In a world where we post our trivia on twitter, incriminating photos on Facebook, and embarrassing videos on YouTube, can truly horrible stories of human rights violations still grab our attention? Our horror? And the shame necessary to drive change?

And when the perpetrator of the crime smiles and waves at the camera during the act, does their “You know that I know that you are watching while I get my 15 seconds of fame” attitude make a video game of the whole episode?

Trevor Paglen, author, artist, journalist and experimental geographer, opened the Conference on Human Rights, Technology, and New Media at Berkeley on May 4th with these powerful questions.

Trevor’s controversial and thought-provoking pessimism about the continued success of the mobilization of shame to change policy and practice was offset by the good news throughout the rest of the conference–examples abounded of technology’s positive impact on human rights.

Some of these examples are:

  • Trevor’s now famous photo of a CIA black site provided evidence of a secret government detention architecture. Using public records, mapping visualization, GPS systems, interviews, and dogged determination, Trevor tracked down the location of this site and took the controversial photograph.
  • Yvette Alberdingk Thijm of WITNESS described how their program empowering locals to document human rights violations in film has actually reduced voluntary recruitment of child soldiers in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and has contributed to the prioritization of this issue at the international level. With today’s video and internet technologies, anyone can be a witness and documenter.
  • David Sasaki of Global Voices described the many internet tools he uses to build an online blogging community of over 150 voices from the developing world covering issues that mainstream media often ignore. Internet applications such as Google groups, Google reader, Google docs, delicious, wikis, basecamp, Doppler, freshbooks and makes it easy to build and maintain their virtual community.
  • Judith Dueck of Huridocs detailed the database and search capabilities they provide to allow massive amounts of victim, perpetrator, and event data to be mined. Standardizing the structure and vocabulary of human rights turns the tons of boxes of data into actionable information for stopping the violations.
  • Peggy Weil of the USC School of Cinematic Arts gave a fascinating example of raising awareness of torture through an immersive experience in Second Life. Working with Nonny de la Pena, her team created GoneGitmo, a Second Life experience that takes a viewer’s avatar through the experience of Guantanamo. Depending on how closely you identify with your avatar, the experience of being bound, head-covered, and interrogated can be quite terrifying.

Rather than feeling technology and media weary after seeing gadgets worthy of James Bond (the BUG4GOOD mobile device was especially cool), rather than seeing games and social networks as corrupting influences on our youth, these technologies and media made me feel optimistic.

For collection of information, we have modern technologies such as satellite images, GPS, GIS, and ubiquitous phones, cameras and SMS. For simplifying analysis, we have data visualization, DNA analysis, collaborative online conversations, and data mining, for example. And for promoting awareness we have fun technologies such as games, films, and multi-media campaigns.

So we can use social networks not to expose personal embarrassments but to expose crises. We can create communities for sharing stories of trauma not gossip. And we can create learning and immersive experiences for deeply feeling and walking in someone else’s shoes rather than avoiding reality. And perhaps then we can drive the change that is needed.

This sounds like a Web 2.0 to embrace.

AdvertisementGina Klein Jorasch Gina Klein Jorasch is currently Senior Advisor to the Center for Social Innovation at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Gina was a founder or early-stage executive at five for-profit tech start-ups, all of which had successful IPOs or acquisitions, and a founding board member for two nonprofit startups.