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Google Fellow at the Personal Democracy Forum

June 4, 2010

I spent the last two days at this year’s Personal Democracy Forum where I was selected as one of this year’s Google Fellows.  Its been fantastic getting to meet some of my all time heroes and have my mind blown in regular intervals.  I was also apparently 5th most frequent tweeterer with over 200 tweets on the conference proceedings.  In between tweets I couldn’t help but think:

-As Deanna Zandt pointed out,  lot of us at the PDF got into fetishizing the technology and forgot to remain focused on the fact that at the end of the day there are still human beings behind the technology.  Whether technology exhilarates (using kites to map the impact of the oil spill) or depresses (Eli Pariser talked about the undemocratizing impact of filters on sites like Facebook and Google), there are still human beings behind the code.

The moment we lose focus of the human agency behind technology we miss  the potential of the PDF’s promise of taking us to where technology meets politics.  Indeed as Deanna reminded us all, broadly, politics is all about the ecology of power.  The beauty of this is that power can be contested and anything that can be contested can be changed and made better!

Indeed as Susan Crawford pointed out,  the U.S. is currently in an epic battle for the future of access to the web.  The battles that she outlined in her well received talk are very much political.  The machinations of major conglomerates for control over what has become one of the most valuable resources around, the web, speaks to the importance of politics in, and to, technology.

-While I’m all about getting people to use technology to ‘do something’, there was absent a conversation on how ‘doing something’ can sometimes be more harmful than helpful.  Clitoraid and even the 1 million t-shirts are stark examples in the Africa philanthropy space.  i wish someone would have pointed out that thoughtless deployment of  armies of well-meaning techies could  magnify the harm just as easily as strategic and thoughtful action could have a magnified impact for the good.

-I’m frustrated by the unquestioned use of the term ‘grassroots’.  Exactly who are we talking about with term ‘grassroots’? Is it a class distinction? Is it based on geographic location?  Specifically, I feel like the term is used as code to signify other more specific populations and in that obscurity can be dangerous.  If by grassroots you mean poor rural women in a specific African village or the working class men and women in suburban middle America why not specify?  In any case,  who of us is not ‘grassroots’?  Who are the ‘grasstops’?

Despite and because of  these enduring frustrations and questions I learnt a lot from participating at this year’s PDF and I hope for an invitation again next year. (so Google, if you’re listening, holla at a sistah! 🙂

Seriously, what an honor to get to spend time with incredibly brilliant people that I would normally never get to meet!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jen permalink
    June 4, 2010 9:17 PM

    Hey Wanjiru –
    Really interesting comment about “grassroots” – it’s definitely become one of those words that’s become less meaningful than it once was. I mean, my understanding has always been that a “grassroots” initiative is one that originates from a non governmental actor – so outside of state power. But perhaps too vague of a definition?
    sounds like you had a wonderful experience!

  2. June 5, 2010 1:27 AM

    i’ve been following your tweets! totally agree re. grassroots!

  3. Tuulikki Tammi permalink
    June 5, 2010 1:30 PM

    Wanjiru, I love it that you don’t unquestionably swallow the fashion terms that tend to grow in meaning until they have no meaning at all. All languages have them – and English more than any other. “Grassroots”, “vibrant”, “community” in this lingo, other words in other lingo… Need to be careful when using cause really, if it has no specific meaning it’s all just propaganda no substance if that makes sense.

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