Patrice Riemens on Thu, 25 Jul 2002 03:43:54 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Cees Hamelink's keynote address to the PrepCom of the World Congress on the Information Society

Lifted from the Solaris Mailing list
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Check out the ensuing discussion on the July 2002 archives of: 


Cees J. Hamelink: Keynote at the Opening Session of the Civil Society 
Sector Meeting at the Prepcom 1 for the World Summit on the Information 
Society, July 1, 2002, Geneva.

The Theme.

The forthcoming World Summit on the Information Society is convened to
focus on a contested notion: the Information Society. There is no accepted
definition of what the information society is. The meaning of the notion
has been seriously challenged and it has even been suggested in the
academic literature that the notion bears no relation to current social
realities. For some observers it only makes sense to speak in the plural
sense about ³Information Societies². For others the reference to ³society²
raises the good old sociological questions of power, profit, and
participation: who controls the information society, who benefits from it,
who takes part in it? The Information Society means different things to
different people:  more telephones, or more money, or more regulation, or
more empowerment. For all participants in the debate there is the feeling
that important social and technical developments confront us with
difficult questions and that our societies are struggling to find adequate

The History.

For the third time within 55 years the international community will
address in a major way information & communication issues. The first time
was the 1948 UN Conference on the Freedom of Information conference in
Geneva. The second time was the debate in the 1970s on a New World
Information & Communication Order. These earlier attempts were rather
unsuccessful. They caused strong antagonisms and offered no real solutions
to the problems they confronted. The 1948 conference suffered from the
emerging Cold War ideological confrontation. It produced numerous
resolutions and three draft treaties on Freedom of Information (proposed
by the British delegation), the Gathering and International Transmission
of News (proposed by the US delegation), and the International Right of
Correction (proposed by the French delegation). Only the Right of
Correction draft entered into force in 1962 and has since been ratified by
eleven UN member states. The debate in the 1970s produced similar
ideological confrontations between East/West and the Third World. It
produced the UNESCO-sponsored MacBride Report with many useful
recommendations most of which were not implemented and it established an
under-funded development assistance programme, the IPDC. It also inspired
the departure from UNESCO of two major member states, the USA and the UK.

The Challenges.

According to UNGA resolution 56/183 (21 December 2001) the Summit should
address ³the whole range of relevant issues related to the information
society². PrepCom 1 needs to decide which issues the Summit should tackle.
In different preparatory documents all the "usual suspects" are cited:
equitable access, cultural diversity, digital divide, rural
communications, e-commerce, e-government, data protection, security,
gender, education. The key problem evidently is to establish a relevant
framework within which all these issues can be debated and acted upon.
This is all the more urgent since the socio-economic and political
conditions under which these issues should be addressed are not at all
encouraging! As a matter of fact they are less amenable to the solution of
the ³digital divide² through the development oftelecom- infrastructures or
the access to knowledge than the conditions that prevailed during the time
of the earlier UN efforts. By way of illustration one can cite the case of
global and equitable access to knowledge. This laudable proposition is in
the early 21st century seriously hampered by the emergence of a strict
regime for the protection of intellectual property rights in recent WTO
negotiations. If the WSIS fails to deal with such conditions it will
amount to a major exercise in futility. In any case the preparatory
process would need to begin with reflection on the following five core

The Political Challenge.

The Summit and its preparatory process have be a genuine tripartite
arrangement! A series of recent UN world conferences has dealt with a
range of critical social issues such as gender, environment, and
population. The WSIS is different in the sense that it addresses society
as a whole. This Summit is about the shaping of future societies! The way
in which the Summit will do this will send a strong signal to the world
community about the democratic quality of future information societies. If
the present Prepcom 1 fails to accept full inclusion of civil society in
its deliberations and decisions , and if there is only consultation,
briefing, and discussion, the whole process is a waste of taxpayers¹
money! For the WSIS to be effective, citizens need to feel that they are
co-proprietors of the eventual outcome: the Final Declaration and the Plan
of Action. An outcome that cannot be appropriated by civil society since
it had no part in the decision-making will have no credibility for many
citizens around the world. In this context it should be noted that the
insistence of several governments on the intergovernmental nature of the
Summit and therefore on exclusive governmental decision-making is based on
arguments of political convenience. There are no grounds in international
law that prevent the Summit and its preparatory process to be genuinely
tripartite. It should also be observed that the earlier UN efforts in the
information and communication domain largely failed since they remained
inter-governmental affairs that left the interests of citizens in the

The Cultural Challenge.

