NDN Blog

Building Social Capital in America

This is the first installment in a series of blog posts on technology and social capital in America. Read parts two and three.

In this and my next several blog posts, I'm going to try to draw out a few ideas, and pull together several disparate strands of thought around what I see as the great promise (and, to some degree, a great threat) of network technologies-- including social media, the internet and, most of all, the mobile phone. The ideas I'll be discussing are not new; rather, they've been described and detailed carefully by men and women much cleverer than I. But I hope to pull some of these strands together in a fresh discourse that will drive toward some kind of an agenda.

This first post will be largely an introduction of the problem, drawing largely on one particularly piece of sociological research... I've been re-reading portions of Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam's seminal sociological chronicle of the decline of "social capital" in America in the past several half-century (up to the book's 2000 copyright date). For the uninitiated, Putnam describes social capital this way:

By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital-- tools and training that enhance individual productivity-- the core idea of social capital theory is that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups.

Putnam draws a dreary picture, illuminating an across-the-board decline among the organizations, associations, and memberships that can illustrate the strength and density of American social capital. Skipping to the end of the tome, Putnam reveals his best sociologist's estimate of the causes behind these dreary trends. Fully half of the decline he attributes to generational change, particularly the aging of the "long civic generation" born in the early part of the last century who were historically notable for their "joining" instincts.

On this particular challenge, NDN Fellows Morley Winograd and Mike Hais offer a lot of reason for optimism in their two books Millennial Makeover and (forthcoming!) Millennial Momentum. I highly encourage you to go read their books and their blog; I'll clumsily paraphrase one of their broader arguments this way: the Millennial generation, born roughly between 1980 and 2000, seems to be a "second civic generation" sharing many joining instincts with their grandparents, the cohort that contributed to the high-water mark of social capital in the 1950s and early 1960s. It's encouraging that history's largest generation seems uniquely predisposed toward civic engagement, and for my purposes, useful to note that they (we) also happen to be the first "digital native" generation.

But if this generation is to rebuild American social capital, it needs fora in which to connect, build bonds, and establish the mutual obligations of social relationships. While the primary causes Putnam points to are immense, historical shifts, the secondary causes can be largely boiled down to the resultant decline of membership in general community organizations: churches, Rotary clubs, PTAs, etc. It's hard to imagine most of these organizations making a powerful comeback among the Millennial generation, and we're left with the question of where, exactly, Millennials will come together to build social bonds.

Another cause Putnam identifies as contributing an additional 10% toward the decline in social capital is "suburbanization, commuting, and sprawl." This trend has reoriented American communities away from the neighborhoods, downtown areas, corner bars, and public squares where social capital was once forged, to a landscape dominated by highways and strip malls where the closest thing to a shared public space can be found in the Caverns of Walmart. And so, in addition to the evaporation of civic groups, our shared physical spaces are also disappearing, and the question of where social capital can be created in the 21st century becomes still more confounding.

As you've no doubt guessed by now (Sorry this took so long. Actually, I'm not sorry at all. Brevity is for cowards.), the point I'm driving toward is this: with the decline of community organizations and associations, and the disappearance of shared public spaces, I look to new network technologies to bridge some of those gaps, and help create the shared public spaces of the 21st century.

In some of my writing earlier this year analyzing the impact of social media in the Arab Spring, I concluded that the great power of these new technologies lies in their ability to create a "second public sphere" in countries where offline speech and assembly are harshly censored. Well, it turns out we need a similar vitalization of our public sphere in America.

To be sure, an online public sphere already does exist in America: on social networks, blogs, and through the myriad connections facilitated by our myriad devices. But the questions I want to answer in the coming blog posts are these: how can new technologies-- mobile, social technologies-- help foster (and not detract from) civic engagement and social connections? How can these technologies enhance a place, or a city, rather than distract from it? How can civic structures around the world be strengthened by new technology?

I hope you'll join me in taking on these questions, and help turn this into an interesting dialogue.  If there are things you think I'm missing or should be reading, please pass your ideas along in the comments or via email!

Mobile Phones for Citizen Media and Human Rights

Over the next week, I'll be contributing to an online discussion about the impact of mobile phones on citizen media. The debate is being hosted by New Tactics in Human Rights, an online resource for human rights practicioners based out of the Center for Victims of Torture.

The conversation will take on questions concerning the risks, challenges, opportunities and successes in using mobile phones to enhance citizen journalism and help protect human rights. It's only just begun, but stop by over the next week to follow along, and feel free to jump right in the debate!

