Friday, December 15, 2006

Information labor and cultural exchange - a former student of mine speaks out

This morning I was pleasantly surprised to find an email from a former undergraduate honors thesis student of mine, John Pederson, who is currently working in Indonesia on a Fulbright English Teaching scholarship. That in itself reveals a form of information labor and cultural exchange that, although overshadowed in the popular imagination today by stories of military occupations and the hunt for "terrorists," at least some young people in the US (not to mention around the world) still find rewarding and important. But more than simply teaching English and learning Bahasa Indonesian, John is helping construct a local information infrastructure in other ways:

Luckily, I've had the help of an entire village to help me with this and lay the foundation, literally, for the first student radio station in Sekayu, Indonesia!

The tower looks more like student science fair project than the future of free speech for a young democracy. But once up and running, the tower will broadcast the opinions, interests and ideas of a generation to an audience of about 6 kilometers—more than enough to cover the entire village.

John also impresses me with his efforts to bring his work and the work of the people in his village to the global public through a rich web site he created at -- a nice example of the way personal publishing and the public interest can coincide, and in more than one cultural environment besides.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Producing, disseminating, and critiquing information in the Iraq War

Haven't had the time or the itch to blog here for awhile, but this piece caught my attention. An article in the Washington Post cites the (bipartisan) Iraq Study Group report in noting that "U.S. military and intelligence officials have systematically underreported the violence in Iraq in order to suit the Bush administration's policy goals":

In its report on ways to improve the U.S. approach to stabilizing Iraq, the group recommended Wednesday that the director of national intelligence and the secretary of defense make changes in the collection of data about violence to provide a more accurate picture.

The panel pointed to one day last July when U.S. officials reported 93 attacks or significant acts of violence. 'Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence,' it said."

I recall that when the war started in 2003, it was official military policy not to report civilian casualties and/or "collateral damage" as well. This may still be official policy, but certainly the debate over the number of Iraqi civilians killed, injured, and displaced as refugees has intensified over the last three years -- with public health experts in the Lancet citing numbers of deaths in the hundreds of thousands, and the US administration having to contest these estimates.

The situation reminds me of the "closed world" of self-perpetuating Cold War discourse which Paul Edwards discusses in his book of the same name. Not only the terms of the debate, but the institutional and technological structures of information-gathering and validation are tied from the very start to a particular worldview, ideology, or set of assumptions about political-economic power and the inevitability of military engagement. With the limited and slanted informational tools at hand, it becomes impossible to argue against power and its policies.

When the most basic of measures -- "acts of violence," civilian casualties, scale of the refugee problem -- are not only in dispute, but possibly under active cloak and at the very least removed from official responsibility, how are policymakers, watchdog journalists, members of NGOs, and interested citizens supposed to form opinions and push for action?