Knowledge, Change and Community - by Anaradha Vitachi (first published by Mediachannel.org)
New technology is bringing about a revolution in communication. More and more people around the world are talking to each other, learning about and from each other. Anuradha Vittachi, co-founder of www.oneworld.net, calls on "knowledge-brokers" — the media and development professionals who are often in the position to mediate information — to relinquish some of their historical control over communication
In my view, the really crucial job of so-called knowledge managers — whether we are talking about knowledge managers within development agencies or within the media — is to use their communications skills to remind people to include a sense of universal connectedness. If this solidarity is achieved, then all the rest — the practical know-how, the knowledge products — can be shared relatively easily. We should mourn the fact that today's authorized knowledge brokers, the media, are rarely motivated by a desire to create connectedness. Anything but.
Here is one little story to illustrate what I mean. A journalism-school student told me some years ago that he was often required in his course to find as many as five news stories before lunchtime to try out on local radio.
I was impressed. How on earth did he manage this feat? "Oh, it was quite easy," he said airily. "First you ring up the Labour party councilor and say, 'Surely you don't agree with the Conservative position on such and such an issue do you?' And then when he says "No, of course not!' you ring up the Conservative and say, "The Labour councilor is against your position on such and such, what have you to say about it?' Then you write up a story that's headlined 'Row in the Council over (whatever the issue was).'" An entirely spurious storm in an entirely unnecessary teacup.
It was obvious this young man would go far.
Polarization vs. Connectedness
The intention of polarized journalism is not to enable connectedness but to enable profits. Cheap strife makes rich pickings — just like cheap sex and cheap drugs. Journalists, whom we all need so badly to act as serious knowledge sharers about the most important human issues in the world, are reduced to acting as pimps and peddlers for shareholders.
OK, you may say, such polarized journalism is an easy target. But what about serious knowledge managers, people who work in development agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the like, people whose working lives are dedicated to improving conditions for the poor? Well, we all know many marvelous, industrious people like this. But anyone can get disconnected sometimes.
For example, I was once offered the chance to visit a village in the Philippines, accompanied by a prominent Filipina who was about to be appointed to a high-level population-policy job. There was no sign of her when I got to the village, but the women there and I somehow managed to communicate anyway with lots of body language and mime and occasional bursts of translation from a man who did speak both languages. Within a few minutes we were discussing Mrs. Marcos, laughing wryly about husbands who got drunk and conveniently forgot about contraception, and examining the different colors various of us had painted our toenails. I missed them when I got back to Manila.
The rich Filipina never showed up. But she invited me to her house and explained that she had felt too awkward, she couldn't think of anything to say to village women — except of course that they shouldn't have more than two children because it was bad for the environment.
And a little while later, she told me, with shining eyes, that she was planning to remarry soon and to have a child with this second husband as the symbol of their love. I pointed out as gently as I could that this would be her third child. After a shocked silence, a different light appeared in her eyes. It was the first time she recognized the contradiction she was about to live.
It was a painful moment for her. There were two worlds: her real-life private world, which was full of perfectly normal human feelings, like the love she shared with her new husband and the longing for a child with him as a symbol that connectedness had wrought; and her work world, full of knowledgeable theories "about" population, which gave her a lot of "power over" the people in the Philippines. And these two worlds had simply never before connected in her mind. Now, for the first time, she felt connected to the village women — to whom she had assumed she had nothing to say. She was quite right, of course; till that moment of connection, she had had nothing to say.
Two Ways Of Knowing
I want to underline the distinction between these two kinds of knowledge: "knowledge-about" and "knowledge-of." "Knowledge-about" is a useful way of getting power over things or people. It is a technocratic, linear, controlling kind of knowledge, that goes in for gadgets and quick fixes. The other kind, "knowledge-of," takes it slower, prefers understanding to persuasion, draws in outsiders, harmonizes communities, prefers dialogue to polarized debate and wants to redress power imbalances. I think we need both kinds.
