27 October 2005. Soenke Zehle and Geert Lovink have organized the Incommunicado Conference in June 2005 (see our report) as the kick-off event for a larger network of critical and progressive media and Internet activists and researchers. They currently are finalizing an Incommunicado Reader and a DVD which will be launched at the WSIS summit.
The email exchange below was conducted to prepare for the reader. It was originally posted to the incommunicado mailing list on 26 October 2005 and is reproduced here with kind permission from the authors.
GL: Incommunicado as a network aims to go beyond events such as WSIS in order to create a sustainable structure that allows a free space to ask questions. Research is at the level of best practice. There is lots of policy and activism but little critical thinking in this field, which could be surprising. Is it?
SZ: Partly a (late) reflection of the WE SEIZE events organized in the context of WSIS I in 2003, the very idea of an 'incommunicado' project was (at least for me) a way of engaging this process without having to adopt the standard vocabularies that are now becoming part of the discursive logic of intergovernmental summitism, i.e. civil society, dialogue, participation, etc. But then I noticed that some of the people most vocal in the WSIS process were also the ones most critical of the way 'civil society' had been incorporated, so perhaps I don't see as much of a lack of critical approaches.
But I still wonder what it actually means to 'open up a space' in such a context, both in terms of activism and research, beyond setting up lists and collaborative weblogs or engaging in an organizing effort. I used to think about the dominance of state and non-state development agencies in WSIS in terms of some kind of radically-exceptionalist outside, so you leave the NGO world behind and there it is, yet another temporary autonomous zone that can facilitate the articulation of alternative info-poliical perspectives. But often the space of 'critique' is defined in terms of an almost mythological 'grassroots' and popular democracy as authentic sources of legitmacy and 'last instance' of accountability, so all you need for a critique of civil society and NGOism is to show their gradual (and almost inevitable, it seems) estrangement from a social movement grassroots, facilitated by their adoption of corporate models of professionalization and an emphasis on organizing efforts that are compatible with an intergovernmental summitism. The summit machine, however, continued to hum along, largely unimpressed by action plans, civil society declarations, and manifestoes, and in this failure already seemed to produce its own critique. And the label 'civil society' papers over so many differences that I now think of its use primarily in tactical terms, a way to create a very specific kind of intelligibility for your political claims that does not really limit their rearticulation in alternative idioms.
GL: What's striking about the NGO/civil society scene is the way in which it is dominated by language (control) issues. WSIS is a discourse nightmare. That's funny because for so many involved in new media, the issues are of such a practical nature. Of course they 'grow' out of concepts that are first put in words, but they always soon after materialize as code, graphics, human-machine machine interfaces or even hardware. Add to this the recycling of used PCs, or training programs. This makes you wonder why there is such a commonly shared belief in the primacy of national and global policy making.
SZ: If WSIS actors operate with a kind of sociological matrix that covers the relevant institutional actors, policy becomes a matter of shifting resources and responsibilities by way of playing different actors against each other. Some of that makes sense to me, alliance-building within the specific ensemble that constitutes the info-development regime. WSIS could perhaps been a very different space had it not been hosted by ITU but UNESCO, now everything was framed by default by ITU's ahistorical don't-even-think-of-mentioning-NWICO techno-managerialism. On a different level, the very idea of development implies a commitment to the logic of representation - needs, actors, and remedies can all be identified etc., and this is where policy-making indeed becomes a matter of faith, even transcendence. The formalization associated with development processes - the discomfort with informal economies, the translation of diffuse desires into needs, and the transformation of people into autonomous bearers of rights to development - is just a consequence of this more fundamental commitment. So perhaps its less a belief in policy as a belief in the power of representation.
GL: That's all fine, and understandable from an institutional point of view. But why do media activists, people who claim to know the Internet issues, buy into all this? Why should something that florishes anyway be regulated? There is often a tremendous fear for the unknown. Instead of focussing on empowerment people start speaking in the tongues of fear, resentment and anxiety, as if there is something out of control.
SZ: Maybe that's just it, that it becomes more and more difficult to separate the idioms of empowerment and control; the idiom of 'civil society' itself is both enabling and restrictive.
GL: What could then be the specific Incommunicado point of view? Should we deliver a psycho analysis of the NGO official? An ABC of how to survive institutional politics? What makes it so hard to be a little bit more creative, crazy and innovative? Why should ICT policy be so dull, so flat? Computers aren't. Everyone gets so heated up if you start to discuss the real issues, such as ICANN, FLOSS, Brazilian blogs and wikis, postcasting in Mali etc.
SZ: Incommunicado got started in the context of WSIS, and even if it maintains a critical distance to it - as do, by now, virtually all groups that have been involved - it's still marked by this focus on the critique of a policy-driven process organized around a fairly standard set of actors. Let's leave that behind, engage more micro-level studies - there are plenty of fora that rethink development at large - and see what's actually happening below the threshold of civil society. When I looked at F/OSS-in-Africa initiatives, for example, I noticed that the Afropessimism that reigns supreme in mainstream reporting on Africa (along with the current wave of imperial nostalgia in countries like France and the UK) is actually a consequence of its sovereign perspective that has little interest in what's happening on the ground. Not that there's a radically different Africa to be discovered there, but such a shift in perspective complicates the view - and thus possible assessments - of what has and what has not worked.
GL: A few experts-activists-academics do amazing work in WGIG, the WSIS preparation body that discusses Internet governance. But apart from them, I find little or no references to the whole thematic in the global civil society material. This was already the case back in 2003. Should ICANN be abolished? What are the alternatives? Are worries about China and Iran indeed real? You start to believe that most human rights activists actually have to side with the US government because of their concerns over censorship (even though censorship has got little or nothing to do with the DNS story, but anyway...). For instance, there is no ICANN position on the CRIS campaign. At least, I have not been able to find it. Why should this topic be left to the government people?
SZ: Your main question here seems to relate to the disconnect betwen general analyses of the civil society dynamic - across a spectrum defined by, let's say, the yearbook on Global Civil Society published by the LSE and the studies by the Centre for Civil Society in Durban - and a debate over internet governance. For one, even among WSIS activists, the number of those really at home in the IG debate is limited; and while IG moved to the center of debate prior to WSIS II, such debate was in fact limited to the IG Caucus and the corresponding governance list. Analyses of the Working Group on Internet Governance - for many, a key outcome of WSIS is the possible emergence of a multistakeholder paradigm for which the WGIG serves as a possible model, so this is not a marginal dynamic - are only now rolling in - this is an important area of research that could facilitate broader involvement in IG issues, so can the multiple intro and survey reports produced by various organizations. So this is one thing to do right now, finding a way to spread IG expertise outside the standard arenas.
At the same time, there is a fair amount of resistance - some of it justified because of the technical complexities, some not - among IG researchers to open up this debate, and some of them seem to be wringing their hands already as a complex debate is reduced to a crude choice of ICANN vs ITU, a defensive cyberlibertarian position vs an equally defensive pro-multilateralism that seems to take issue less with the actuality of internet governance than with one dimension of it, i.e. ICANN's relation to the US DoD. The fact that ICANN tabled the .xxx issue was immediately interpreted by many who prefer a UN solution as evidence that the US 'rules' the internet, even though the likelihood that a multilateral regime would severely restrict its functioning is great. But that does not seem to be an issue at the moment. What I mean to suggest here is that even if you want to make the case that the IG debate needs to be 'de-governmentalized', it is not obvious that the opening for such interventions even exists at the moment. And as you already pointed out, those who look at a 'multilateralization' of IG in terms sobered by the record of the ITU, currently tend to be rather cautious, ending up in the paradoxical position of siding with the US.