Introducing the E-Quilting Bee

International section, sports and comics pages, but no local news.

International section, sports and comics pages, but no local news.

Upper Canada Village Heritage Museum in Ontario has a 19th century  iron-framed manual printing press. The newspaper that it once printed had brought word from all corners of the British Empire, but almost no coverage of news in their own colony. Local news, the historian explains, spread so quickly by word of mouth that there was no point in printing it.

Lets jump ahead 2 centuries . In Africa a news-collecting initiative is created called Ushahidi , “a GoogleMap mashup that allowed Kenyans to report and track violence via cell phone texts following the 2008 elections, and has evolved to continue saving lives in other countries.”

The system relies on cell phone owners to contribute news alerts to a central website by sms or twitter. The information is then logged in a thread where users can contribute new info, confirm (or deny) existing info, update existing info or get informed. The program has had such success that the main concern of site managers is developing a system to process the overwhelming quanitiy of incoming data.

The unreliable mass-media news agencies in Africa are unable to provide meaningful coverage of local events, so this high-tech solution steps in to save the day. High-tech maybe, but not a new idea. This system of user-generated content is merely a sped-up version of the news system that existed until the 19th century.

In pre-modern society, quilting bees, churches and markets were where you got the 6 o’clock news. Each news item came with a thread where contributors were free to post their comments. News had a self-fufilling accuracy as it took a life of its own while being paired down to its essence. Mass-media never really enjoyed this viral vitality of information.

For 200 years our world’s information was harvested, edited, polished and sold as the truth by an elite institution simply called “Media”. Then suddenly, inexplicably, we returned to the timeless method of people sharing information on a grass-roots level. Somehow much of Africa managed to avoid this unpleasant period.

Are we back to a more reliable method of communication? Is the nightmare of mass-media something we will tell our grandchildren about over a bowl of soylent green?