rail about the lack of integrity that she perceives in the Supreme Court for trashing the Sigaw ng Bayan petition, when she herself doesn’t practice integrity in her writing, in this case, giving credit where credit is due?

How, indeed? Does she think that she is somehow magically exempt from acknowledging her sources–akin, perhaps, to how she seems to think that the parliamentary system is a magic bullet against the problems of the country?

Citations needed, or: Plagiarism and Carmen N. Pedrosa

This post was initially conceived as an attempt to respond to Carmen N. Pedrosa, who of late has been again advocating charter change toward a parliamentary form of government in “From A Distance”, her column in the The Philippine Star.

Yesterday’s installment caught my attention because she began by characterizing the choice between charter change now or presidential elections in 2010 as a catch-22. That she subsequently spoke of charter change as the better option—as the way out of this supposed double bind—seems to speak of a turn of mind that is rather strange, to say the least, considering that a catch-22 is supposed to be irresoluble.

Even stranger to me was this statement: “Changing persons without changing the system means more of the same in our flawed presidential system.” After all, are not the persons in any given system, political or otherwise, themselves the causes and/or perpetuators of flaws? Can a system and the persons that animate it and circulate within it indeed be separated, not merely for theoretical purposes, but for pragmatic ones? And simply appalling to me was this: “The question boils down to this. Who should be followed? It is not about rightness or wrongness.”

Bearing these thoughts in mind, I decided to review Pedrosa’s earlier columns [registration required] in order to better understand her position. I also decided to consult a few online sources regarding the presidential and parliamentary systems of government, among them Wikipedia.

Notwithstanding the criticism against the community-generated encyclopedia—which, naturally, is documented in a Wikipedia page of its own (a page that, also naturally, has been flagged for questionable neutrality)—I have found it to be a valuable resource. I would not set much store by its reliability or its appropriateness for research, but it serves very well as a primer to the veritable swamp of information that is the Internet. It is even gaining slow acceptance in journalistic circles. It was also here that I found the actual subject matter of this post: plagiarism.

Plagiarism, derived from the Latin plagiarus (literally, “kidnapper”)—which in turn is derived from plagium (literally, “kidnapping”)—may be defined as follows: an act or instance of stealing and passing off the ideas or words of another as one’s won; using a created production without crediting the source; committing literary theft; or presenting as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.

Plagiarism, as far as I am concerned, is the kidnapping—and mutilation—of ideas. It is akin to kidnapping the child of another, hacking off its limbs, and sewing these limbs onto one’s own already horribly deformed infant, creating an even worse monster than what one had to begin with.

*

The Wikipedia page on the presidential system was last edited on 15 June 2009, 11:14 AM, by user Reub2000. (Below is a copy of the aforementioned version of the Wikipedia page uploaded to Scribd.)

One will find it interesting to juxtapose the section discussing criticism of the presidential system to Pedrosa’s 20 June article, which is entitled “Gridlock rears its ugly head“.

(1) THE DISADVANTAGES OF THE PRESIDENTIAL SYSTEM

Wikipedia

Critics generally claim three basic disadvantages for presidential systems:

  • Tendency towards authoritarianism — some political scientists say that presidentialism is not constitutionally stable. According to some political scientists, such as Fred Riggs, presidentialism has fallen into authoritarianism in nearly every country it has been attempted.
  • Separation of powers — a presidential system establishes the presidency and the legislature as two parallel structures. Critics argue that this creates undesirable gridlock, and that it reduces accountability by allowing the president and the legislature to shift blame to each other.
  • Impediments to leadership change — it is claimed that the difficulty in removing an unsuitable president from office before his or her term has expired represents a significant problem.

Pedrosa

Political scientists agree that gridlock is a major disadvantage of the presidential system. There are others — the tendency towards authoritarianism. Because the presidential system is not constitutionally stable it easily deteriorates into authoritarianism. According to Fred Riggs, a political scientist, presidentialism has fallen into authoritarianism in every country it has been attempted, except the United States.

(2) THE PRESIDENT V. THE PRIME MINISTER

Wikipedia

Winning the presidency is a winner-take-all, zero-sum prize. A prime minister who does not enjoy a majority in the legislature will have to either form a coalition or, if he is able to lead a minority government, govern in a manner acceptable to at least some of the opposition parties. Even if the prime minister leads a majority government, he must still govern within (perhaps unwritten) constraints as determined by the members of his party—a premier in this situation is often at greater risk of losing his party leadership than his party is at risk of losing the next election. On the other hand, once elected a president can not only marginalize the influence of other parties, but can exclude rival factions in his own party as well, or even leave the party whose ticket he was elected under. The president can thus rule without any allies for the duration of one or possibly multiple terms, a worrisome situation for many interest groups.

