The relationship between Students Expressing Truth and the Berkman Center has never been very clear, and understandably so. Berkman is home to some of the world’s leading research about the internet and its effects on society, while SET has only recently received permission to start wiring up its computer labs for the web. Berkman is situated in one of the best universities in the world, while SET’s home is in the prisons of a developing country with the 4th highest murder rate in the world. Other than Professor Nesson, what IS the connection?

The truth is, there isn’t much of one right now. But that shouldn’t be the case–and it doesn’t have to be. I am writing this in the hopes that I can start a conversation to bring SET more fully into the Berkman family to the benefit of both sides. First, I think I would like to summarize both parties just to make sure that everyone is on the same page…

Students Expressing Truth, the group I am interning with this summer, is an inmate-driven prison rehabilitation group based in Kingston, Jamaica with a focus on technology. The group operates in three prisons in the Kingston area, including the largest prison in the country and the only all-female institution. In its 7th year, SET has graduated almost 100 inmates with an astonishing 0% recidivism rate. Technology has always been at the heart of the SET project. Not only is the group responsible for outfitting the three prisons with computer labs, but it has also installed a recording studio and a radio station in the Tower St. facility. Technology is primarily seen as a tool for facilitating SET’s bottom-up approach to rehabilitation: by handing tutorials and equipment to the inmates, they are able to teach themselves and each other skills. This increases the sustainability of the project as well as the inmates’ feelings of ownership and self-confidence.

Also, a word about SET’s location. Jamaica is definitely a country on the other side of the digital divide–only 17% of its population has web access, and of those only 11% have that access at home. Despite such low numbers, Jamaica has definitely started to create a web presence for itself–most remarkably, the Jamaican music scene has exploded onto MySpace to connect with dancehall and reggae fans in Jamaica and abroad.

Now for Berkman. Berkman is a research institution located in tech-savvy Cambridge, Massachusetts that counts among its fellows many of the world’s leading thinkers about the social implications of internet and technology. The Berkman family, though small, takes on a wide variety of projects–as I understand it, they mostly fall into these 4 somewhat fuzzy categories:

1) Defense of the net: Projects like Chilling Effects, ONI, Freedom to Connect, and, in some sense, StopBadware seek to protect the internet’s generativity from the intrusions of corporations, government, or just really annoying people.
2) Society 2.0: These projects seek to use technology as a tool to aggregate information and increase or democratize cultural productivity. In other words, they seek to amplify what society was already doing through the web. This includes the Citizen Media project, Global Voices, Public Radio eXchange, and H2O. Many of these also have an element of…
3) Understanding the impact: Projects like the Digital Media project and Digital Natives focus on how the internet is shaping society and, in some cases, actively try to make sure this change is for the better.
4) Digital Divide: In this last category, the projects are actively seeking to close the “Digital Divide”. The Internet Technologies Group, Rising Voices, and Ethan’s work in Africa are examples of this.

So where would SET fit? Well, 4 is the obvious answer. The group is certainly bringing computers and technological knowledge to a section of the Jamaican population that would otherwise be without it. However, I think it has more to offer than that. I think SET could serve as extreme field testing for some of the ideas that are coming out of Berkman.

Many of Berkman’s projects and ideas deal with power at a fundamental level–the net defense projects try to keep corporations and governments from exerting their power over the otherwise democratic web, and the Society 2.0 projects seek to use technology to funnel more power to the people. The idea is that by transferring more power to the people, some of the world’s bigger problems can be solve or, at least, better illuminated. In a prison setting, especially one as intense as Jamaica’s, the power disparity is enormous and provides a very interesting testing ground for these ideas. Does citizen media work in these constraints? And furthermore, can we tweak our ideas to make it fit even for this model?

One of the most eye-opening things I’ve encountered down here is the huge gap between policy and implementation in a place like Jamaica. While this may be something that is easy to understand theoretically, it’s incredibly difficult to really internalize. Increased collaboration with SET will be a good reminder for the actual conditions that Berkman’s projects have to be able to function in, and a better understanding of these constraints may lead to more creative technological solutions to bureaucratic inefficacy–how do we create technology that doesn’t rely on human maintenance and, in fact, spreads in spite of it?

Another really interesting perspective SET may bring to Berkman is that of necessary security. Even a rehabiliation program in the prison is subject to security restrictions, and for a pretty good reason–inmates with bad intent could use the internet to harass their victims, order revenge hits, or communicate an escape plan. Clearly, not all information from inside the prison should get out, but how do we implement filtering in the most transparent possible way? Is there a “best practices” of censorship for well-meaning organizations with necessary security issues?

Of course, there is a more obvious way for SET to contribute to internet culture as well. It can be one of the first organizations that really works on telling Jamaica’s story in digital form. This is already starting, in a sense, with the SET journal and the Inmate Diaries, as well as the eventual release of inmate-produced media online. With some help, SET’s internet presence could grow to be a powerful force for both Jamaica and the prison rights community. We envision creating a space online for inmates to safely and openly tell their stories.

And as for what Berkman can offer to SET: aside from the obvious help in terms of funding and Google juice, I think Berkman’s philosophy is also something that SET should constantly be keeping in mind while developing its projects. Even without a developed internet culture, the tenets of transparency, openness, and bottom-up culture are valuable in self-sustaining projects like SET, and promotion of these values in a society like Jamaica’s is absolutely essential.

This is nowhere near comprehensive, but I hope it contains some questions and thoughts towards a happier and more productive union between SET and the Berkman Center. One day, I hope that SET will be an active and well-integrated member of the Berkman family, always providing interesting questions and posing new challenges to the fertile intellects of the Berkman fellows.