Closing Remarks at the TechCamp Philippines: Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience Building
G/F Glove Valero Teleparl, 111 Valero St., Makati
May 6, 2014
I apologize for not being able to join you, as I had to meet the President in preparation for his upcoming ASEAN trip to Myanmar. Allow me to share some thoughts with you, as part of the President’s communications team and as editor-in-chief of the Official Gazette online, the pioneering Open Government initiative of the administration.
There is an inherent contradiction between what this event represents, and how our national institutions are set up. On the one hand, we have a representative government—one that sets up institutions that ensure order through processes, a system where laws are crafted and implemented by your delegated officials—the result of which is that your representatives are empowered, and power is invested in people like myself. On the other hand, there is that clamor for more transparency, less red tape, and greater access to the processes, systems, and information of government.
So all of you, in a sense, represent an existential threat to the kind of government set up by the Constitution—one set up along Western democratic, republican, constitutional lines, which cannot truly survive open government: For what happens to representatives long accustomed to acting for the people, when the people increasingly demand a participative role at a table where the decision-makers were used to calling the shots in your name?
A certain amount of discombobulation is to be expected—and welcomed. Then as now, we are living in an era of great discoveries, where innovation is changing the way we view and do things: first was fire and rough tools of the past, then the printing press, and later on electricity, and now the Internet and the promise of more open, unregulated access to information and opportunities for action.
This change that we are seeing tells us of something profound: In a time of development, all of us interested in the public good must consider who the public really is and what the definitions of good are. Is it as simple as saying that disasters are bad and technology is good? Is this a truly helpful binary relationship? Because if we were to think of it, in a very complex world like ours today, both elements, as we see them, may provide opportunities for development and may also, in turn, create setbacks for us. Natural calamities are unavoidable; human behavior that worsens their effects or subjects communities to additional suffering is definitely avoidable. Technology can forewarn; it can deepen and speed up analysis, logistics, and the identification of solutions. But it cannot substitute for empathy, solidarity, and maturity—which are all needed in equal measure in a crisis. This is one side of the many dimensions we have to contend with as we all find ways to develop systems, applications, and technologies for the benefit of our countrymen.
Then we also have to consider the many skeptics—not all of them luddites—who are out there asking how many lives will truly be saved or can be improved by hackathons such as this; who will really benefit when not everyone has access to the Internet; and what will happen to an endeavor such as this with the change in administration.
I believe that just as Open Government represents an existential threat to all the institutions hosting you today, which is good, you also serve as a counterbalance to those who view change in a negative manner. We must all evolve, or otherwise choose to perish. Just as change serves as the hallmark of our time, so too does harnessing information technology represent a threat to the gatekeepers—of technology, information, and opinion. The large corporation wallowing in profits can see its user-base dissolve with the invention of a new app; the government media bureau must set aside sycophancy for a durable and useful institutional memory—one that is relevant because it provides factual and reliable information that neither reinvents the wheel nor condemns us to sticking to solutions that no longer work. An opinion writer can be easily fact-checked and called out for plagiarism; the commentator and anchor meanwhile can be challenged for bias; media today is held to a higher standard, just as government is required to act more efficiently.
This is what all of you contribute today: A chance to change the way we do things for the better. There is such a thing as creative destruction—and it is not for the selfish joys of hooliganism or an ominous experiment in anarchism. It is part of a social narrative of evolution, one that brings out the best in what we can do as a people. The changes we see today remind me of what the American historian David Kaiser said: that the Era of the Enlightenment that brought us the American, French, and Philippine Revolutions is well and truly coming to an end. More and more, all of us, through Open Government initiatives such as this, are creating what Benedict Anderson famously described: an imagined community, one where the virtual developments—the threats you yourselves create—will bring people closer, will open up more areas for dialogue, and will thus create a world where neither distance nor nationality will be an obstacle to compassion and communication ever again.
Thank you, and good day.