I recently saw the global music artist Peter Gabriel perform with an orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles (apparently the largest natural outdoor amphitheater in the U.S.). During an interlude, he spoke of a solar power plant in Portugal – perhaps like the one pictured below in Spain– which focuses thousands of mirrors to reflect concentrated sunlight towards the top of a tower to generate intense thermal energy (the process is called Concentrating Solar Power).
Using this image as a metaphor, he invited the thousands of fans in the audience to imagine if all of their cell phones and cameras were pointed towards a human rights issue/abuse. Imagine if millions of others were doing the same and those pictures and videos were connected across the globe via mobile devices and the Internet. Imagine how much this would change the world.
Gabriel was describing Witness, an organization he co-founded, which “uses video to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations.” According to its website, Witness is “an international human rights organization that provides training and support to local groups to use video in their human rights advocacy campaigns. Beyond providing video cameras and editing equipment, WITNESS is committed to facilitating exposure for our partners’ issues on a global scale. We help broker relationships with international media outlets, government officials, policymakers, activists, and the general public so that once a video is made, it can be used as a tool to advocate for change.”
Another project of Witness is the Hub. Described as a global platform for human rights and media and action, the Hub is “a participatory media site dedicated to human rights media. Anyone with a valid email address can be part of the community – you can upload footage, or simply watch what’s on the site. You can create groups and mobilize action around human rights abuses. The Hub provides people with the tools and the platform to use their video footage, photographs or audio recordings to campaign against human rights abuses.”
Throughout the concert in Hollywood, projectors displayed the image “Stand up for Human Rights, text WITNESS to 69866,” which allows people to sign up for an email lists by texting the short code. Peter Gabriel’s Witness project is a masterful combination of much of what this blog is about – he brings together global music (combining many cross-cultural melodies and rhythms to connects millions through a universal medium of expression), global celebrity (at an unprecedented historical peak due to global media), legacy media (video), and emerging technology (text/SMS/participatory media/digital networks)…all for Human Rights awareness and action.
Gabriel’s vision is powerful – empowering millions of individuals through information and communication technologies (ICTs) to advocate for global social change and human rights. Yet, as much as one might want to believe, we must put this in context as a techno-utopian vision of the future and compare it to historical and contemporary realities. This is not to say this vision cannot be realized. Judging from the talent on Witness’s board and staff they are in able hands to move forward. And communication technology is intimately connected to social change. Yet, whether or not this vision will come to pass depends on realities measured by awareness and impact. I would encourage those interested in supporting Gabriel’s vision to also employ empirical research to document, research and evaluate the impact of Witness and the Hub. The lessons learned (both successes and failures) are essential to understanding the extent of ICT effectiveness for human rights.