The role of engineers and the technical media in civil society

April 19th, 2014, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: Energize, Articles: EngineerIT, Articles: PositionIT, Articles: Vector


This paper was presented on 6 April 2014 by Chris Yelland, managing director at EE Publishers, at the Civilution Congress 2014 held at Emperors Palace, Kempton Park, South Africa, from 6 to 8 April 2014.

Background to the prevailing environment

First some background on the prevailing environment in which we find ourselves as engineers and as media.

The events of 11 September 2001 – the Al Queda attack on the World Trade Centre in New York – changed the world as we know it in many ways. Perhaps we as non-Americans have not fully understood the deep impact on the American psyche and the global impact of this single event.

Some of the overt consequences and changes were clear to all. Initially there was an eerie silence as the Americans grieved and regrouped. And then there was anger and the demand for reprisals.

Afghanistan was first, as it was seen as a safe haven and training ground for anti-western and anti-American extremists, for whom no atrocity was taboo. So we saw regime change in Afghanistan

Then there was the regime change in Iraq, justified by American and British claims of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of the hostile and oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein.

In due course came the Arab Spring, with uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen; civil unrest in several other middle-eastern countries; and the current civil war in Syria. Perhaps these were the aftershocks of the regime changes following 9/11, and the wider instability in the region.

But some of this was also a result of the growing political and economic aspirations of the young and technologically aware population in a time of wider access to information driven by pervasive and widely accessible information and communication technologies.

But there have also been other disturbing and more covert changes resulting from 9/11, including a clamp down on civil liberties, extraordinary rendition, detention without trial, institutionalised torture, the end of internet and email privacy, and global surveillance by the USA and UK.

Only a few days ago I flew to Durban and experienced incessant announcements that inappropriate comments about explosives or terrorists was a criminal offence, and that offenders would be prosecuted.

I wondered then what exactly constituted the classification of comments as “inappropriate”, and whether airport officials actually knew what was inappropriate or not. Nevertheless, the effect of theannouncements was somewhat chilling, which I suppose was the intention.

Some media issues arising

Some of the media issues arising from all this can be identified as follows:

  • A loss of a degree of media independence and credibility through the co-opting of journalists into the security establishment, and the infiltration of former security advisors into the media, in the USA.
  • The increasing role and impact of the electronic social media – Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – as the immediate mass communication media among civilian populations in political and civil unrest and uprisings.
  • The attempts by governments, not exactly successful I should add, to shut down and control the electronic social media.

Only in the last few weeks, authorities have attempted to shut down Twitter and YouTube in Turkey, to limit dissemination of information exposing and communicating corruption and nepotism in the run-up to a general election.

We should perhaps be pleased with the resilience of our own constitution and its Chapter 9 institutions in the run up to elections while Inkandla-gate is in progress. But there are some disturbing developments in South Africa too.

Challenging and changing the very nature of journalism and the media

There have been other events that have challenged and changed the very nature of journalism and the media. These have been in the form of massive whistle-blowing activities such as those of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden.

Julian Assange and his Wikileaks organisation blew the lid on sensitive classified American State Department diplomatic communiqués leaked by Bradley (Chelsea) Manning.

The uncontrolled release of such unedited information on the public internet was a direct challenge to the traditional role of journalists, editors and publishers as information gatekeepers that filter, moderate, redact and control the flow of information in accordance with formalised codes of practice and conduct.

Since then a clampdown on Julian Assange and Wikileaks has limited further leaks on this front.

But a further massive leak by Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the US National Security Agency (NSA), on the global surveillance activities of the USA, UK and their allies, was no doubt the biggest media story of 2013. At issue is the balance between the requirements of national securityand civil liberties, including privacy.

It has become clear from the revelations of Edward Snowden through journalists Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitras, by media such as the The Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times, that the elimination of voice, internet and email privacy has resulted in serious abuses that go well beyond the protection of countries and their citizens against terror attacks, and has moved into the area of diplomacy, international trade, technology and business, threatening the very foundation of free societies.

Examples include:

  • The monitoring of communications of members of the G20trade summit, including South Africa.
  • Monitoring of the communications of Brazil, France, Mexico, Britain, China, Germany and Spain as well as 35 world leaders, most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
  •  Monitoring of the largest Brazilian oil company, Petrobras.

