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<nettime> Networking the Networked/Closing the Loop: Some Notes on WSIS
Gurstein, Michael on Sat, 26 Nov 2005 18:52:50 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Networking the Networked/Closing the Loop: Some Notes on WSIS II


Networking the Networked/Closing the Loop: Some Notes on WSIS II

Michael Gurstein
mgurst {AT} vcn.bc.ca

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".=20

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  event [Monthly corporate
networking events now occurring world wide on the first Tuesday of the
month www.firsttueday.com] 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.  [
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.]


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 networks 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.  [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.]

Perhaps this wouldn't matter very much to anyone except those outside
the closed loops  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.[ 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".]

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".=20

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. =20

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 March, a most welcome mid-winter 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...=20

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.  =20

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...=20

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. =20

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...

------------------------------------
Gurstein, Michael
gurstein {AT} ADM.NJIT.EDU
tel: 2126790413
fax: 9735963064
------------------------------------


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