This is an excerpt of a post I put up this morning, taking on the question of "How do you see citizen media in the larger media context?":

We still need professional journalists. In fact, in today's world, we need them more than ever. In taking on corruption and human rights abuses, in covering war, violence or political upheaval, we depend on having sources of news that we know, and that we know we can trust. Sure, if I get a message from my friend in Tahrir Square telling me what's happening, I believe his account. But you've never heard his name, and for all you know, he might be a government plant or a radical extremist. And If I'm the only one who can be sure of what's going on, well, that's not media, and nothing will change.

On the other hand, if my friend can tell his story to a professional journalist, and that journalist trusts him enough to put it in a newspaper read and trusted by millions, then you have the beginnings of change.  Now, I know that we can't always believe everything our traditional media outlets tell us.  But to my mind, Jayson Blair and his ilk are the rare exceptions that help prove the rule.

Of course, the scenario I just described is no different from how news stories were sourced in the past-- a journalist talking to a trusted source. And I do believe mobile-based citizen media can have a greatly positive effect on newsgathering in several distinct ways:

  • Photos & Videos: Often times, a citizen on the inside of a conflict, a protest or a scandal has a unique perspective and can capture an image or a video that would otherwise go unseen. Or maybe an average person just happens to be at the right place at the right time. And while photos and videos don't always tell a complete story, and can be doctored, they provide evidence that is much harder to refute than written words. With the proliferation of high-quality cell phone cameras into the pockets of more and more people on earth-- and with equally widespread video just around the corner-- everyone can document their world with the click of a button. This is maybe the single greatest impact of mobile technology on media.
  • Volume: While a short text message from an unknown source might not be compelling evidence, ten thousand such messages are harder to refute. Twitter is the perfect case study of this. A flood of tweets coming from a variety of people all witnessing the same things can help capture the attention of the outside world and bring important events to life in a citizen-to-citizen fashion.
  • Anonymity: To paraphrase the oft-cited old New Yorker cartoon-- "On the internet, nobody knows you're a citizen journalist." If you wanted to anonymously tip off the Washington Post in 1970, you had to leave a package of documents outside their front door in the middle of the night, or meet discreetly with a journalist and hope that nobody saw you together. While the security of mobile phones is weak, and anonymity is very difficult to guarantee, there are myriad new ways to tell your story without your true identity ever surfacing.
  • Speed: On April 7, 1994, the Rwandan genocide began. One hundred days later, 800,000 people were dead, and yet most of the world still didn't really understand what was happening-- despite the fact that many elites within the UN, the US government and elsewhere did know more or less exactly what was going on as they stood idly by. In today's world, with half of the Rwandan population armed with a mobile phone, it's almost impossible to imagine something like this happening. The story of the genocide would be told in real time to a global audience, in words, pictures, and video, and the resulting outrage would (I'd like to think) compel international powers to action.

All these cases are powerful ways the mobile phone can improve our media. But none of them can realize their full impact without the support of traditional media to distil and broadcast. A citizen's photo of a protest needs an outlet. Thousands of tweets about ethnic violence need to be combed through, sourced and verified. The anonymous informant needs a trusted news source to inform. And real-time story telling only works if somebody is listening who can make that story heard around the world.

Again, anybody is welcome to participate in the conversation, so if I've got you fired up, feel free to jump right in and respond!

The mHealth Opportunity: From Kamphaeng Phet to Capitol Hill

I'm working in Thailand and the Philippines for Dimagi, a Boston-based technology company that develops and deploys mobile phone-based solutions to public health issues around the world, particularly in developing countries. Here in Southeast Asia, Dimagi was hired to support a major vaccine trial for dengue fever, and I'm helping roll out a system that will use text messages to help keep the clinics running the trial in closer contact with their patients. Appointment reminders, health tips, and general encouragements to watch for fever symptoms will be automatically delivered on a mass scale to the patients who receive the trial vaccine.

How is it possible that we're running a high-tech project like this in off-the-beaten-path Thailand? All the system needs to operate is a central server with a good internet connection, and a network of patients with mobile phones. And everybody-- everybody-- has a mobile phone. With over 5 billion of them now in use around the world, we're simply leveraging a network that already exists to facilitate better communication between patient and doctor.

