michael gurstein on Sat, 19 Jul 2014 08:54:25 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> FW: Blogpost: The-information-society-is-in-crisis-and-what-to-do-about-it

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(These are notes for an address given as part of a Plenary Panel on
Governing Digital Spaces: Issues of Access, Privacy and
Freedom-International Association of Mass Communications Research
(IAMCR)-Hyderabad, India, July 18, 2014)

Many of us started out on this particular journey at the World Summit on the
Information Society. those were days of hope and splendour but now.

The Information Society is in Crisis-not the Internet Society, nor the
Networked Society, nor the Digital Society but quite specifically the
Information Society.

And why the Information Society and not the others. because the Information
Society is the terminology that focuses on the Information, the flow
through, the digitized, the content and it is here in the place where the
technology, the information and its uses/users come together that we find
that the crisis is occurring.

This crisis to some extent was long foretold and yet came up so suddenly
that we are still in the midst of the aftershocks (or perhaps the precursor
shocks for earthquakes yet to come. This crisis of the Information Society
can be understood best by drawing pathways between the various and recent
local eruptions.

First there was uneasiness from some quarters concerning the directions of
Internet Governance-controversies (and name calling) at the ITU/WCIT and the
subsequent campaigns and reactions and critiques concerning "Internet
Freedom" and whether that extended to "freedom from having to pay taxes",
"freedom to manipulate the world's knowledge to support various of Google's
commercial interests" and even including their allies in the US State
Department's "freedom to enshrine and ennoble a unipolar global Internet
Governance sphere which privileges some structures of control and influence
and renders impossible the development of alternatives that might support
alternative interests".

Then it was Mr. Snowden telling us how the NSA and its co-conspirators in
various other parts of the world were tapping into, collecting and
ultimately intervening and massaging the data flows and communications
activities for all the world.

Then it was Amazon, attempting to use its market domination to control what
books we read so that they can capture a few more percentage points of
profit from our acts of information seeking.

Most recently it has been Facebook, revealing, if inadvertently how it is
ready, willing and able to undertake mood control and who knows what else as
some merge their personal information flows with Facebook's information
stream and thus allow their very individual consciousness to become a bauble
to be manipulated by who knows who for who knows what end.

And so the Information Society is in crisis. The Information Society which
was to ensure that all of human knowledge would be available to everyone at
all times and in and from all places has to a considerable degree come to
pass. But what has also come to pass and which wasn't expected in those
early euphoric days was that the foundation elements, the platforms, the
frameworks, the integral algorithms that would provide such a cornucopia and
an informational utopia would not be operated in a beneficent way in support
of the broad public interest but would in fact be ultimately controlled by
machines and hidden forces of commerce and surveillance-forces well beyond
the capacity of individuals or groups, of civil society or even the ordinary
political forces of nation states to control.

What we have built (or have allowed to be built in our name and with our
information - with the very essence of who we are as sentient knowledgeable
human beings) are vast, uncontrolled and very likely uncontrollable
mechanisms which not only undermine and subvert human freedom and civil
liberties but are even in a position to frame and structure the basis of the
discussion concerning these and if or how we might be able to respond.

We become dependent on email to inform us and keep in touch with our
colleagues, our friends, our comrades and yet we know that the NSA is
capable and most likely reading all of those mails and equally having the
capacity to redirect, or delete or even false flag e-mails as and when they

We turn to Google to give us the knowledge base for acting in the world-for
helping us to reduce the complexity of choice in a world over overwhelming
with options and choices and too too much information. And yet we know that
how Google presents that information to us, how it supports those
choices-what it provides and perhaps most important what it doesn't provide
- what it allows to disappear is unknown to us and as unapproachable as the
deepest of deep secrets hidden both by the choices of the corporation and by
the intricacies of the technology which it chooses to use as its filter and

We cozy up to Facebook to provide us with our human contacts and the
semi-intimate knowledge of the to-ing and fro-ing of our distant friends and
relatives. Even on occasion we rely on FB to inform us of those closest to
us even though we suspected and now know that this device is not a neutral
platform but equally an algorithm choosing and selecting what to present and
what to hide and again for reasons and with patterns to which we have no
access. And of course, where FB's ultimate concern is clearly to maximize
ourselves and our information as products being delivered and sold to

The crisis of course, is that we now know all of this.. It is writ large and
public and it is inescapable. And most importantly the making of the links
between each of these eruptions, the beginning to see a discernible pattern
underneath all of these is equally inescapable if only by recognizing the
connections at the individual, corporate, financial, political and
governmental levels. A corporate executive here becomes a government advisor
there and a senior government official leaves to take up a senior corporate
policy post with responsibility for funding sympathetic academic researchers
and civil society organizations and of course there is the to-ing and
fro-ing at conferences and workshops and various special events which
regularly mark the progress towards the fully integrated Networked
Surveillance and Digital Control Society.

And since all of this streams forward on a torrent, even a tsunami of wealth
as labour value becomes translated into and incorporated and displaced by
digital value-as repetitive tasks become software and an economy of goods
becomes translated into an economy of the virtual, the digital, the
informational-the capacity and temptation to use this wealth to smooth the
pathway forward towards the corporate and Surveillance State goals is

It absorbs the media almost fully, both by first undermining its revenues,
making obsolete its delivery systems and its conceptual frameworks and then
by replacing it with - well almost nothing, really.

Then it enraptures and ultimately captures most of academe through its
glitter, the promise of its largesse as an alternative to those less
captured sources of research funding which are slipping away along with the
collapse of other state institutions as a result of the neo-liberal
subversion and the Reaganesque erosion of the tax bases on which this
support for independent intellectual production has rested.

