Politics, technology & accountability II

“To be ruled is to be kept an eye on, inspected, spied on, regulated, indoctrinated, sermonized, listed and checked off, estimated, appraised, censured, ordered about…to be ruled is at every operation, transaction, movement, to be noted, registered, counted, priced, admonished, prevented, reformed, redressed, corrected”. Proudhon quoted by James Scott in Seeing like a state.

The power of information is often used by those in powerful positions to control others.  The right to information movement inverts this principle and turns the gaze on those in positions of power by making their actions visible and thus amenable to democratic control.  Sharing information is often tantamount to giving up power.  One corrupt official jokingly told me that he would rather part with his life than part with his papers. And there are others who would rather part with your life than their papers.  Right to information activists have been threatened, beaten and even murdered in the quest to get information that is legally theirs.

Such struggle on the part of the activists and common people to find information naturally puts a dampener on their efforts, and allows corruption to flourish.  Such struggles are caused by the fact that we have to access paper based records precisely from those who are corrupt, and thus would resist parting with the papers.  Technology can remove the control of information from the hands of those who indulge in corruption and put them in the public domain, and thus have major consequences for accountability.

Automating payments, recording transactions through the use of smart cards, and other measures can take information out of the control of those working in the grassroots and make it difficult for them to resist providing information or doing damage control with records when they sense trouble.  It will thus make it safer, quicker and easier for activists to gain information, which is half the battle won.

The other half, which involves taking action on the information, is equally dangerous and costly terrain and thus the use of technology is not an automatic solution to demands of accountability.  Further, centralization of records can create new possibilities for “entrepreneurs”. But then, careful use of technology for rights can win us half the battle, and it is worth investing our efforts in designing it.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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