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Question Time at The Google Platform

Written by Kenne Mwikya

I didn’t expect much activity at the Louis Leakey Auditorium. It was during lunch hour, on a slow day (the festival draws larger crowds during weekends) and it was already getting hot. So it was a very pleasant surprise to see dozens of teenagers, in school uniform, trooping towards the auditorium, apparently cooed by one of the interns to sit through the event. Adults, cosmopolitan and less serious than the students, streamed in a few minutes before the start of the panel discussion, randomly dispersing themselves in the back rows with camera phones ready to tweet this thing.

After going over contemporary issues surrounding technology use in local/regional/global contexts with social/economic/political bearings on the polity, Google’s Ory Okolloh, diplomat Christian Turner and free speech advocate John Kampfner opened the floor for questions and comments with the kids at the first four rows being given a special mention.

They let the adults do their thing first. With all the talk of social media “diversifying” power and giving people a voice, what next when “power” refuses to furnish us with a response? Ory threaded her answer with earlier thoughts on the power social media gives people denied a voice in mainstream spaces such as print media. Channelling her experiences of the gender bias in political commentary (everyone thought she was a man) and the liberating experience of expressing herself unrestrained in her blog, she had hope on the internet’s potential of bringing out the “diversity of Kenya’s individuality”. And the youth, a key voting bloc in 2013, were demanding that politicians adapt to their use of social media thus talking to power and getting heard. Certainly, key presidential aspirants in the coming general elections are keen on having a strong presence in social media, having conversations and responding to questions put to them by citizens. Adapt to survive, was Dr. Turner’s observation and advice.

Sitawa Namwalie raised concerns about technology use alienating young people from their social and political reality. Members of the panel assured us that we need not worry about this as earlier generations had come across this challenge and had successfully navigated around it (the western sixties, hippies had time for both the Beetles and revolutionary anti-Vietnam War campaigns, civil rights, feminism and the New Left). But the challenge today is bigger than we like to admit to ourselves. The information overload, a point which Dr. Turner had elaborated on earlier, is many times larger than our predecessors ever had to deal with and some of our actions, like signing an online petition, even when done by millions, is easily expropriated or ignored, unless coupled by large oppositional “corporeal” protest.

On innovative work outside the feverish trope that is M-Pesa, Okolloh stressed the need to dig deeper when thinking about the importance of technological innovation in public life. What about the Kenya Revenue Authority with its online tax returns, tax PIN registration or business fact checking systems? It saves a lot of time that could have been wasted in line outside Times Tower, time that is important for businesspeople in a fast paced economy or working outside the nation’s bureaucratic centre.

After a bit of imploring by Mr. Kampfner, three students, sitting next to each other, decided to ask a few questions. The first was whether this diversification of services and information was making us lazier, a kind of slacktivism when it comes to homework? The second, how to access power and those who occupy it using technology, had already been discussed earlier but perhaps the student, ever loyal to a decidedly oppositional crowd, wanted to extend thinking on the kinds of work (other than conversing with politicians online) that would be aimed towards this goal. And related to equality, what was being done to lower the cost of technology making it accessible to a lot more people and directly impacting equality? A round of applause for the younger audience. In the laughter, we learn that with the challenges facing this generation, the complexity of our reality made real by the vast amount of information, is made much easier by the ease in which we can access material and information. We also find out that, other than trying to increase content that would be of relevance to African users of Google products, the company is also involved in campaigns to remove VAT on gadgets such as tablets (which Ory insists we must embrace as what naturally comes next after the mobile telephony revolution) thus directly aiding the equality with which access to information by citizens is attained.

Standing to leave, I spoke to one of the students catching up with her friends already at the auditorium’s exit. What did she like about the conversations that had taken place over the past one hour? “Everything,” she said, “Much better than an early lunch.”



This entry was posted on September 15, 2012 by in Writer's Blog.
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