About two years ago, NDN helped promote the release of "mHealth for Development" a report jointly published by the UN Foundation and the Vodafone Foundation that describes the opportunity for mobile phones to be used to improve healthcare in the developing world, and includes a number of case studies of interesting projects already underway (a few Dimagi projects are included in the case studies). The report is a great starting point for beginning to understand this field and its potential.

But mHealth isn't just a developing world opportunity.  In the U.S. and other developed nations, the potential of the ubiquitous mobile phone network to help monitor symptoms and vital signs, faciliate remote diagnosis and treatment support, track epidemics, and otherwise improve the quality of care (while reducing costs) is huge. Particularly in the treatment of chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer-- which together account for 75% of healthcare costs in the U.S.-- mobile phone-based solutions can offer patients individualized monitoring and management of their health. 

Currently, only about 50% of chronic disease patients in the U.S. take their prescribed medication on time, which inevitably leads to their becoming sicker, requiring hospitalization and high-cost procedures. But even the most simple solutions can have a huge impact on that rate. SIMpill, a project piloted in South Africa, is a system that sends automated SMS reminders to tuberculosis patients to take their medication, and has led to an increase in compliance rates from less than 50 percent to over 90 percent. If simple solutions like SIMPill can help raise that rate in the U.S., Americans can all benefit from both improved medical care and greatly reduced costs.

What's more, applications that can successfully help manage chronic disease will have a huge global market. Dr. Darunee Tannitisupawong, a physician based here in Kamphaeng Phet, Thailand, has observed in the past decade a dramatic rise in diabetes and heart disease-- and she ranks those as the single greatest public health issues in this small provincial city today. Fifteen years ago, infectuous diseases like dengue fever were the greatest scourge of the population here, and while rates have remained steady (and will hopefully begin to decline if this vaccine trial proves successful), worsening eating and lifestyle habits have caused a dramatic rise in the incidence of chronic disease.

As KFC and McDonalds continue their conquest of every corner of the globe, chronic disease will be an increasingly large quotient of the world's illness. Fortunately, the best tool to combat that illness is already in the pocket of 70% of the people on earth.

Politics and Internet Freedom in Thailand

Hello again and welcome back to Global Mobile! While no longer a full-time policy analyst at NDN, I'm glad to say that I'll still be contributing to the blog here, and leading what I hope will continue to be a lively dialogue on democracy, global development, and how new technology is impacting these areas. At present, I'm working on a mobile health project for Dimagi, shuttling between Thailand and the Philippines. At some later date I'll write more about my work and why it's groundbreaking, innovative and important.  Today, I want to write just a little about Thailand, my current home...

Thai ElectionAs you might have heard, there was an election here last weekend, and it was truly a watershed transition in the political history of this country. A bit of history: Five years ago, Thaksin Shinawatra was tossed from the Prime Minister's office by a military coup. Thaksin had been elected in 2001, and reelected (a first in Thai history) in 2005 riding a populist wave of support from the poor, rural majority of Thailand. He was widely disliked, however, by the established elite of the country-- the upper and middle classes, the courts the "Privy Council" that surrounds and advises the monarchy, and the military, who saw to his removal.

After the coup, the military ruled for over a year, until another election in early 2008, which yielded victory for another member of Thaksin's political party.  He served for the better part of a year, before the constitutional court removed him from office on account of hosting a cooking show on TV while serving as Prime Minister.  He was replaced by Thaksin's brother-in-law, who lasted two months before another court ruling sent him packing, and in stepped Abhisit Vejjajiva, a member of the opposition party, who served as Prime Minister until last week.

Yingluck ShinawatraGiven that they had dominated each of the last four national elections, it might not seem like much of a surprise that Thaksin's followers-- the 'red shirts', lately represented by the Pheu Thai Party-- once again swept to a big victory in Sunday's election. But there is a lot of ambivalence about Thaksin in this country.  He's an outsized figure: a billionaire businessman who ruled with a very firm hand, he was undoubtably guilty of corruption, and he possesses a public profile of proportions unmatched by any Thai except the King. And Pheu Thai is undoubtably his party, as evidenced by their slogan: "Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Does." Regardless, win they did, with a ticket headed by none other than Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's little sister. She'll soon be taking the reins as Prime Minister. 

With 18 coups in the past century, Thailand has oscillated between freedom and oppression. But since the coup of 2006, things have gotten worse, even beyond the undemocratic changes in government. This trend is as clear as anywhere in the area of internet censorship. In their recent "Freedom on the Net" report, Freedom House rated Thailand as "Not Free" on account of censorship and violation of internet users rights. Since 2007, over 75,000 URLs have been blocked by court order, and since political unrest last year when the Abhisit government declared a state of emergency, many more websites were blocked without any legal process, including many opposition political sites, social media hubs, and the sites of some human rights groups. Additionally, the government has put pressure on intermediaries to preemptively censor illicit content, and has begun monitoring social media, chilling free speech.