The notion of the information society is embedded in the contemporary
technological culture. This is the prevailing way of society¹s interaction
with technology. An interaction which is largely determined by
irrationality and irresponsibility and which can be summed up with the
help of three metaphors: the Titanic, Cassandra and Dr Frankenstein.

*The Titanic represents a strong belief in the perfection of technology:  
the ship cannot sink and it is not necessary to have enough life boats on
board. As a results the real risks of technological innovations are not
taken seriously. The modern technological culture demonstrates a strong
drive towards a risk-free society. This aspiration to achieve a risk-free
control of social processes is seriously hampered by the unpredictable,
fickle human species. Actually, the human being is increasingly seen as
the real risk factor. As a result modern societies develop all kinds of
activities to reduce this risk, like the expansive monitoring of human
conduct through the ubiquitous camera surveillance and the electronic
registration of people¹s movements. The logical next step in this process
is the replacement of humans with humanoid robots.

*Cassandra is the daughter of the Trojan king Priamus who warned the
Trojans that there were Greeks in the wooden horse. She was gifted with
the ability to foresee the future, but she was also cursed by Apollo with
the punishment that no one would listen to her warnings. This is
characteristic of the technological culture: warning voices are ignored.
In situations where decision makers experience a new era, a winning mood,
and the pressures of time and competition: all traffic lights will be
ignored, the dissidents will be silenced and technology choice becomes a
matter of flying blind.

*Dr Frankenstein features in the novel written by Mary Shelley in which
the doctor who creates a monster flees from his laboratory and is haunted
by the monster who challenges him to take responsibility for what he has
created. The metaphor raises the critical question about accountability
for technological innovation. Who is accountable when things go wrong? Who
takes responsibility if we resolve the digital divide and subsequently
face insurmountable environmental problems: the exceedingly high levels of
global energy consumption, the rate of CO2 emission from printers and
computers and the volume of electronic waste caused by the rapid rate of
obsolescence of mobile phones and computers.

The Moral Challenge.

A key question is ³how should a decent information society look like?² The
only universally available normative framework is the human rights regime.
However, this regime is violated around the world and around the clock.  
Its moral principles are solid enough, but from its inception the
international community has made the deliberate political choice to keep
their enforcement very weak. There is worldwide generous lip service being
paid to human rights, but in fact there is no real serious concern about
their promotion and protection. This is dramatically demonstrated now that
after 9/11 in so many countries -with convenient and largely unfounded
references to security- civil and political rights are eroded.

The Social Challenge.

The main focus of the WSIS is on ³information². It is disconcerting that
-in the preparatory documents - the notion ³communication² has practically
disappeared. There is a real danger that the Summit commits the same
mistake as the UN World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993) which in
its Final Declaration did not refer to communication, but only mentioned
information and news. Yet, the real core question is how we should shape
future ³communication societies². In fact for the resolution of the
world¹s most pressing problems we do not need more information processing
but the capacity to communicate! And, ironically, as our capacity to
process and distribute information increases, our capacity to communicate
and to converse diminishes. Most presentations of future information
societies are based upon flawed assumptions with regard to information.
Such as: more information is better than less information, or more
information creates more knowledge and understanding, or open information
flows contribute to the prevention of conflicts, or more information means
less uncertainty, or if people are properly informed they act accordingly,
or more information equals more power. A very popular information myth
proposes that once people are better informed about each other, they will
understand each other better and be less inclined to conflict. A very
attractive assumption but not necessarily true! Deadly conflicts are
usually not caused by a lack of information. In fact they may be based
upon very adequate information that adversaries have about each other. As
a matter of fact one could equally well propound the view that social
harmony is largely due to the degree of ignorance that actors have
vis-à-vis each other. Many societies maintain levels of stability because
they employ rituals, customs and conventions that enable their members to
engage in social interactions without having detailed information about
who they really are. The common assumption is that if adversaries were
better informed about each other, it would be easier for them to reach
agreement. However, there may indeed be a conflict situation precisely
because adversaries have full and detailed information about each other¹s
aims and motives. If disputes are about competing claims to scarce
resources (as often is the case) it is unlikely that lack of information
is the crucial variable or that dealing with this would resolve the
conflict. In reality there are situations in which more information is not
better than less information. Moreover, assumptions about the role of
information are often based upon a seriously flawed cause-effect model.
Information is then conceived as a key variable in social processes and
depending upon how it is manipulated certain social effects occur. Social
science research has taught us however that information processes do not
occur in the linear mode of simple stimulus/response models that propose
linear, causal relations between information inputs and behavioural

In short: We do not need ³information societies². We need ³communication
societies².  This implies that we need to learn the art of the social
dialogue. This is however an incredibly difficult form of speech. The
dialogue requires the capacity to listen, to be silent, to suspend
judgment, to critically investigate our own assumptions, to ask reflexive
questions and to be open to change. The dialogue has no short-term and
certain outcome This conflicts with the spirit of achievement-oriented
societies. Modern societies have no time and patience for dialogical
communication.  Moreover, the mass media are not particularly helpful in
teaching societies the art of conversation. Much of their content is
babbling (endless talking without saying anything), hate speech,
advertising blurbs or polemical debate.