Pedrosa

The presidency by the nature of the system is “a winner-take-all, zero-sum prize — unlike a prime minister, who may have to form a coalition. The president and her/his party can rule without any allies for up to six years. That becomes a threat for other interest groups.

(3) THE SEPARATION OF POWERS

Wikipedia

Presidential systems are said by critics not to offer voters the kind of accountability seen in parliamentary systems. It is easy for either the president or Congress to escape blame by blaming the other.

Pedrosa

As mentioned earlier the separation of powers in a presidential system is a disadvantage rather than an advantage. The presidency and the Congress as two parallel structures inevitably create gridlock and make it often impossible to govern. Worse it reduces accountability because the president and Congress end up blaming each other for perceived wrongs.

(4) THE ARGUMENT OF JUAN LINZ, POLITICAL SCIENTIST

Wikipedia

Juan Linz argues, “The danger that zero-sum presidential elections pose is compounded by the rigidity of the president’s fixed term in office. Winners and losers are sharply defined for the entire period of the presidential mandate… losers must wait four or five years without any access to executive power and patronage. The zero-sum game in presidential regimes raises the stakes of presidential elections and inevitably exacerbates their attendant tension and polarization.

Pedrosa

“Winners and losers are sharply defined for the entire period of the presidential mandate. . . losers must wait four or five years without any access to executive power and patronage. The zero-sum game in presidential regimes raises the stakes of presidential elections and inevitably exacerbates their attendant tension and polarization,” argues Juan Linz.

(5) THE CASE OF ECUADOR

Wikipedia

Ecuador is sometimes presented as a case study of democratic failures over the past quarter-century. Presidents have ignored the legislature or bypassed it altogether. One president had the National Assembly teargassed, while another was kidnapped by paratroopers until he agreed to certain congressional demands. From 1979 through 1988, Ecuador staggered through a succession of executive-legislative confrontations that created a near permanent crisis atmosphere in the policy.

Pedrosa

Ecuador is cited as a good example of democratic failures with a presidential system. Often, presidents ignore the legislature. Things got so bad that one president was driven to teargas the National Assembly.

The country went through a succession of executive-legislative confrontations from 1979 to 1988.

(6) LEADERSHIP CHANGE

Wikipedia

In parliamentary systems, unpopular leaders can be quickly removed by a vote of no confidence, a procedure which is reckoned to be a “pressure release valve” for political tension.

Pedrosa

This would not have been necessary in a parliamentary system when an unpopular leader could be removed by a vote of no confidence. This is a device comparable to a “pressure release valve” in a country besieged by political tension.

(7) SLOWNESS OF RESPONSE TO THE NEEDS OF CITIZENS

Wikipedia

Finally, many have criticized presidential systems for their alleged slowness in responding to their citizens’ needs. Often, the checks and balances make action extremely difficult. Walter Bagehot said of the American system “the executive is crippled by not getting the law it needs, and the legislature is spoiled by having to act without responsibility: the executive becomes unfit for its name, since it cannot execute what it decides on; the legislature is demoralized by liberty, by taking decisions of others [and not itself] will suffer the effects”.

Pedrosa

Finally, the presidential system by its nature is slow to respond to citizens’ needs. Often, the “checks and balances” make action extremely difficult.

Since the Philippines followed the American presidential system, let us hear what one constitutionalist said of the American system: “the executive is crippled by not getting the law it needs, and the legislature is spoiled by having to act without responsibility: the executive becomes unfit for its name, since it cannot execute what it decides on; the legislature is demoralized by liberty, by taking decisions of others will suffer the effects.”

*

The sixth provision of the Journalist’s Code of Ethics as adopted by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines is, “I shall not commit any act of plagiarism.” The necessity of this provision should be obvious enough. How can a journalist be considered credible when he or she steals ideas from others? Or, as in this case, when she lifts and paraphrases, without proper citations, entire sections of a text that is governed by a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License?

More significantly for Pedrosa, how can she endorse a form of government that she believes is more accountable and more transparent to its citizens, when she herself is evidently unwilling or unable to be accountable and transparent to her reading public? Perhaps she ought to ask herself the question that she posed last 17 May: When is change real change?

For the record, I am not wholly or fanatically against amending the Constitution or shifting to a parliamentary system. And yet I think it is fair to expect that a person who supports a cause for ostensibly moral reasons, the tack that Pedrosa seems to have taken in beating the drum for charter change, ought to be himself or herself beyond most, if not all, reproach.