Free as We Want to Be

We’re as free as we want to be. Perhaps it’s a trite statement, yet with the Fourth of July holiday upon us, I cannot help but consider it.

Freedom is a choice. At least for those of us that are fortunate enough to live in countries where we aren’t punished for speaking our mind in private conversation or online. You need only look at Turkey’s ongoing crisis to realize that free speech is not certain in this world.

Yet many of us don’t feel free. We feel trapped by the rat race, that we’re not engaging enough online. We feel like we should meet preached expectations of social media success.

Some fear being viewed as positive or negative, or having our personal views and feelings exploited by friends, family, employers, and yes, the government. Others of us feel like we’re suffering through litanies of rants and negativity while desperately seeking meaningful connectivity.

Government and big business offer their own dangers, perhaps taking away our rights to privacy. In recent months we’ learned that our social network conversations are compromised via the NSA’s PRISM programs. The major social networks have a council of censors or free speech advocates (depending on your perspective) that decide what conversations should and should not be taken off the Internet.
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Big Brother Won and We Loved It

Image by estacey

The deployment of technology and media to successfully capture the Brothers Tsarnaev remains a subplot in the incredible Boston Marathon bombing manhunt.

Closed circuit television, triangulating cell phone signals, rapid identification, calls to the public for help through mass media, and civic reporting (including family members) used to hunt men in the streets is the stuff of dystopian science fiction. Really, it’s the Orwellian nightmare of Big Brother realized.

The public loved it. Fears allayed, justice to be served, lives resumed.
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Get Off the Grid


Patagonia winds whisper to me like it was yesterday.

How I crave to be in the mountains walking up and down rugged landscapes, hoping to see yet another breathtaking view, some aspect of the world I never expected, and breathe in the clean cool air.

To be surrounded by nothing except the stunning wilds, untethered from the Internet, no cell phone, just an occasional group of people, most of whom don’t speak English or give a damn about me. Ah, heaven.

This was freedom, the ultimate escape from reality.
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In Darkness Find Freedom

Given the Independence Day holiday, let’s discuss a modern freedom that comes with going dark on the Internet.

turn off your phone.
Image by Anna Douglass

I’ve been enjoying a vacation for the past few days, in large part because I don’t feel the need to be online.

Electing to go dark for extended stints has been hard. There were emails I wanted to respond to, updates to post, and conversations that seemed interesting and worth joining.

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Ronin – A lordless samurai, especially one whose feudal lord had been deprived of his territory.

There are many of us today, many more than 25 years ago, even 10 years ago. The economy combined with the empowering freedom of social tools has created an abundance of free agent communicators. Like the ronin in Japan’s feudal times, we know no master, some by choice, many by circumstance.

It’s not an easy life. You live by the sword, and eat what you kill. Many do their time until they find a new employer, God willing. others struggle along, barely scratching by.

Then there are those of us who make a go of it. We thrive on the independent work style. The freedom and the consistent change in work enthralls us. It becomes hard to think of returning to the world of one mission, one objective.

The best free agents develop a reputation for excellence, cultivating ongoing interest from potential employers who pay contract fees for a portion of time. They may be well known publicly, especially in the age of blogging. Some are not. They work by word of mouth, letting client tell client about their services.

In some cases, loyal relationships are created, lasting years on end. The free agent becomes like French General Lafayette, sitting by General Washington’s side always there to help and assist, but never fully taking on a country’s colors.

Others simply go on to lead schools of thought, marketing themselves to other free agents as “thought” leaders. These marketing “dojos” can become quite large, but many times they are not battle tested. Thought is cheap online, experience is not.

In an attention economy, experience does not matter as much, unfortunately. It’s harmful because people listen, and can be led down paths that will not help them with their own clientele. But in the real world of client engagement, it can be life and death for a business.

The best schools take their words as a responsibility to the market place, sharing research, experiences and real market examples. Learning experience-based best practices — those based on campaigns, not personal glories — can teach a free agent to become more successful. Success spawns opportunities, which in turn can empower the free agent to pick and choose their work.

Isn’t that what most modern “ronin” want?

Revolutions: Internet Freedom Steps Into the Limelight

Anti-Massacre Protest in Tokyo, In front of Libya Embassy (2011.02.23) カダフィによる虐殺抗議デモ(リビア人民局前, 東京都渋谷区代官山町)
Tokyo’s Libya Protest by jetalone

Secretary of State Clinton made a speech last week committing to the ideal of an uncensored Internet as a primary tool for freedom. Her remarks — while in contrast to U.S. reactions about Wikileaks and the Obama Administration’s questionable policies on net neutrality — were made in the wake of the incredible events that have occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other Arabic countries. As a result, liberty via the Internet has become a top policy objective.