Here is a story that starts with the first kind. A couple of years ago I visited a OneWorld partner in Mysore, India. This NGO was called CART — the Centre for Alternative Rural Technology — and was a tiny little outfit: just two tutors from an engineering college, working for free in their spare time, and a few of their students. What they were doing looked very impressive, though, to me. They had put together a low-cost water pump that was helping the villagers in the area haul in the large amount of water they needed to irrigate their fields without breaking their backs.
But what was particularly interesting to me was that they had got the idea from the Internet, from an appropriate technology group somewhere in Africa, who had, if I remember rightly, got the idea themselves from a group in China. And now they were writing up their work and making it accessible through OneWorld to even more groups in who-knows-where parts of the world.
In the process of developing a piece of engineering — a very worthwhile piece of "knowledge-about" that gave them a measure of power over a practical resource — a "community of practice" was also forming organically. It was a spontaneous, self-generating network, fueled by a desire to embrace others, share resources, share power. The "knowledge-of" the other group in Africa, and the ability to communicate with them and learn from them, gave them "knowledge-about" this irrigation system. The two kinds of knowledge had met and married — and I hope they will live happily every after.
Do you know the story of the Grameen Phone? In partnership with the Grameen Bank, which makes microcredit loans to very poor people, Grameen Phone provides low-cost mobile phones and connectivity throughout Bangladesh, even for the rural poor. There are 2.5 million such phones now in Bangladesh. Can you imagine how many millions of conversations that means?
Do you know what most of these millions of conversations are about? No, neither do I. Isn't that great? People are talking about what they want to talk about, not what I think they should talk about.
Conversations: Whose? And What For?
I learned a sharp lesson when OneWorld initiated a project for homeless people in hostels to learn how to use the Internet and even make personalized Web pages of their own. The project was a big success, and I was looking forward to highlighting the pages they had made on the OneWorld.net portal: I thought they might destroy some of our liberal myths about homelessness and teach us and our readers what it was really like.
The only trouble was that Pete and his friends didn't want to use their pages to explain to us liberal do-gooders what it was really like to be homeless. They wanted to use the pages to talk about football.
It was with some mortification that we remembered they didn't exist to fulfill our agenda: they had an agenda of their own. They wanted access to the new technology because to communicate with others was their human right as much as anybody else's. That was the development issue at stake here.
You probably know all about these agenda-setting/power-sharing/governance issues if you have teenagers, especially teenagers in love with mobile phones. Why do teenagers love mobile phones so much? Why not use the family phone? Because parents can tell you when to get off the family line. The mobility is secondary, I suggest. Having their own agenda, their own sense of autonomy, is the point. On her own mobile phone, the teenager can decide what to say, to whom, when, where, for how long. A phone bill is a small price for buying so much autonomy.
Talking of telephones and power struggles, there could be potent electoral repercussions when the WAP phone with the voting button comes along. It means citizens could be asked their views not just once every four or five years through their national vote, but much more frequently: every month? every week? The crucial issue may lie not so much in what the voters say about any specific issue, but in the power issues that underlie this greater access to having a voice. It's the possibility that all this extra political engagement may lead voters to think that perhaps they are entitled not just to "have a say" but to "have more say in how they have a say." That would be quite a power shift, from the citizen being a mere consultee, to the citizen helping determine how the process of consultation takes place.
Perhaps these conversations, these examples, mean we can all be part of a "community of practice," like CART in India, even though we play very different roles, we knowledge managers and members of the media, all of us — as long as we remember to play them in the equal, reciprocal way that Gandhi described: "Give mutual support, like neighbors."
|Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.
Anuradha Vittachi is the founding editor of www.oneworld.net. A journalist, author and documentary producer, she is currently director of the OneWorld International Foundation.
This article has been adapted from a speech Anaradha Vittachi delivered at the United Nations on 23/03/2000-04-18