Through a Cloud, Clearly

Standing amidst a thriving field of disease-resistant Cassava
In the medical literature, the vocal “cord” is a mere “fold,” a piece of gristle that strives to reach out and touch its twin, thus producing the possibility of sound effects. But I feel that there must be a deep relationship with the word “chord”: the resonant vibration that can stir memory, produce music, evoke love, bring tears, move crowds to pity and mobs to passion…To lose this ability [to speak] is to be deprived of an entire range of faculty: it is assuredly to die more than a little. -Christopher Hitchens

Living in D.C., there is often a challenge in sorting through a deluge of invites to conferences and meet-ups.  Sifting through a multitude of opportunities, I  stumbled upon a discussion at USAID about the revolutionary changes that are occurring in the way markets operate in developing countries, at both the local and global level. 

The primary focus was how the implementation of information communication technologies, such as Esoko and Vodafone, enables agriculture to become a much more seamless process, tailored to each individual farmer.  Through the technical components, these technologies have produced something called, “the humanitarian cloud,” by which the voices of many, previously silenced by location and lack of political power, will be heard much more clearly.  The Gates Foundation has coined the term, the “voice of the farmer,” to refer to the feedback loops between farmer and project manager that these technologies have provided.  Through the unprecedented speed of communication enabled by these technologies, (s)he becomes more than a recipient of aid, more than a function in a flawed system, but is contributing valid information to an entire network of farmers, consumers, and investors.

When we talk about ‘voice’—we talk about inflection, accent, tone, pitch, volume, etc.  All of these are characteristics of one’s physical attributes and strengths; they are housed within the body.  However, they are also representative of the motivations that drive one to make his voice heard.  Furthermore, the political accessibility to social platforms that provide the opportunities for speech is imperative to the voicing of these motivations for there are strong pressures felt from societal and political strictures.

Today there is an undeniable power in language spoken through technology.  Simply look to the power of the 140-character (or less) tweet to change an entire state.  However, much debate has gone on to pick apart these claims.  What really inspires change?  What inspired the French to move from written dissent in newspapers such as L’Ami du Peuple and Le Pere Duchesne to the storming of the Bastille?  Why were the Tunisians in the Jasmine Revolutions inspired to take their protests from the screen to the streets?  When did the Filipinos move from texting to marching against corruption in the government? 

Peeling back the layers surrounding language to investigate how something so seemingly innocuous can fundamentally shape our views leads to a bounty of perspectives.  We can interpret the function of language as political deception, as cultural expression, or as an instrument of social conflict.  Consistent reminders of the instrumental use of language and the power of the minute have marked the news in media this year.  The focus has been that through a myriad of political technologies, one is given a place to speak.  In this way, language becomes an item in our toolbox. 

No matter the manifestation of the revolution: in the political structure of a society, in agriculture in developing countries or in education technology, the most pressing impetus is the need for broad scale organization amongst members of the movement.  This is one reason for which we must be careful in bundling all technological advances under the umbrella of neutral social tools.  On the contrary, we must come to understand why these tools were born in the first place.

Sarah Inman

Sarah is a former Georgetown CCT student and assistant managing editor for gnovis. She comes from Louisiana where she studied Political Science, wrote for a local newspaper, and ran from hurricanes. She is interested in exploring the invisible and forgotten--from infrastructures to human beings. Her writings aspire to raise questions about technology's role in politics, identity, and international development. When she's not studying, writing or talking to all of you, she likes to brew beer, laugh at improv comedy, dream about living in the Wind River Mountain Ranges, and go to live shows.

  • Terryainman

    Love your article Sarah. You go girl! Keep up the great work! Mamasita