By Michael Gurstein
22 December 2005. I didn't attend the first Summit in Geneva. No particular reason to do so and no funds to provide support. Those who did attend indicated that the major and lasting benefit that they saw arising from their attendance at WSIS was the networking opportunities that it afforded.
Nothing wrong with that, the Information Society is after all about networks and networking so no reason not to justify the expense (minimum of $2K US) for attending WSIS II in Tunis, by mentioning "the networking opportunities" to whomever might need to be persuaded.
I hadn't planned to attend the second Summit in Tunis either, for much the same reasons although this time I had the promise of funding support; but at somewhat the last moment I was sent an invitation that to my mind I couldn't under the circumstances refuse and so I went.
And lo and behold what will be the expressed outcome for many if not most of the some 20,000 or so people who found their way to being crammed into the Kram Center - of course, the old stand-by of "networking opportunities".
And again, I guess, nothing wrong with this but, but. Hmm. what about this "networking". who is being networked to whom and for what purpose one might ask.
Did the Summit or the Summiteers take the opportunity of the two years between the first mega-First Tuesday (1) event to reach out and link into other perhaps less privileged or well-placed networks? Did they perhaps extend their practical networks from people like themselves-youngish, brightish, well-groomed and well-educated, clearly the winners in the Information Society sweepstakes-to perhaps the less stylish, those who fumble with their cell phones or can't speak knowledgeably about WiMax or are ever so slightly hesitant with the delete key; that is to those who weren't quite as able to wrangle a tax payer supported week in a somewhat obscure part of the Mahgreb?
But no, this one also was about "Networking" and what was perhaps most interesting was that this was a mega-event whose primary output seems to have been enabling (or reinforcing) the further networking of the already networked.
One searched more or less in vain for evidence of a linking outward of these already existing networks-networks consisting of the continuously cross-pollinating ties between governments and the private sector folks and of course "civil society" and of course their links upwards and onwards to government and corporate masters and foundation funders. However, in the limited eye of this poor observer one could identify almost no network linkages to those "below" and beyond. to actual users and particularly to those actual (or potential) users whose condition (as being on the other side of a widely perceived "Digital Divide") was the ostensible reason for this mega-meeting in the first place.(2)
What seemed to be the case was that somewhere between Geneva and Tunis quite a lot had been lost or at least changed and evidently irremediably. Networks that were fresh in Geneva and at least gave the appearance of being "open' were now more or less closed and self-reflexive. No need to go beyond when the necessary inter-personal approbation, affirmation and legitimation was provided not by an extended network but rather by a network whose links were now circling back on itself and inward and to those on the outside presenting edges rather than points of connection. In the end the networking that was so evident at WSIS didn't extend to a bridging of the Digital Divide but rather to a raising and a reinforcing of the levees surrounding those most benefiting from being on the right side of that Divide and this Summit came to be about "closing loops" and raising barriers rather than "closing gaps" or bridging divides. (3)
Perhaps this wouldn't matter very much to anyone except those outside the closed loops (4) of WSIS except that one of the things that had also fallen off the agenda between Geneva and Tunis was the sense that the Information Society should be for all and not only for those within "the networks". And perhaps most important also somewhere along the line, governments and the UN agencies also woke up to the advantages and benefits of networking but missed the part where these networks were meant to be open rather than closed.
So what also happened somewhere between Geneva and Tunis, was that governments (and the agencies) - increasingly isolated and under attack in their constitutional redoubts and "democratic deficits" came to recognize that they now had access to a network of folks who were able and willing to talk the same language and accept roughly the same issue agendas and priorities even if there were at times polite disagreements, and these new network accessible folks being clearly representative of neither government nor the private sector were thus obviously representative of "everybody else".
The clever tactic by these "everybody else" folks in calling themselves "civil society" - a term with as slippery a meaning as any in the current lexicon - only served to reinforce these processes and to make the convenience of their sudden recognition as an invaluable interlocutor by governments and the UN even more desirable.
The loop (and networks) were truly affirmed as closed with consequences yet to become truly clear when Ambassador Kahn of Pakistan - one of the leaders in the WSIS process and a hero according to many in bringing it to its success - announced in his concluding remarks that (and I quote from memory) that he was truly delighted at the outcome of the Summit where governments had had a chance to meet with the private sector and in turn meet with Civil Society who as he pointed out were there "to represent", as he said "everyone else". And that having been done, we could all go forward hand in hand (well link to link) to the brightest of Information Society futures.
Whoops, Civil Society, all 2 or 300 of them active in the WSIS processes representing everybody else-some 5 or 6 billion everybody else's??? Hmmm. I was rather taken aback initially by that remark, especially as I tried to think precisely which 20 million people or so, I was meant to be representing in these Information Society networks in the sky.
That these interlocking/mutually reinforcing/intercommunicating but essentially closed networks were able to hijack a Summit which initially had been about the high minded intentions of "bridging the Digital Divide" towards the much more narrow - nay: hermetic - discussions concerning Internet Governance is surely one of the phenomenon of our times. That the primary output of the Summit seems to have been the creation of a perpetual motion machine for maintaining and sustaining these networks and networking opportunities for the already networked, through the initiation of a Global Internet Forum is a feat of monumental craft and creativity (and it's all paid for either directly or indirectly through taxpayer support or tax deductible business development expenses. And the next round is in Athens in autumn 2006, a most welcome relief from New York, London, Geneva or Paris.
