Zizek to Assange: “First I treated you not as an idiot out of politeness, but now I more and more am forced to admit that you really are not an idiot.”
Entry for the CommInit Media Development Policy blog, published on 26th July 2011 as “Information and the Greater Narrative”.
Information and Politics
“Information is important. Information can be a matter of life and death.”
That was how Amy Goodman from “Democracy Now” started off a moderated discussion between Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, and Wikileaks editor-in-chief, Julian Assange. Hosted by the Frontline Club, the conversation presented a thorough intellectual analysis of the ethical implications of disseminating information, as well as the connotations in terms of ideology, history and political theory.
While acknowledging the complex interplay of international politics and the mainstream media, Assange explained how collaboration with the mainstream international press was important in order to reach his target audience, i.e. the news-reading public of the world. This was vital for him, as a journalist, to be able to contribute significantly to the historical narrative of today.
“What advances us as a civilization,” he said, “is the entirety of our intellectual record and the entirety of our understanding about what we are going through,”
However, understanding takes many forms, each coloured by circumstance. The dissemination of information does not have uniform effects on separate target audiences – which is why Wikileaks became a source of international controversy. For many, it confirmed what was already known. For others, it was the work of a maverick with a wicked penchant for chaos. And for millions of people preoccupied with handling everyday life, it was simply irrelevant; a distant buzz created by those having the luxury of reacting to events beyond their control.
Information and development
Information is important, it’s true. Politics aside, news can save lives. News of an earthquake relayed 80 seconds in advance can provide a window of time for evacuation, or an immediate response for self-protection. News of flash floods can be conveyed hours, even days in advance, providing enough time to install mechanisms for reducing vulnerability and controlling damage in terms of loss of life and property. However, the mode of dissemination of information and the kind of understanding that it contributes to are crucial in determining the impact of news. Unless it can be accessed, processed and applied by the relevant audience, it will not alter the development narrative.
Imagine a village on the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan. A smiling woman has just told the story of how she tied her grandparents to the top of the tree last year, before fleeing from the floods that ravaged the land. Since they were unable to keep up, the rationale was that the elevated position was one of relative safety, and at the very least the bodies of family members would not be tossed about like driftwood.
The villagers are asked what they would do if they could be given an early warning of the disaster. Their response is delivered with terrifying good humour:
It is God’s will.
The poor have nowhere to go.
When the river swells and news of flooding further north is announced in the local mosque, the story of panic, death and destruction will play itself out once more. Among the villagers, a crust of resentment will form above the current layer of apathy, against God and government and all those perceived to have greater power. Then the well-meaning aid organizations and journalists will step up, and the three Rs of disaster management will surface. Relief, Recovery, Rehabilitation.
There are, however, important alliterative terms in development-speak that merit more attention. For countries that are susceptible to disaster, the importance of “Risk Reduction” cannot be underplayed. In this, the effective dissemination of information is of the essence.
Information and decisions
“If we have to make rational decisions insofar that any decision can be rational, then it has to be drawn from the information of the real world and the description of the real world,” said Julian Assange.
Rational decisions, however, do not follow naturally from the simple release of information. The broadcasters have a vital role to play in determining the course of the narrative, as they control the direction and volume of information flows.
In the case of war logs and news of political disaster, a continuous chain of communication was formed between the invisible sources of classified documents; the whistleblowers at Wikileaks; the representatives of mainstream media; and a responsive public. In the context of risk reduction and news of natural disaster, the information originating from government units and research institutions needs to be run through the mainstream press; made accessible for development or community-based organizations; and then relayed to vulnerable communities. It could be that the local mosque becomes the last link in the chain for the timely dispatch of early warnings and associated evacuation plans. Only when it finds the most effective channels at every tier can information emerge as a truly powerful force, capable of constructing an alternate reality.