And what is the "illicit" content that all this censorship is targeting? Some of it, to be sure, is pornography, hate speech, online gambling sites, and the like. But the majority of it is blocked under Thailand's broad and punitive "lèse majesté" law, which calls for up to 15 years in prison for anybody criticizing the king or the monarchy. The law is unevenly enforced, but has landed everyone from a history professor to a drunk Swiss expat in trouble with the law, and has been used to punish not just public writing or speech, but private online commentary and even the content of text messages. What's more, accusations and prosecutions of lèse majesté are often politically motivated, and have been used to silence speech unrelated to the monarchy.

Will the election change these antidemocratic tendencies in Thai government? It's too early to tell, but probably not quickly. External factors, including the health of the king (who has ruled for over 60 years, and is rumored to be ailing), will weigh heavily on the potential for reform. In the meanwhile, political reconciliation is the great aspiration of Thailand.  In the past five years, politics has been a blood sport, the country deeply divided and occasionally erupting into public demonstrations and violence. With many in the new minority venemously opposed to Thaksin, bridging the divide may be a tall order while his "clone" is in office, but some sort of reconciliation is this country's only hope to move forward politically.

To get in touch, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email at sam@swdupont.com.

North Korea Confiscating Mobile Phones

A group of dissident defectors from North Korea is reporting that the government of the hermit kingdom has begun a drive to confiscate mobile phones smuggled in from China. North Korea is one of the most disconnected countries in the world-- no good data on mobile penetration is available, but rates are presumed to be in the low single-digits, with much of that coming from smuggled phones.

This further crackdown indicates a fear within the government that access to outside information could lead to revolt. Given the way communications technolgies has aided rebellion across North Africa and the Middle East this year, the timing of this is hardly surprising.  From the AFP story on this:

But many residents in border areas that can receive mobile reception from China are known to use smuggled phones to talk to relatives and friends who escaped the impoverished state to settle in China or South Korea.

At present users restrict conversations to five minutes, the minimum time authorities need to trace a call, said the source.

South Korean analysts and officials say the reclusive regime has lately tightened controls on outside information to suppress news of popular revolts against despots in the Arab world.

In a country where information is controlled so tightly and the police state is so repressive, it's hard to imagine a few thousand cell phones leading to revolution.  But change happens slowly, and even a trickle of information would be progress in North Korea.

Libyan Rebels Create Their Own Mobile Phone Network

There's a pretty amazing story in today's WSJ about how a Libyan telecom executive living in Abu Dhabi divided a section of the national cell phone network from the whole, reopening mobile access for the rebels:

While cellphones haven't given rebel fighters the military strength to decisively drive Col. Gadhafi from power, the network has enabled rebel leaders to more easily make the calls needed to rally international backing, source weapons and strategize with their envoys abroad.

To make that possible, engineeers hived off part of the Libyana cellphone network—owned and operated by the Tripoli-based Libyan General Telecommunications Authority, which is run by Col. Gadhafi's eldest son—and rewired it to run independently of the regime's control. Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, asked about the rebel cellphone network, said he hadn't heard of it.

Ousama Abushagur, a 31-year-old Libyan telecom executive raised in Huntsville, Ala., masterminded the operation from his home in Abu Dhabi.

Before the new network came online, Libyan rebels had been using color flags to send messages on the battlefield. Abushagur's plan only came together with support from a number of the gulf states and the technical expertise of three Libyan telecom engineers and four western engineers.

Another interesting angle in this:

The Chinese company Huawei Technologies Ltd., one of the original contractors for Libyana's cellular network backbone, refused to sell equipment for the rebel project, causing Mr. Abushagur and his engineer buddies to scramble to find a hybrid technical solution to match other companies' hardware with the existing Libyan network. Huawei declined to comment on its customers or work in Libya.

Under Secretary McHale & Panel on Social Media in Latin America

Earlier this week, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale gave a speech to NDN/NPI and SAIS about the impact of new media on America's public diplomacy efforts in Latin America. She talked about the way the State Department is integrating online tools into its public diplomacy strategy to connect with people on a broad scale throughout the Western Hemisphere, and described a number of examples of State's work in Haiti, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and elsewhere. A full transcript of her remarks is available here.