Throughout the Middle East’s unrest, individuals have used the Internet to communicate, speak out, and organize against totalitarian regimes in their countries. Further, citizens in Arabic countries can inform the rest of the world via social publishing tools, providing networked awareness of protests and actions. Just watch NPR’s Andy Carvin share updates he’s found from the Middle East, and you will see this form of network weaving in effect.

Lest this post spark yet another, “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators Article” yes, none of those revolutions were directly caused by social networks or other Internet tools. Rather, the Internet served as a communications tool, a catalyst for freedom.

Dissidence can be very dangerous. Speaking out doesn’t always yield a positive result. For example, Syrian blogger Ahmad Abu Khair was arrested this past weekend (Khair was released today). Given how some hardline totalitarian regimes like Syria, Iran and Libya react to protest, Khair’s life could have been in danger. Social networking can also provide a trail of dissidents for authoritarian governments.

Finally, when a revolution moves to the streets, it can become lethal. Muammar el Qaddafi’s genocide to keep control of Libya has demonstrated exactly how bloody revolutions can become. Many brave souls fight under the threat of execution for freedom in Libya. God willing, may they have success.

Yet the net gain of Internet tools cannot be dismissed. As Clay Shirky said in response to Malcolm Gladwell, “Even the increased sophistication and force of state reaction, however, underlines the basic point: these tools alter the dynamics of the public sphere. Where the state prevails, it is only by reacting to citizens’ ability to be more publicly vocal and to coordinate more rapidly and on a larger scale than before these tools existed.”

For those of us that have been professionally working online since the World Wide Web’s inception, this triumphant use of Internet tools harkens back to the Information Superhighway. It was under Bill Clinton’s watch that Al Gore worked diligently to promote the National Information Infrastructure, with its vision of placing digital printing presses in every human being’s hands. The Digital Divide was a huge issue then, and in light of recent events, it should be again. We see now that the dream can be realized, that the Internet catalyzes freedom.

Fostering Global Internet Use

Libya map with old flag
Image by FutureAtlas

Empowering speech online as a catalyst for greater freedom means providing these tools to every person across the globe. Statistics show that almost 2 billion people have access to the Internet, roughly 29% of the planet’s population. However, roughly half of all Internet users do not have access to broadband globally, limiting their ability to interact.

In a typical mistaken way, the State Department celebrated its policy declaration by publicly launching Twitter feeds in Arabic and Farsi. While propaganda is an old hat for the government, it doesn’t empower people to think or choose their own ideas of freedom. What is needed is a much stronger policy towards providing infrastructure rather than political ideas.

There are three main priorities for increasing access to the Internet and the incredibly diverse universe of ideas and conversations globally:

Wireless Infrastucture: Wireless has allowed many countries to leapfrog the landline telecommunications nightmare, an insurmountable investment in fiber optics. Encouraging widespread diffusion of 4G, WiFi and other broadband wireless technologies is the critical first step.

Mobile and Portable Computing: Smartphones and portable computing devices like tablets and netbooks are the tools of freedom. Lower costs break the Digital Divide, empowering people across the world to access the Internet via broadband tools and easily publish information online. By seeking to provide as many wireless enabled smart computing devices to global citizens, countries can foster a higher level of communication and interaction.

Accompanying deployment of mobile devices, is the development of software and Internet tools that work well on these devices. Desktop applications need not apply. In that sense, HTML 5 is a great equalizer, as have been the many mobile applications built over the past few years. There is more room to grow for the mobile/portable web.

Skills Development: Education initiatives across the globe should focus on how to teach people to digest information intelligently. We need an empowered, functional Fifth Estate, and a critical aspect of that is digital literacy. The overall quality of content has decreased with the rise of social media, infusing much more opinion than fact.

Teaching citizens from the U.S. to the Middle East and beyond how to use digital communications and publish better information will help dialogue. Nonprofits and companies like Internews Network and AllVoices are working towards this laudable goal. We need to go further, and make digital literacy and publishing a core tenant of any child’s education.

All governments should seeks these three objectives as a means to promote liberty online. What do you think of the Internet as a tool for freedom?

Related Posts:

Revolutions: Don’t Shoot the Social Media Messenger

Journalism Skills for Everyone