This summer as a ‘Future for Good’ Fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California, I’ve been thinking about what might constitute the future of next-gen witnessing for human rights. With new visual and immersive media technologies emerging quickly, what are the potential human rights usages of technologies focused on live video, wearable computing such as Google Glass and synchronous multi-sensory experience? And how might these tools and related tactics help include new people in activism or maximize/optimize the contribution of existing participants? How can the emotional power of immersion be combined with synchronous actions and task-routing to provide better ways to engage people and to translate that engagement into meaningful actions?

Co-presence for good: Using the sense of being together with other people in a remote environment to drive concrete, productive actions, engagement and understanding across barriers of geography, exclusion and timezones.

One core idea I’m exploring is the idea of ‘co-presence for good’. Tools and tactics of co-presence offer the sense and experience of being together with other people in a remote environment. You can think of the experience of ‘participating’ in an Occupy Protest via livestream as an early human rights-related signal of this: some people are physically on the ground at Zuccotti Park and many others are interacting with each other and with people on the ground within a live online space. Co-presence experiences are not purely immersive, but provide a sense of shared space and, hopefully, shared purpose.

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To work out how to maximize the possibilities of these technologies and tactics for human rights, I’m looking at situations where experiential, real-time, synchronous witnessing, learning, and engagement can be turned into a range of impact-driven actions that support activism, human rights advocacy and the protection of human rights defenders. For example, one context I’m looking at is large ‘latent populations’ of solidarity supporters and activists whose attention, willingness, skills or resources are not fully leveraged in support of smaller populations of high-profile activists. This can be because of a lack of geographical proximity or because of physical risk factors. LGBT activism worldwide is one such example, where there are both large populations of people locally who are not ‘out’ or cannot risk participating in public protest, and also large global solidarity support populations in distant locations. So the question is, how do we engage this under-utilized ‘distributed willingness’ in better ways?

There are two sides to co-presence. Once distant participants can see in real-time what is happening in a human rights situation (a forced evictiona suppressed Pride rally, a protest), experience it through others’ eyes, and feel a real sense of presence in another location, how do we use that to most productively drive human rights action and engage more people in relevant, useful activity? And from the other side: How do activists and human rights defenders on the ground in a physical location feel and actively use co-present support of others?

If an activist could ‘summon’ a crowd of 100 observers and virtual participants, what analysis could they conduct of an ongoing event? If they could have one of the world’s best experts on an issue (or even the legal expertise not available with them in their small rural community) “with them” at a key moment how could they change a situation?

With both, what leverage could activists exert in terms of preventative or persuasive pressure on perpetrators or decision-makers? What are the others actions we can generate based on a more enhanced synchronous co-presence: for conflict resolution, for rapid reaction, for distributed sense-making and analysis, for expert analysis that is not present in a local context, for building shared understanding/solidarity and empathy?

Some of the challenges I’m grappling with in terms of effective technology-enabled strategies include how to:

  1. Secure the attention and action of the right people at a timely moment for those people and for the needs of human rights context on the ground
  2. Generate empathy and engagement, while avoiding gawking/voyeurism and a skewed first-person driven understanding of situations
  3. Represent co-presence and engagement to both remote and directly present participants
  4. Provide an action option that is relevant both to the capacities of remote co-present participants and also useful and meaningful support to directly present participants
  5. Secure ongoing participation in a series of actions over time

Underlying all these potential positive options are questions of how we grapple with key ethical dilemmas of privacy, voyeurism, and the dangers of over-emphasis on first-person experience and crisis moments or of false presumption of understanding based on the sense of “being there.”

Interested in learning more or participating in the next steps?

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