Can New Technologies Help Strengthen Relationships Worldwide?

 Coming from the perspective of both a technology person working on international peace-building campaigns and a professor teaching a video-conferenced course entitled “Globalizing Social Activism and Information Technology,” I have been concerned both practically and theoretically with what it means to build community. Community in a connected world all too often means a broad range of connections with questionable depth. While information technology has enabled transnational networks of activists to build campaigns that would have been unimaginable before 1990 – the International Committee to Ban Landmines, the anti-MAI campaigns, and the Zapatistas just to mention the most famous – the experience of many activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is that they are talking with a wider range of people, but having less success in mobilizing in their own local areas. While local activism and global connectivity are not necessarily contradictory, many organizations have experienced this dilemma in trying to determine how to allocate their resources and how to be accountable to multiple constituencies.

The most critical aspect of projects of using ICT to construct community is to understand what forms technology activists will find inviting and how they are likely to use this technology. I have worked most extensively with projects related to Iraq (including a three-week, in-country contract in summer 2004) where there is limited experience with using newer forms of technology. What we quickly discovered was that having access to email did not entail understanding that rapid response should be the norm, or that people would feel uncomfortable about speaking to counterparts in partner organizations without clearing every conversation with their superiors. Introducing new technology in and of itself rarely worked – although giving Iraqi University leaders access to webcams in 2003 did remarkably increase their willingness to communicate. What one needs to do is to map the technical network that one is seeking to build onto the social network of existing personal relations and activities. Our organization has found that universities in contexts such as East Timor and Iraq are the best places to start – since they are most likely to have the infrastructure and the experience – and then to build out to community groups from there. If you can establish a foothold in a university, it is then much more likely that you will be effective in building a community technology center.

I am look forward to better understanding how to construct and maintain long-term, long-distance relationships. I am particularly interested in learning more about how groups have used socially collaborative software such as wikis, blogs and collaborative bookmarking, as well as about experiences with Drupal technology to build community and mobilize folks to act. I am also curious to see how groups are using the newer forms of Web 2.0 technology. I am hoping to get both ideas that I might practically implement and those that I might use to enrich my teaching.


Ted Perlmutter, Ph.D.
Director of Information Technology and Knowledge Management
Center for International Conflict Resolution, Columbia University
Visiting Professor, Department of Sociology, College of William and Mary

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