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<nettime> Between an Electronic Gulag and the Global Village
Drazen Pantic on Tue, 23 Sep 1997 15:56:12 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> Between an Electronic Gulag and the Global Village


Cantigny Conference Series
The Information Revolution and its Impact on the Foundations of National
Power September 23-25, 1997.

Between an Electronic Gulag and the Global Village 

The information revolution, and the changes it has brought about, is
most visible in economically advanced societies with a developed
democratic culture and a pluralistic political landscape. I come from a
country which has none of these things. Yugoslavia recently experienced
unparalleled levels of hyper-inflation. Several years of international
sanctions blocked completely any progress or innovation in scientific
research, technological development, and growth in the education system.
Moreover, thousands of young experts, scientists, professors and
talented students have emigrated to Canada, Western Europe, America,
etc. Today, the average salary is 200 dollars. Approximately 45% of
Yugoslavia's population has not even completed primary school-education,
and about 70% of the population has not completed high-school education.
According to research conducted by the Institute of Social Sciences in
Belgrade, only 3 to 5% of the adult population is fully equipped to
understand social events, processes and actions, to understand and to
participate in them on a temporary or regular basis. The country is run
according to the whims of the authoritarian rule of Yugoslav President
Slobodan Milosevic and his wife. 

As a result of Yugoslavia's own ideological isolation, coupled with its
isolation from the international community, the country can be
characterized as an extremely closed society in which the regime does
everything in its power to restrict all freedoms and to control and
direct all segments of society. In addition, the development of modern
technologies, as in all such societies, is in the hands of the governing
state apparatus. 

Against this background, Slobodan Milosevic banned independent Radio B92
at the beginning of Serbia's mass civic demonstrations in December 1996.
However before this, B92 was already very well known, at home and
abroad, for its firm anti-war stand and for being a progressive social
center which promoted professional journalism, alternative culture,
openness towards the world and the innovative use of new technologies -
especially the Internet. B92's hard work had also been rewarded with
numerous international awards. 

We started to develop our Internet program before the regime because we
were afraid that the regime might also try to control that area of
communication. Thus we became the first Internet provider in Yugoslavia
which understood the Internet as a new medium, and which used the
Internet as an alternative means of disseminating information throughout
Yugoslavia, as well as to the outside world. However, in a society as
closed as ours the impact of the Internet was not truly visible until
after the Radio was banned at the height of the 1996-97 mass civic
protest. It was then that we started to broadcast our program via the
Internet using Real Audio. In addition to reaching citizens outside of
Belgrade for the first time, B92, via the transmitters of the Voice of
America, Radio Free Europe, the BBC, etc., was able to broadcast to the
world. The radio's swift move to harness its knowledge of the Internet
to the immediate need to break the government-imposed silence thus made
the ban pointless. 

During B92's two-day ban and the new Internet broadcast, students began
to use the Internet intensively to distribute information about the
student protest, its activities and its aims. In this way, the student
movement too was able to attract the attention of the world public, who
in turn began to help the students by re-distributing their information,
sending help, etc. 

The New York Times, the Washington Post and Time magazine wrote at the
time of how the Internet had saved the protest and speeded up the
process of democratization in Serbia. After three long months, the
government caved in to the demands of protesters.

The main reason for my participation in this conference is probably my
interest in the way we in closed societies use modern technologies.
Christopher Lasch, in his book The Revolt of Elites says: "The most
important effect of technological innovation is the widening of the gap
between a class of those who know and the rest of population, between
those who feel at home with the new global economy, who enjoy knowing
that the information flow is ever bigger and larger (Arno Penzias) and
those who need no cellular phones nor faxes, nor computer information,
who still live in what Penzias calls with contempt the "Age of Paper." 

Lasch was writing about American society. However, in addition to the
gap Lasch refers to, there is an additional gap between the USA and the
developing world - the division between a totalitarian elite and the
vast majority of the poor, who have no access to the possibilities
offered by modern technologies. Technological progress is often
channeled into strengthening control systems, surveillance, building
systems of repression and other abuses of personal data. In some
countries, such as China, there are particularly strong
government-efforts to restrict and control the nature of communication
with the outside world, especially via electronic communication. However
the ease with which new technologies can be accessed, by both the
educated and uneducated alike, because the commands are usually
relatively simple, acts as a counter-balance to such government-imposed
restrictions. 

In one part of eastern Serbia, the area with the highest percentage of
adult illiteracy, every second village has local television station
which broadcast what I call 'kitsch' culture. This type of tacky
programming has become a national obsession in Serbia. Moreover, it
directly works to the advantage of the regime. It may seem that such
simplistic use of modern technologies helps to build a pluralistic
democracy. However, I would argue that instead this use of technologies
creates a sense of universal blindness, it prevents a free way of
development, it runs counter to education and preparation for changes. 

We can see a similar situation during the war in Bosnia, where
semi-educated or uneducated people controlled and used powerful weapons
of destruction which were controlled by modern electronic systems.
Combatants often behaved as if they were playing video or computer-war
games. The results of such 'games' and the irresponsible use of the
electronic war technology was the total destruction of cities, and the
massacre of thousands of civilians. 

I have already mentioned the growing divide between rich and poor in our
society. 
Is there now also a danger that the divide will become so wide that they
will soon not be able to communicate, that the progress of the
developing world will be completely stunted? I fear that people will not
understand each other, because they will speak different languages, with
different a inheritance (scientific, technological, educational,
social). How then can this unpleasant change in the world be turned into
a positive process? 