So for me at least the Summit was worthwhile in solving one of my riddles of the Information Society and that is: How far does a network stretch. The answer being: It stretches to the point where it is easier and more rewarding for everyone in the network if it loops back on itself than if it attempts to move outward, downward and out beyond the already connected (read "chosen") few.
I attended the Summit precisely to see if these networks could or would stretch.
For much of the period Geneva to Tunis I have informally been advising a number of grassroots telecenter organization on the WSIS process and suggesting in response to their reluctance that their participation might be in their best interests by giving them access to decision makers, and to decision making on policy issues that impact them.
To say they are skeptical is hardly an exaggeration, but this process of informal advising seemed through a series of links - of which I am largely unaware - to have led to an invitation to consult and then report not to these groups but from these groups to the larger ICT4D process. And so I attempted to do, but needless to say in the midst of all this happy self-congratulatory reflexive networking there wasn't much room for talking about those outside of the loop or much interest (except I should say from the private sector) in moving beyond the loop into the "real world". The links that I explored in the end seemed blocked, the edges almost visibly turning back on themselves, as I spoke to one after the other of the government, inter-government and civil society agencies and individuals. Interestingly, the private sector folks were rather more receptive since the discussions concerning the market at the "end of the rainbow.", whoops "bottom of the pyramid" seems to have captured the attention and the interest of the private sector to a remarkable degree.
But my increasingly belaboured and belabouring arguments that among the stakeholders in the emerging multi-stakeholder partnership outcome of WSIS should be those with an actual "stake" in how the Information Society was rolled out - and most particularly to those beyond the immediate networks of the WSIS "family" - was met with, dare I say: a mixture of incomprehension and condescension. Who after all was this person evidently not of the network who seemed to be insisting on the reality of those beyond the walls (whoops not linked into the network.) and of course, we all know that "there lie dragons".
The real challenge flowing out of WSIS II is, in fact, exactly the same challenge which went into WSIS II which is how to move beyond the existing networks - the "digitally included" - to those outside of this.
Thus the outcome of WSIS II is in fact both challenging and disturbing. That is, if the future of governance is in fact through some form of "multi-stakeholderism" and "partnership-ing through networks and networking" then how do we/you/they move beyond the usual cast of characters - the already networked (and even over-networked) to include the voices and the concerns of those who aren't so advantaged and yet whose life chances are if anything, even more directly tied into making some success of these emerging processes.
Having achieved "multi-stakeholderism", the challenge remains how to shift that from closed and inter-locking compacts - however tripartite they may appear - into the broader, more inclusive, even "wilder" reaches of democracy and inclusive and participatory decision making.
So the question one is left with is this: Is the only true and lasting outcome of those four years of effort, hopes and challenges faced and overcome - the empty and cynically self-reflective slogan "On to Athens"?
This text appeared first on the Incommunicado mailing list. We were allowed to reproduce it here by kind permission of the author.
There was a reply to this text by Willie Currie on the Incommunicado mailing list which we also were kindly allowed to publish.
Michael Gurstein is chair of the Community Informatics Research Network and editor of the Journal of Community Informatics. He is also active in the steering committee of the Telecenters of the America's Partnership. Contact: email@example.com
(1) Monthly corporate networking events now occurring world wide on the first Tuesday of the month, see http://www.firsttueday.com/.
(2) Certainly there were grassroots individuals in attendance - carefully selected by donors and project proponents for their appeal to other donors and project proponents and equally carefully screened so as to be suitable for show-casing from above rather than being representative from below. In the context of this discussion those so selected could be seen as being absorbed into existing networks (and to a degree providing some of the "edges" of the network) rather than as would have been the case had their participation been emergent from grassroots processes where they could have, during WSIS or in the future acted as links into the broader networks of those actually doing things with ICTs in communities at the grassroots. And of course, such linkages would be absolutely essential if there was a serious interest to "tackle the Digital Divide" so their absence (and replacement by these surrogates) is even more telling.
(3) The major media event of the Summit, the Nicholas Negroponte's announcement of the campaign for a $100 laptop, rather than bridging/linking/networking into existing efforts such as the Simputer on other on-going work in India or elsewhere presented a "closed loop" announcement and effectively an offer governments and others were given little option to refuse-give me your ICT4D dollars if you want ICT4D efforts to go forward-this is the path and I (elite male white USA) shall lead you was the evident message.
(4) However, it should be noted that this may in fact matter quite a lot. The current thinking among those who study management and human capital theory is that in fact "networks" are the new repository or currency of human capital. The argument goes, the "better" (in terms of coverage of an area, inclusion of key actors, density of interactions and so on) the more valuable is participation in the network to the individual participant and the more easily can participation in a given network be made of tangible value through access to resources, key information, well-placed individuals and so on. Thus "networking the networked" could also be seen as a surrogate for "enabling the enablers" or even of "enriching the already well to do".