To my mind, the real change that social media can bring to US public diplomacy is the ability to not just broadcast ideas and arguments, but to engage in a two-way conversation with individuals.  Under Secretary McHale described this phenomenon eloquently in her speech:

[T]echnology has moved the work of public diplomacy into new arenas. Today we are connecting directly to new audiences. We are shifting the spirit of public diplomacy from one-way messaging to two-way engagement.

As we do this, Latin America and the Caribbean provide us with a natural testing ground for a more broad-based diplomacy. The population is young, connected, and hungry for education and information. Our people are united by a shared history, shared values and a shared environment. And throughout the region, people are savvy about using technology to find opportunities to connect.


New media and connective technologies enhance our ability to listen. That is the number one improvement to our 21st century public diplomacy toolkit. Social media provides new ways for us to keep our ear to the ground. And when we better understand cultural attitudes and developing trends, social media can help us craft better policies.

Anyone with a mobile phone or an internet connection has the ability to communicate with us. We see every message, and we engage as equals. This feedback is an incredibly valuable resource - whether the feedback is positive or negative - because it allows us to better understand how our actions and decisions are being interpreted by people and governments around the world.

To learn more about the State Department's "21st Century Statecraft" initiative, you can take a look at the State website, the report I authored last September, and a blog post I wrote about it a year ago. 

We followed Under Secretary McHale's speech with a terrific panel of four individuals working at the intersection of technology and Latin American politics, governance, and civil society.

Christopher Sabatini of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas offered a critical take on the US embargo that prevents the export of information and communications technologies to Cuba, reminding the audience that no country embargoed by the US had ever seen successful democratic change, and arguing that the 1992 Cuba Democracy Act, if anything, prevents the Cuban people from creating democracy. Dr. Sabatini has written on these issues recently at Foreign Policy and the Huffington Post

Carlos Ponce of the National Endowment for Democracy and the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy spoke about the contradictory role of technology in promoting stronger civil society and better democracy in his native Venezuela.  While student pro-democracy groups have made good use of mobile phones and social media in their organizing, the Chavez government have put the same tools to their own purposes: on Twitter, Hugo Chavez has more followers than any other Venezuelan. Ponce recently wrote on Chavez and other dictators in the Latin American Herald Tribune.

Oscar Salazar, technology entrepreneur and political activist originally from Mexico, spoke about the role technology can play in increasing civic engagement and improving government accountability. His new company, Citivox, offers tools for governments to engage in a two-way conversation with their citizens and more effectively communicate what they are doing. He offered the term "WeGoverment" to describe his efforts at creating a more productive citizen-government ecosystem. The home page for his company, Citivox.com, was just recently launched.

Ricardo Castillo of George Washington University spoke on the impact social media is having in Latin American politics, based on his own experience consulting campaigns in Brazil and Peru. Latin American leaders are increasingly taking advantage of social media, particularly Twitter, but there is a challenge in helping candidates and campaigns understand that social media is neither a silver bullet nor a threat, but needs to be a part of any comprehensive communications strategy.  Slides from his presentation are available here

A video of the full event is below.  Enjoy!

Diplomacy & Social Media in Latin America

The world is pretty hectic right now.  Japan is reeling after a mega-earthquake and tsunami. Armed rebellion in Lybia is stalemated while foreign fighters cruise the skies.  Yemen's president of 32 years might be about to fall. And the Côte d'Ivoire is in a crescendo toward civil war. So it's understandable if the president's trip through Latin America seems like a diversion. But it's not. If anything, it could have come earlier. More than just neighbors, Latin American countries are among our biggest trading partners and most valuable allies, and President Obama's stops in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador have helped reaffirm the administration's commitment to working with governments throughout the region to build a cooperative, prosperous shared future.

We've clearly got Latin America on the brain here, with Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano speaking to NDN next Friday about a "21st century border" with Mexico, and a conference on the "chaning politics of the Americas" coming up on April 12. This coming Tuesday, we have another very cool event coming up which you, dear reader, are invited to attend or watch via webcast.