The Regulatory Challenge.

An effective dialogue cannot take place between people whose lives are
threatened, who are not free to speak or to assemble, who have no means of
expressing their voices, who cannot speak in confidentiality and privacy,
or who are denied basic forms of education and cultural participation.
Therefore, the WSIS would make a real difference if a human right to
communicate would be formally recognized.  This right to communicate does
at present not exist as a provision of international law. The adoption of
a Universal Declaration on the Right to Communicate should be the key
outcome of the WSIS. This means that the international community would
decide to combine existing and new standards into a coherent document to
be signed by governments, representatives from the private sector and
civil society organisations. As early as 1969 Jean d'Arcy introduced the
right to communicate by writing, ³the time will come when the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights will have to encompass a more extensive right
than man's right to information...This is the right of men to
communicate². The motivating force for this new approach was the
observation that the provisions in existing human rights law (like in the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights) were inadequate to deal with communication as an
interactive process. The recognition of a right to communicate is
essential if global governance of ³communication societies² should be
inspired by human rights concerns. A Universal Declaration on the Right to
Communicate would contain provisions on several human rights, on
acceptable limitations of these rights, and on a mechanism for effective
implementation. The essential human rights of the Declaration would be:

-The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. 
-The right to hold opinions. 
-The right to express opinions without interference by public or private 
-The right of people to be properly informed about matters of public 
-The right of access to information on matters of public interest (held by 
public or private sources). 
-The right to access public means of distributing information, ideas and 

-The right to promote and preserve cultural diversity. 
-The right to freely participate in the cultural life of one¹s community. 
-The right to practise cultural traditions. 
-The right to enjoy the arts and the benefits of scientific progress and 
its applications. 
-The right to the protection of national and international cultural 
property and heritage. 
-The right to artistic, literary and academic creativity and independence. 
-The right to use one¹s language in private and public. 
-The right of minorities and indigenous people to education and to 
establish their own media. 

-The right of people to be protected against interference with
their privacy by the media of mass communication, or by public and private
agencies involved with data collections. 
-The protection of people's
private communications against interference by public or private parties.
-The right to respect for the standard of due process in forms of public
-The right of protection against forms of communication that are 
discriminatory in terms of race, colour, sex, language, religion
or social origin 
-The right to be protected against misleading and distorted information. 
-The right of protection against the systematic and intentional 
propagation of the belief that individuals and/or social groups deserve to 
be eliminated. 
-The right of the protection of the professional independence of employees 
of public or private communication agencies against the interference by 
owners and managers of these institutions. 

-The right of access to public communication for communities. 
-The right to the development of communication infrastructures, to the 
procurement of adequate resources, the sharing of knowledge and skills, 
the equality of economic opportunities, and the correction of 
-The right of recognition that knowledge resources are often a common good 
owned by a collective. 
-The right of protection of such resources against their private 
appropriation by knowledge industries. 

-The right to acquire the skills necessary to participate fully in
public communication. 
-The right to people¹s participation in public decision making on the 
provision of information, the production of culture or the production and 
application of knowledge. 
-The right to people¹s participation in public decision making on the 
choice, development and application of communication technology.

What Can Civil Society Do?

-First: to lobby effectively for its inclusion in the preparatory process.
Merely to be consulted should not be good enough!

-Secondly: to work towards the adoption of the right to communicate. It is
important that is done with the greatest degree of unanimity.

-Thirdly: to ensure that Civil Society positions are representative for
civil constituencies and that here is an intensive process of exchange
with these constituencies.

-Fourthly: to use the WSIS as a unique opportunity to raise people¹s
awareness about the urgency of information and communication issues. If
future ³communication societies² are to become inclusive, open and
democratic societies, citizens around the globe should realize that the
quality of public communication determines the quality of their common


The involvement of groups and individuals that represent Civil Society is
particularly essential to the Summit. Civil society is the constant
reminder that the shaping of future societies should be inclusive,
democratic, transparent, and accountable. A strong presence of civil
society also implies that the discourse shifts from users and consumers to
citizens.  The key challenge is to ensure that citizens -their rights,
freedoms and responsibilities- should guide the outcome of the Summit.

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