The role of engineers in all this

Certainly, electronic, computer and information engineers have been, and still are, at the very heart of the destruction of encryption technologies, the destruction of voice, internet and email privacy, and the introduction of covert global surveillance though wide-ranging technical activities.

Various broad criticisms of the media

In the UK, the media has been criticised in the scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s “evil empire”, the closure of the News of the World, and the arrest of journalists amid evidence of hacking, illegal phone tapping and bribery of the police by journalists. In this instance, the media criticism is largely coming from a public outraged with media ethical violations. However, in a country where media freedom does not have protection of a national Constitution, criticism of The Guardian is coming from the UK government and security establishment for alleged breaches of the Official Secrets Act.

In the USA, however, criticism of the media is quite different, coming more from media analysts and intellectuals in respect of the synergistic and uncritical relationship that is said to have developed between the mainstream media, the federal government and its national security apparatus in the wake of 9/11. The criticism is about “embedded” journalism and a media that is too compliant in regurgitating statements by government and corporate spokespersons – a media that has been infiltrated by former security advisors and the like. It is a criticism of the so-called “patriotic” media.

In South Africa, it is quite different again, with criticism of the media mainly coming from government, the ruling party and its structures, and the various powers that be both in the public and private sectors – criticism. Here the criticism is more directed at an investigative media intent on exposing hypocrisy, fraud and corruption, which of is course denied vehemently or underplayed by government and business as the work of a so-called “unpatriotic” media that focuses on the bad news rather than the good; a media whose investigative instincts and work impinges on the dignity and privacy of the targets. Or so it is claimed.

The traditional ethical requirements of responsible journalism are discussed

But the fundamental ethical requirements of the media, whether in the UK, the USA or South Africa, remain unchanged, namely:

  • Telling the truth;
  • Remaining independent; and
  • Being accountable; while
  • Minimising collateral harm and damage

Impacts on media in South Africa

Unfortunately all the claimed failures of the media to meet the ethical standards expected of it, both internationally and locally, add grist to the mill of those in South Africa who are intent on curbing the free flow of information.

I speak here the Protection of Information Bill which has recently been passed by parliament and is awaiting signature by President Zuma, after which it is almost certain it will be challenged in the Constitutional Court.

If and when passed into law, I believe this Act will significantly reduce your rights to know what is happening, to be informed, and to make informed decisions.

By this I mean the right of access to information held by the state, public bodies and private bodies that is entrenched in Section 32(1) of the Constitution of South Africa.

If the Protection of Information Act had been in place, and with Waterkloof air-force base and the Inkandla compound declared national key points, I really wonder whether the Gupta-gate and Inkandla-gate abuses would have seen the light of day.

Role the technical media

So what should be the role of the technical media in the current environment?

Some years ago I heard described that role of the trade and technical media was simply to put buyers in contact with sellers. I could not disagree more.

I believe the trade and technical media has a far wider role, including:

  • To serve the industry and the public interest.
  • To promote economic, social and business development through science, engineering and technology.
  • To provide a valued forum of communication for its readers in the sectors served.
  • To disseminate relevant and diverse information, news and opinion to enable readers to make informed decisions.
  • To keep readers abreast of new and existing developments, techniques and applications.
  • To identify and communicate scientific, engineering and technology solutions to the needs of society.
  • To enable the communication of engineering matters to the wider public.
  • To disseminate and deliver relevant information by all available delivery channels – including, print, email, web, audio, video and social media.

I must say that believe that the trade and technical media in South Africa need to significantly improve their performance in the areas I have referred to above.

Role of engineers

Having highlighted some of the shortcomings of the media in general, and the trade and technical media in particular, may I make some comments on the role of engineers.

I do believe that engineers can, should and do play a vital role in the economic, social and business development of the countries in which they practice their profession.

But there is another side to the work of engineers too.

Doctors have ethical constraints on how and what they may perform in the course of their professional work. And when they breach the boundaries, they may be disciplined. An example here is the recent investigations and the findings against Dr. Wouter Basson for his military work.

While engineers do have a professional code of conduct, it seems to me that the restraints on the work of engineers do not go far enough in practice.

It seems that whatever the circumstances, there are engineers who will be eager to take up the technical challenges and serve their masters in government, military, security and business establishments, no matter how questionable or reprehensible such activities may be.

These abuses by engineers, and I have touched on some of them in this presentation, seem to go unchecked.

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