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Adapting to a Digital World

By John Stephen Veitch


Peer to Peer Communication - Scary Times

It's very difficult for most people to get their attention away from their own needs and their own community and to think about the global reality that world wide digital communication has brought to much of the world.  The enduring benefits of the things people do lies in their ability to enhance the lives of other people.  The internet is just a tool.  Each society using that tool will develop in It's own way, not suddenly becoming different, but by slowly evolving as the pressure and influence of new ideas entwines itself into the existing culture.  It's natural for governments to want to control outcomes.  Some things are not so easy to control.  It's good for people to get an education, but if we educate people they might want some things that were never demanded before.  The internet will generate that sort of pressure, in homes in business and in the wider community.  Governments will also be called to account.  Scary times, yes, but necessary changes that should be embraced rather than rejected. 

That’s the problem.  Very strong forces would be quite happy for the current distribution of wealth, power and influence in the world to stay as it is.  It quite likely that those forces have already corrupted the possible outcomes of the WSIS (World Summit for the Information Society, 2003) process so that the agreements finally reached will entrench the power and status of the already rich and powerful.  There is a fear that internet use will produce sudden and dramatic political and economic change.  The change will happen, but it won’t happen quickly, and when it does happen it will remake the world in fundamental ways that we find difficult to understand now.

The Millennium Summit

In September 2000, at the United Nations 147 political leaders, 3 crown princes and 8 deputy leaders, committed their countries to some solemn goals. 

For instance Clause 19 resolves that by 2015 they would:

These are important goals, much more important than providing people with computers.  Where’s the progress?  Who’s making the investment?  How are we going to get all the girls in the world into education?  If this is the information society, that is basic information, what’s being done?  Is this another case of "nothing changes" as usual. 

What is Information?

Information is the presentation of data in a form that explains what the situation is and allows decision making or action.  We do have the potential to create an "information society" but we seem to be stuck with an anti-information society at the moment.  It's not that the issues are unknown.  It's usually not the case that we don't know what we need to do.  It's just that those who should be acting, and who often promise to act, keep finding ways to avoid doing anything.  From the World Economic Summit recently held in the middle east I gathered the following comments. 

Mohammed El-Baradei (Pointing to the G8 nations, particularly the USA)
"We act like a fire brigade because we fail to address the roots of the problem.  Economic Redistributive justice is not seen as an important issue." 

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani (Talking about Middle Eastern leaders)
"We need to tell our people the truth.  There is a divide between the people and the nations leaders." 

Hania Bitar (Chastising the international community)
"We are too willing to ignore the voices of people whom we choose not to hear." 

Ibrahim Osman (Complaining about the abuse of the term "democracy")
"The way governments tend to define democracy is too narrowly defined.  Democracy begins with civil society in local villages and small places.  Unfortunately civil society is an unwelcome guest at national forums, even in western nations like the USA." 

Joschka Fischer (Commenting on the roots of terror and the position of Israel)
"What is the root to modernity? 
The rule of law.
A strong civil society.
The role of women.
A developing economy - Jobs for young men.
Quality education. 
There is agreement on what we need to do. 
Do we have the courage to act? 
Do we have the political will to act?" 

We don't live in an information society.  We live in a society that agrees to ignore the information, a society that constructs a fabric of mis-information or dys-information and agrees to call it "truth" if it helps us to get our own way.  We live in a society facing serious issues, that continues to avoid the issue and calls it "politics".  We live in a society where our leaders say they will do things they have no intention of doing, and where they do things they swear they did not do, and could never do.  It's impossible to live in an information society when those we are supposed to trust are themselves the most unreliable source of information.  Politicians wonder who why people don't vote, might usefully take a look in the mirror. 

Leadership

Two or three years ago there were grand political promises made about the importance of closing the digital divide, and providing internet access to all.  This offer was never sincere.  I want to point to a small number of very important promises we need to make to each other, and that we need to honour fully, even if the cost is great, because unless we do the concept of the information society will founder.

Discussion of the digital divide is to misdirect the summit away from useful things it should be doing.  There are many "divides" in the world, most of them created and maintained because it suits certain powerful actors to keep it that way.  In many nations of the world the process of democracy is whatever process the brought the current government to power, even if that process was corrupt and an abuse of power.  The term democracy is much abused.  Non-democratic communities are incongruous alongside the communication tools of the internet which allow individuals to share ideas and ideals with their peers around the world. 

That openness cannot exist alongside closed systems of thinking and control.  Almost everywhere, even in some widely touted "democracies" political power is concentrated.  The "official sources" of information are controlled by the same political groupings often the same family names that were in control 20 years ago, sometimes 40 years ago.  So there is a divide, the divide between those who have power and would like to sustain that power, and the general community in every country.  Computer aided communication encourages peer to peer exchanges of ideas across the world.  Many of the ideas shared will challenge the accepted status quo and the world view of those who currently hold power.  Every nation has to decide how they will react to that. 

