Firstly I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me to speak today. Exactly 20 years ago, the Queen became the first British monarch to address the United States Congress. A first for free speech maybe? Well tonight I’m going to tell you about something much grander.
If I was to ask you to think about the year 2000, of what would come to mind? The dawn of the new millennium maybe? The Millennium Bug? Or maybe the ill-fated Millennium Dome?
To me personally, I remember the year 2000 as the year I received my Higher National Diploma, the year I met my first love, and the year in which I had surgery to make my epilepsy more manageable. Not necessarily in that order!
But there was something else about this year that was important. May Day in the year 2000 was the day that London became the first city in the world to make steps towards globalised independent media organisations. Up until then, the public square, which is the name for the means to be able to broadcast or publish ones opinions, had only been open to media elites and corporations.
Today many people take for granted that we can capture video on our mobile phones and send it to the world through Facebook or YouTube. Many also think nothing about turning to Wikipedia or blogs for information. But this revolution in what is now called ‘social media’ could not have happened without the first step in self-empowerment through independent citizen-led broadcasting.
On May Day in 2000, an organisation known as Indymedia UK, founded the International Media Centre, or IMC. They covered the actions in London that day and other places in the UK on a manually maintained website, and introduced some fresh approaches to reporting large actions. Today they are a global participatory network of journalists that report on political and social issues. Their idea originated during the Seattle anti-World Trade Organisation protests which occurred worldwide in 1999, and remain closely associated with the global justice movement. Indymedia uses an open publishing and democratic media processes that allows anybody to contribute to it.
Today DIY media projects are fast spreading around the planet, triggered by discontent with the mainstream media and supported by the widespread availability of media technologies. The recent revolutions in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa have started in large part due to social networking Web sites like Facebook and Twitter. The whistleblower Web site Wikileaks has had a tremendous impact in exposing government corruption. Even the Association of Speakers Club is involved, for now each year the online speaking competition has entries added to YouTube for the whole world to see. I’m sure hardly any of the entrants see themselves as revolutionaries, but we are all part of the new digital social media revolution.
My research colleague, Ashu MG Solo and I will soon be presenting a paper about a new field called Polnetics to the international conference WORLDCOMP. Polnetics is needed to describe these changes to the world brought about since the realisation of the first Independent media organisation in May 2000. Polnetics is a combination of the words politics and networks. The term polnetics is derived by combining pol and ics from politics with net from networks. Polnetics is defined as the application of networks in politics. This includes the Internet, private networks, cellular networks, telephone networks, radio networks and television network. The currently accepted term e-politics just refers to politics and the Internet and is therefore a subset of polnetics.
One of the most exciting recent developments in polnetics occurred in the recent Libyan Revolution against the dictatorship of Colonel Gaddafi. To prevent rebel fighters from communicating, Gaddafi cut off their telephone and Internet service. The rebel engineers hived off part of the Libyan cellular phone network and rewired it to run independently of the regime’s control, so their fighters are able to communicate with cellular phones again.
Groups all over the world are creating their own channels of information and distribution in order to bypass the mainstream corporate media. The idea behind most of these projects is to create open platforms to which everyone can contribute – not only media elites with their particular interests and corporately-defined editorial policies. By eliminating the classic division between professional producers and passive audiences, many issues and discussions that were previously suppressed become visible and available to all.
The field of polnetics is needed to understand this. A simple polnetics activity could be posting a political blog entry, starting an online petition, or holding a virtual town hall – all of which can use existing software tools. A polnetics research and development activity could be studying the characteristics of political bloggers, developing new software tools for organising political activists, or developing a tool for candidates to alert voters by text message when a candidate will be giving a speech in their particular geographical area.
Even in the eleven or so years since the launch of the International Media Centre, things have changed faster than people imagined. Who would have thought that those elite media professionals would be sharing the same publishing space on a second-by-second basis with ordinary people, as on Twitter?
Well that time has come, and there is no knowing where we are going. Will the opening up of the online public square bring about dwindling political party memberships like the mass publication of the Bible did to the Church’s congregations after the printing press? Only time will tell, but I suspect it won’t be long before we know.