Those who claim that the dominant result of technological development is
the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor are certainly
right. My experience, and probably that of many others, shows however
that an alternative use of technology, with the opposite effect, exists.
The field of communication and information infrastructure may provide
developing societies with an all important springboard for change and
progress. Of course, it goes without saying that intelligent investment
is a prerequisite for this.

The level of technological breakthrough today is such that simple
regulations will not be able to stop the flow of information and
exchange of data. The only regulation which could achieve this is
self-isolation as a means of protecting ideologies. This would create
isolation on all other levels. 

In the fight for Yugoslavia's integration in the civic, social, economic
and cultural activities of the world, a network of organizations has
been established. As for education and re-education, attempts have been
made to bridge the gap with the modern world through the intelligent use
of modern technologies. A number of people have been trained, and a part
of the population has shown itself ready and able to use this new form
of communication.

A wide spectrum of non-governmental organizations in Yugoslavia -
independent media, human rights organizations, peace organizations,
youth organizations etc. - have been left high and dry abandoned by the
advanced world and international organizations. They are now at the
mercy of the totalitarian regime. The re-integration of these
organizations into the international community of citizens - especially
in the field of technology and information, is a priority if we are to
preserve regional peace, to implement the Dayton Agreement, to
democratize society and re-join the world economy. 

It is obvious that social processes will change in accordance with
concurrent changes in the forms and means of mass communication - this
will immediately change the nature of the groups and execution of power.
If those groups and individuals are provided with a solid basis for
their work - intensive and cheap communication - they will exploit
available technology to the maximum. 

Radio B92 is currently working on a project to expand its Internet
network to provincial, inland Serbia. This expanded network would
provide free or cheap means of communication as well as create
conditions for Internet self-education. In this way, five-years of
isolation could be bridged by access to large data banks, magazines,
scientific articles, participation in conferences, exchanges and
debates.

I think it is possible to use the Internet to bridge the real gaps
between an increasingly divided global community. This should be a
priority for all progressive groups. Only when the information gap is
bridged will it be possible to implement real, effective change in our
country.

It is also our aim to promote freedom as the most valuable element of
communication, and to protect other "vulnerable values" which are key to
defending the public interest in mass communication (pluralism and
diversity, impartiality and balance, cultural and language pluralism,
varied and independent production, regional and national autonomy,
education and the protection of the minors, the integrity of the arts,
control over commercials, standards related to sex, violence and
morality). 

Samuel Huntington once placed Yugoslavia within the Slavic-Orthodox
cultural sphere. However, Yugoslavia and its history, its educational
and cultural potential, put it much closer to the traditions of western
civilization. If communication channels are opened, Yugoslavia could
soon be re-integrated into the world processes of development and
change. This is not the case with other countries from this "sphere." 

However, we need long-term support. This is because it is not yet
possible to exploit the commercial opportunities offered by modern
technology in a closed society. We are very interested in participating
in experiments related to the social function of new technologies. We
ourselves feel we have made great steps in our use of modern technology
in this sense.

Within the radio, in just a few months, we have managed to establish a
network of 28 stations throughout Serbia, all of which are connected to
our news program via satellite. Currently, it is the only information
system which can seriously resist the state's media monopoly. As a
results of this project, an increasing number of people now have a daily
sources of alternative information to that of state-controlled media. 

In this sense the prerequisites for change are being built. Citizens now
have a regular source of reliable information, information which
describes things as they are, not from the perspective of nationalist or
communist ideology. This is perhaps one way for citizens to begin to
understand the need for fundamental changes in our society. 

Satellite is a further tool to transcend an age-old complex of the
Balkan peoples, the complex of borders. Satellite renders national and
ethnic borders senseless, and re-defines the notion of national
sovereignty. Satellite communication also helps to lessen differences
between cities and the province - which helps to level off inequalities
in our society. In this context the desire of a repressive regime to
restrict the distribution of frequencies becomes redundant. 

However, satellite communication is very expensive for us. That is why
we have suggested that military organizations (NATO, why not?) donate
those frequencies (satellite and ground) they used during the cold war
and military operations, to international organizations which deal with
global security. In this way a basic prerequisite for the effective work
of the independent media and peace groups would be established in
conflict-prone countries or in countries already in conflict. I see this
as a way to ending or preventing conflicts, as well as a means to bridge
cultural gaps and speed up the process of democratization.

The wars in Yugoslavia are a case in point - the media helped prepare
the country's descent into war, and made it increasingly brutal later
on. Why should we not try to activate the opposite process, to change
the role of the media and use it to establish stability, peace and
democracy? It is much cheaper than human lives and the cost of sending
in international peacekeeping forces. 

This alternative course of action would change societies by giving
citizens fast, accurate and reliable information (faster than that
provided by the repressive regime), "with a sufficient flux capacity,
sufficient access, so as to enable not only individuals but whole
communities and populations to enter the info-space, and live a
significant part of their lives there". 

In the first stage of Internet use, while we still only had small number
of telephone lines - the power of that community was virtual. As the
number of lines grows, as society becomes increasingly used to this way
of communication, the rigid government will be in position to become
virtual itself, surrounded by free and unlimited channels of
communication. The traditional tools of repression will become useless
and ineffective as they are eroded by an ever more alive Internet. I
hope that we can count on the support of those who value world security,
and by those who deal with the development of technology, especially
those in the field of communication.





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