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Judith McHale will give a keynote on how the State Department is advancing U.S. foreign policy in Latin America through people-to-people exchanges, local and regional media outreach and the use of social media to establish direct relationships. And she'll be doing a long Q&A, taking questions both from the audience and online-- we expect students will be watching the speech and engaging via social media throughout Latin America.  This, of course, dovetails nicely with an initiative President Obama announced in Chile:

It’s the same philosophy behind two additional initiatives that I’m announcing today, which will help our countries educate and innovate for the future. First, we’re launching a new initiative to harness the power of social media and online networks to help students, scientists, academics and entrepreneurs collaborate and develop the new ideas and products that will keep America -- the Americas competitive in a global economy.

In the second hour, I'll be moderating a conversation among four individuals working at the intersection of technology, politics and civil society in different Latin American countries. Chris Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas will be speaking about how the U.S. embargo on export of ICTs to Cuba has, if anything, prevented any chance of an uprising there. Carlos Ponce, a Fellow at the NED, will speak on human rights and democracy in his native Venezuela, and how these causes have been advanced by new technologies. Oscar Salazar, a technology social entrepreneur will talk about his projects to use new technology to advance citizen participation in government in his native Mexico and elsewhere in Central America. And Ricardo Amado Castillo of George Washington University will speak about the impact of social media on politics in Brazil, Peru and throughout South America.

We'll be hosting the event at SAIS, and I think it will be a fascinating discussion about a very timely subject. The event is nearly full, so please RSVP soon.  If you can't make it, we'll be webcasting the whole event live.

Tuesday, March 29, 12 pm - 2 pm 
SAIS Rome Auditorium, 1619 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC
RSVP  |  Watch Webcast

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the Woolly Mammoth

Please excuse this pause in your usual Global Mobile programming for a (tech- & politics-related!) theater review. 

I went last night to see a preview of "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," which will run at the Woolly Mammoth theater in Washington through mid-April. When you open the program, you're warned on the first page that "This is a work of nonfiction." More than that, this one-man, two-hour story is a storm of first-hand investigative journlism, popular history, social activism, comedy and drama.  

Mike Daisey, your performer/storyteller/journalist/activist, has garnered acclaim for other works in a similar style, and this one weaves together two yarns, one a bouncy ride through the history of Steve Jobs and Apple Computer, and the other, a harsh story of the hard, sometimes crippling labor by people in Shenzhen, China that goes into making Apple products and fully half of all electronics sold in the US.

The show is consciously activist, and encourages the audience to think differently, so to speak, about the electronics in their pockets and the human blood that goes into making them. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who saw the show during its run in Silicon Valley told the NY Times that he would "never be the same again," and I must say that the glow of my various (numerous?) Apple products casts a different light after hearing Daisey's stories of 12 year-olds on 16 hour shifts to meet demand for the hot new thing and one-armed workers discarded like broken parts after getting too close to a metal press. 

We're all vaguely aware of the foul workplace conditions at the bottom of our economy, and we read the occasional story of the long string of people throwing themselves off the roof of the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen. But it's easy to forget, as Daisey reminds us, that everything-- everything-- is made by hand, by people, and when you hold your iPhone in your hand, it's hard to escape a degree of guilt.

And yet Daisey's performance is never hectoring or condescending; rather it is stirring and often very, very funny. Daisey is himself an inveterate techie and Apple fanboy-- he speaks the language and revels in the geekery-- and he's equally horrified at his own complicity. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, and will closely follow Daisey's future work. 

The show is a must-see if you're a tech person in DC, but isn't just for the geeks among us: the three relatively normal people I went with were all thoroughly entertained and inspired. Tickets are available here, and if you won't take my word for it, the New York Times review is here

Google Announces First African Tech Incubator

A couple months back, I responded to a NY Times article critical of Google.org with what I hoped was one idea for an initiative that would allow the search giant's foundation to better leverage its considerable assets. Basically, I suggested that they help support technology & innovation hubs in developing countries similar to the iHub in Nairobi, bringing Google's financial, personel, and convening power to support bottom-up, local innovation.

Well, the Googlers have been working on such a project all along, and today announced Umbono, a new Google-supported technology incubator based in Cape Town, South Africa.  From the announcement at the Google Africa blog, which invites South African tech teams to apply to participate in the program.  From the blog:

Bringing together seed capital, Google mentorship, ‘Angel’ investors, local tech stars, entrepreneurs and business leaders, the Umbono program will help selected internet or mobile-focused start-up teams transform their ideas into companies. As part of its goal to strengthen the web ecosystem across Africa, Google hopes that Umbono will further encourage the growth of the developer community and support the country’s already flourishing tech sector.

It sounds like a great idea and a great project, and I look forward to seeing the innovation that comes out of Umbono. 

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