Christiane on Sun, 27 May 2001 12:55:00 +0200 (CEST)

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By Norman Solomon   /   Creators Syndicate

      Few media eyebrows went up the other day when
the World Bank canceled a global meeting set for
Barcelona in late June -- and shifted it to the
Internet. Thousands of street demonstrators would have
been in Spain's big northeastern port city to confront
the conference. Cyberspace promises to be a much more
serene location.

       The World Bank is eager to portray its decision
as magnanimous, sparing Barcelona the sort of upheaval
that has struck Seattle, Prague, Quebec City and other
urban hosts of international economic summits. "A
conference on poverty reduction should take place in a
peaceful atmosphere free from heckling, violence and
intimidation," says a World Bank official, adding that
"it is time to take a stand against this kind of
threat to free expression."

        A senior adviser to the huge lending
institution offered this explanation: "We decided that
you can't have a meeting of ideas behind a cordon of
police officers." Presumably, the meeting of ideas
will flourish behind a cordon of passwords, bytes and

        If hackers can be kept at bay, the few hundred
participants in the Annual Bank Conference on
Development Economics will be able to conduct a
lovely forum over the Internet. The video conferencing
system is likely to be state-of-the-art, making
possible a modern and bloodless way to avoid uninvited

        The World Bank's retreat behind virtual walls
may fulfill its goal of keeping the riffraff away,
with online discourse going smoothly, but vital issues
remain -- such as policies that undercut essential
government services in poor countries, while promoting
privatization and user fees for
access to health care and education.

         "The objectives of the World Bank with this
failed conference were simply an image-washing
operation," said a statement from a Barcelona-based
campaign that had worked on planning for the
demonstrations. Now, the World
Bank is depicting itself as the injured party.

        Protest organizers are derisive about the
Bank's media spin: "The representatives of the
globalized capitalism feel threatened by the popular
movements against globalization. They, who meet in
towers surrounded by walls and soldiers in order to
stay apart from the people whom they oppress, wish to
appear as victims. They, who have at their disposal
the resources of the planet, complain that those who
have nothing wanted to have their voice heard."

         The World Bank's gambit of seeking refuge in
cyberspace should be a wake-up call to activists who
dream that websites and email are paradigm-shattering
tools of the people. Some who take it for granted that
"the revolution will not be televised" seem to hope
that their revolution
will be digitized.

         But there's nothing inherently democratizing
about the Internet. In fact, it has developed into a
prodigious conduit of political and cultural
propaganda, distributed via centrally edited
mega-networks. America Online has 27 million
subscribers, the New Internationalist
magazine noted recently. "They spend an incredible 84
percent of their Internet time on AOL alone, which
provides a regulated leisure and shopping environment
dominated by in-house brands -- from Time magazine to
latest album."

         At the same time that creative advocates for
social change are routinely putting the Internet to
great use, powerful elite bodies like the World Bank
are touting online innovations as democratic models --
while striving to elude the reach of progressive
grassroots activism.

        If, in 1968, the Democratic National
Convention had been held in cyberspace instead of in
Chicago, on what streets would the antiwar
protests have converged? If, on Inauguration Day
this year, the swearing-in ceremony for George W. Bush
had taken place virtually rather than at one
end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where would people have
gathered to hold up their signs saying "Hail to the

        Top officials of the World Bank are onto
something. In a managerial world, disruption must be
kept to an absolute minimum. If global
corporatization is to achieve its transnational
potential, the discourse among power brokers and their
favorite thinkers can happen everywhere at
once -- and nowhere in particular. Let the
troublemakers try to interfere by doing civil
disobedience in cyberspace!

         In any struggle that concentrates on a
battlefield of high-tech communications, the long-term
advantages are heavily weighted toward
institutions with billions of dollars behind them.
Whatever our hopes, no technology can make up for a
lack of democracy.


Norman Solomon's weekly syndicated column --
archived at -- focuses on
media and politics.

- Exit Communication -

Christiane Robbins
Associate Professor / Director
Matrix Program for Digital Media
University of Southern California
Watt Hall 103
Los Angeles, CA  90089-0292

Tel:  213.821.1539
Fax:  213.740.8938


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