For the WSIS to be effective we need the leaders of the world to commit themselves to a process of telling the clear truth rather than some concocted "political truth".  (eg. "Iraq has weapons of mass destruction."  It is so because we choose to say it's so. )  Unless the community has quality knowledge a population can't begin to form sensible political opinions.  Secondly we need as many people as possible with not only a good education, but also the ability to collect and share accurate data, to make public statements and to do so without fear for their personal safety and security.  Finally everyone in this community, the public, civil servants and the political class need legal protection so that people can be encouraged to speak the truth.  Where mistakes have been made, the ability to admit the fact cleans the path to the future.  In most professions and in politics the ability to face up to errors of judgement is close to zero. 

These important things are needed if any community is going to become an information society.  Where the truth is hidden and where failures are denied, the system gets forced into a cycle of repeated error that compounds the injustice and the pain.  Best modern practice can never be control of the government by the generals, or by the wealthy, or by the religious orders, or by the courts, or by the civil service, or by some royal family.  Best modern practice demands an active civil society out of which the ability to order community affairs can grow. 

The best modern practice cannot depend on electoral systems that entrench two old out of date parties, or in a worse case one old dinosaur of a party.  The world is full of variety and diversity.  The energy of all the people with ideas and aspiration splits many ways.  How does it serve society to ignore all this diversity in favour of institutions that have proven themselves unable to change and are entrenched in a world that no longer exists.  Too many societies try to constrain all political debate into two simple points of view, us or them?  New Zealand used to be like that.  Important issues that should have been discussed were continually put aside because they were too hard or didn’t fit into the "us or them" debate.  The country stagnated, not because we lacked ideas or talent or energy, but because our leaders refused to address those issues.  An information society would encourage diversity of viewpoint and an intensity of debate where the ideas and energy of people with aspiration could be exposed and tested. 

Speaking to Each Other

The core question facing the world is the ability to speak honestly with each other.  If that doesn't exist then any notion of an information society will be still born.  Can we avoid deception and take the risk of sustaining the truth in our dealings with each other?  If we are all members of a common humanity, the pollution of our thinking processes by lies and propaganda is a crime against us all.  Such acts dishonour us as members and destroy the trust on which the future must be built.  A scientist who is found to have falsified his research data and published misleading papers has committed a serious offence and would lose his rights as a professional.  A information society can demand no lesser standard from all It's professionals including It's politicians.  R A Heinlien said, "The right to figure things out for yourself is the only true freedom that every person shares."  If only that were so.  When my leaders feed me on nonsense and call it truth, they take away my ability to make sense of anything.  How well the future turns out turns out depends entirely on the values of the leadership and the values of the community members. 

The information society is not about databases and libraries and university education, although each of those might be helpful.  It's about enhancing the ability of each person to build his or her own centre of excellence, partly by figuring things out for one’s self, but also by sharing ideas and concepts with ones peers, both near and far.  This process is possible in every society right now, without access to the internet.  If governments were not so keen to suppress public knowledge and understanding, people would be more able to solve their own problems.  For instance the development of NGO’s is a natural thing in any open society.  But everywhere NGO’s are seen by government officials as a problem, not a solution.  Many governments gain control over their NGO’s by offering then the king’s shilling.  Governments love to control the outcome of everything, but that’s less and less possible if your community is to be at all progressive. 

Freedom of Choice

Widespread use of the internet in a community is commitment to a process where the outcome is uncertain.  Who can tell what people make free choices will choose to do?  Will they use their access rights to become terrorists or criminals or to trade pornographic images or to encourage a rebellion?  They might just do that.  Of course authorities are uncomfortable with that notion.  But far more likely people will try to learn about things that interest them, they will improve their language skills, they will learn about other people, they will learn some technical things, they will learn some things they can use and apply in their daily lives.  Surely in every country the social connection and goodwill toward each other, the desire to sustain a community in which people to have hope for the future is a massive positive force that needs to be enabled to improve the future.  A few malcontents cannot whip up a problem unless there is just cause.  If NGO’s can be effective in a community, if people have the ability to improve their lives, if there is hope for the future, there will be no just cause to be concerned about. 

I was told about an African country that only had access to the internet by email, once a day for two hours.  That small access is potentially life changing and community changing.  The possibility of improving education, social status and wealth because of access to the internet exists, but It's a weak influence.  Even with good access the key visible changes in attitudes and behaviour may be delayed until several years after internet use began. 

Even in the developed societies access to the internet doesn't change things quickly.  It takes time, at least 2-3 years to get familiar with the system.  It takes even longer to understand new ideas and concepts well enough to use them effectively in a public situation.  In my own experience (which without research is the only experience I know) I can report that after about 5 years I began to feel more confident and began to feel that I could say what I thought and be fairly sure I wouldn’t get flamed by other people on-line.  (Getting "flamed" is an expression from usenet, a news service that is now largely defunct because of abusive behaviour by commercial users.  It means to be criticised for being foolish or for breaking the rules.) 

When you consider the millions of people who are online, not too many of them have very much if anything to say about the WSIS process.  Not too many of them have the confidence to say anything much.  They just don't have enough experience or confidence to have an opinion.  That also applies to people in government, who because of their duties and commitments can only have a limited knowledge of the internet and how it really works.  Someone with 10,000 hours online has a vastly different idea of what the internet is and what it might be compared with any newbie.  Any change in the community standards and educational achievement as a result of internet use will only accumulate slowly. 

John Stephen Veitch

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