Making HappyTalk in Paris: Disneyland and the WSIS +10 Review

Posted on February 26, 2013

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I came to the WSIS +10 Review in Paris (in the middle of the coldest winter in 100 years) not really knowing what to expect.  I had been at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis and was fairly active in some of the civil society activities leading up to both the Geneva and Tunis summits but hadn’t had much involvement since in the on-going activities associated directly with the Summit (WSIS “forums” have been held annually “documenting progress” which has been made on the outcomes of the original Summit).

Without having very high expectations I did at least expect that there would be some attempt at a “stocktaking” — review, assessment, whatever one wants to call it of what had been accomplished since 2003 (and most importantly what had not) and what had changed for the better (and what had changed for the worse). What we are having instead is three days of “happytalk” folks talking “happy” about this that and the other not because they are particularly happy or because what they are talking about is particularly happy but rather as a strategy for not saying anything much about anything much.

And so we have Minister after Minister regaling us with tales about the wondrous progress being made in their countries as a result of their government’s ICT policies.  We have Jeff Sachs giving us a global tour of his adventures in ICTland but mostly talking about what the wondrous future with ICTs hold for the billions.  We have Workshop after Workshop presenting case study after case study of the wondrous successes being achieved by one donor or another and the momentous impacts that these will be having just over the next horizon.

Nothing particularly wrong with any of this, fairly standard stuff except that this was standard stuff ten years ago at the beginning of this process and what was standard then surely is a wee be past the expiry date 60 years on (if we use Internet standard time where one conventional year is the equivalent of 6 or so Internet years) and 1000 years on (if we use “Moore’s law” time as Sachs appeared to be suggesting that we do…

And my basic observation is that a “review” is well, shouldn’t it actually be about a “review”–not about a rehash of 10 year old PowerPoints.

Ten years (or 60 for the Netheads out there) into the Internet revolution there is actually a whole lot to review at a global level and by those responsible for public policy nationally and (hopefully) globally.  There have been some enormous, almost inconceivable changes, in the numbers of people connected (at least to some degree) through mobiles; through the transformations in the daily lives and normal practices of literally billions of Internet users and the relationships, organizations, working practices, governance structures etc.etc. that provide the basis of our/their daily lives in the 21st century. And one can burble on with happytalk about the wonders of all of this and folks particularly those on expense accounts love to do this.

But even in HappyTown (where everyone talks HappyTalk) there are those with frowns and sourpusses and more importantly with reasons for frowns and sourpusses.  There are those who for one reason or another are being left behind, who aren’t sharing in the Internet cornucopia.

There are also those being damaged by these processes from not being able to keep up with the fast kids on the block–because of poverty, or disability, or just, well, not being quite able to keep up… And there are those whose world has disappeared because of these wonders and while the race is going to the swift, (or in the current parlance the “innovative”) there is less and less means in place to cushion their losses–the massive numbers of unemployed in developed countries whose jobs or opportunities for jobs have been internetworked;  the small farmers in Africa who can’t quite fit into the emerging South – North, South – East value chains transforming their traditional plots of land into specks in some distant corporate Internet-enabled business plan; or the vast populations in slums in South Asia where mobile costs represent 20-30-40% of household incomes with not much evident return in household well-being or security; and then of course there are all those everywhere who don’t quite make it in races that are going (just) to the swift and devil take the hindmost; and over arching everything is the rapidly accelerating gap between the rich and the poor where the Internet is almost certainly playing a significant if not a central role.

And that is what I wanted to hear discussed at this “review”… not more cheerleading but some analysis and statistics and some serious reflection and assessment on where we are and how far we’ve come and where we have fallen short and what about “everyone else… and most important where and how do we go from here, not as isolated individuals confronting ever increasingly wealthy and powerful corporations or their governmental side-kicks, but as collaborating citizens of an internetworked, globalized and ever more interdependent world.

Things didn’t start out that well… In the remarkably thin set of official documents pointed to for the event there was nothing about “digital inclusion (exclusion)” i.e. who isn’t being included in the current Information Society, who are they, why are they, and what, if anything is being done. And then we have the program which circa 2003 was a series of “show and tells” about this and that having to do with the Internet… little or no serious research on outcomes or effects, no serious analysis (no analysis, serious or not, in fact) and no sustained “review” of what has been accomplished in the last ten years and more importantly what has not and thus no possibility of making sufficient sense to plan a useful way forward for the broad public interest.

And finally we have the draft statement meant to be the collective output of the event–available only at the last minute and only in hard copy linking and highlighting Unesco’s central role in all this (point after point linking Unesco’s areas of responsibility — education, science, the “Knowledge Society” with a recitation of “progress”; “new horizons” and “constant expansion” here and “innovation processes” there; with this “positive trend” and that “rapid diffusion”; with this “basic paradigm” and that “rapid growth”… okay, okay, we get it… good news all round and pie and caviar for the rest in the sky when we die…

But what about unemployment in the developed countries, what about massive processes of tax avoidance, what about vast regions in Africa where there isn’t even mobile coverage let alone Internet use? What about the turning over into corporate or government hands of huge volumes of data for surveillance or for turning into marketing profiles or whatever with no effective scrutiny, accountability or the putting into place of the means for ensuring the deployment of this infinite data storehouse in any sense of public interest or public control? What about the need for broad recognition and response to the increasing brittleness and vulnerability of a modern society now become so dependent on what are ultimately rather fragile links and eminently hackable systems?

And so we have the Information Society and soon the Knowledge Society as shepherded (errr  showcased) by Unesco and what a happy place it is and perhaps not surprisingly the major corporate sponsor errrr “partner” for this event was the Disney Corporation and they and Unesco gave us the FantasyLand and the World of Tomorrow all rolled up into one happyface package as cut off from the real world as is Disneyland itself.

Ultimately of course, it isn’t good old Unesco’s fault, “they could/would/should do better if only they had the funds”; but of course, Unesco’s ultimate pay masters the Member States and particularly those most benefiting from the Internet status quo and most desirous of this status quo continuing had absolutely no interest in putting on anything but a happy face.  There are no non-happyfaces in Fantasyland and if there are any, well we just usher them off the premises so as not to frighten the children.

No need to talk anything but happytalk because if/when we do we may realize that not everything is quite what it seems and perhaps the interests of the many might be better served by having some public policies in place to ensure balanced growth; support for the non-winners; equitable distribution of opportunities, rewards and benefits; protection for our rights as citizens and consumers: and the creation of means for their effective enforcement globally, not by relying on the goodwill of strangers (or other people’s courts and legal systems).

Some of that discussion would need to go beyond happytalk and might make some of the “winner” individuals, corporations, countries a wee bit uncomfortable but this is our world as well and if you folks want to profit from us we have the right to have a say–unless in the last ten years we’ve all shifted from being citizens on Planet Earth to being subjects in the Magic Kingdom.

Anyone interested in doing a serious review of the Information Society +10, let’s get together and see what we can do.

Mike <gurstein@gmail.com>

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