And finally, it buys or otherwise captures huge swathes of civil society
which in the great scheme of things comes cheap and is only too happy to
find a friendly shelter under the seemingly benign funding umbrellas with
corporate and governmental co-religionists in the great temple of belief
supporting "Internet Freedom" on the Internet.

Rather than one crisis, in fact there are multiple interconnecting crises
with the Information Society. First there is the crisis of expectations. The
Information Society was not supposed to be this way..rather it was to have
been a place of free wheeling anarchism and free expression, of openness and
creativity. The requirement, nay the absolute necessity to adjust those
expectations to the new reality of total surveillance and sub-structural
control are just now beginning to be felt among those for whom these things
matter the most and the first-the artists, the intellectuals, the critics,
the dissidents. But these are simply the canaries in the mines and this
crisis in expectations/anticipations of what a "Total" Information (errr
Surveillance) Society might look like is coming into more general
consciousness at Internet speed.

There is also the crisis of trust. One of the founding and necessary
elements of a world and set of activities built on the virtual and the
ephemeral is "trust"-that is that one is what one says one is, that what we
see as a representation is in fact a representation and not a distortion,
that even if we can't otherwise verify it what our limited capacity to sense
via the digital is in fact accurate in what is being provided. That trust of
course, is now gone, perhaps forever.

An element of this crisis of course, is the breakdown of trust as between
countries who increasingly see the Internet not as a means of
interconnection and communication but of interpenetration and potential
subversion by state actors and non-state actors.  The very real threat to
the end to end capabilities of the Internet from fracturing along national
lines is a further consequence and the overall failure to find ways of
integrating China into the global communications space represents a
significant gap and loss to the possibilities that the Information Society

We can no longer trust those who supply us with the infrastructure for the
digital world as they willingly or no have been turned into conduits for the
illicit gathering of information. We can no longer trust our service
providers as they too have become sources of information to the authorized
and the unauthorized-for purposes of commercial gain equally to purposes of
political control. And finally we cannot trust the flow of information
through these digital streams whether manipulated to deliver a more passive
and willing product to advertisers or even more insidiously to provide a
passive and manipulable public to politicians and those shadowy figures in
the background whose pulling of strings for their murky purposes are only
slowly being brought to some sort of visibility.

There are the multiple financial crises which information as other areas are
subject to. the stemming and direct reduction of funding for research and
other forms of information creation again for purposes of manipulation and
control, the overall reduction in financial support for disinterested
information with the fiscal crises of states in part resulting from the
unwillingness of the Internet giants to pay their fair share of taxes and
the willing compliance of suborned politicians in enabling this theft from
the public good.

And of course, there is the crisis of the increasing economic inequality
within developed countries accompanied by the increasing precariatization of
work particularly for the young, all associated with the uncontrolled
unregulated rise of the digital economy and its impacts on the entire range
of productive activities and particularly and increasingly on knowledge
intensive goods and services.

There is the crisis of control. The Information Society was to have been one
which ceded control to the edges, to the users, to the people. Rather of
course, now the control is so visibly with those at the centre, those with
capital, those with influence, those who can buy their ways into the levers
and pushbuttons that direct the mechanisms and algorithms of the Information
Society either through their wealth, their political power or their
technical expertise.

And finally there is the crisis of governance. The Information Society was
to have been a place with no governance or at least a place where no
governance was manifestly required. And so the memes and motivations of the
most fervent exponents of the Information Society have all been
anti-governance, Internet Freedom, the California Ideology. Thus there are
no mechanisms or instrumentalities in place to rebuild, to retake the
Information Society from those who have so unexpectedly and precipitately
conquered it.

And even more troubling the very concepts of governance and democratic
control have been polluted by the meme masters in Silicon Valley and K
Street in Washington DC so we have the 1984ish scenario where Freedom is
Control and Free Speech is another name for Facebook Group Think on one
side; or finding a place on one or another NSA or corporate "watch list" on
the other side.

I should also add in the context of the IAMCR that these crises are playing
out most strongly in the Developed World but have great significance for the
Developing World and for Communications and ICT for Development as well.
Issues of surveillance, of trust, of control are all issues which ultimately
impact on Developing Countries equally with Developed Countries if only
after an ever-shortening time lag. The drives towards "Internet Freedom",
which on the one hand restricts governments in theory from controlling and
censoring what is communicated on the Internet; on the other hand means that
no global authorities are available to sanction companies which use their
transfer pricing capacity to ensure that little or no Internet generated
wealth finds its way much beyond the corporate corridors of the globalized
Internet elite and that ever more wealth cascades upwards from the poor in
the poor countries to the rich in the rich countries.

Equally a Facebook (or a GCHQ) which is massaging our information flows for
advertising purposes may without our and including those in LDC's, knowing
or having any means of intervention, acting to control the flow and framing
of information and communications to achieve the political objectives of one
or another superpower or even local political forces.

So what to do?

Underlying our understanding and response to these multiple crises in the
Information Society is the profound recognition that we cannot go back.
Something has irrevocably changed in the way in which we manage, create,
integrate, use information and that cannot be changed unless we suffer, as
unfortunately is increasingly possible, a total and catastrophic breakdown
in the infrastructure of developed societies. But barring that we are
condemned to the Information Society and even as we once celebrated it
unreservedly, so we must still recognize what profound and remarkable and
even magical if two-sided gifts which it has accorded to us.

In previous eras and sadly only in highly selected jurisdictions one might
have turned to democratic processes and the power of representative
democratic institutions to respond and put order into the chaotic
environment which is emerging. But now no single jurisdiction is capable
even if willing to attempt to manage (regulate) the Internet even while
individual countries such as Brazil, India, France, Germany are coming
forward with their individual if deeply felt and diplomatic level

What is needed is a global agreement, a global compact which sets out the
broad framework for an Internet in the public interest, an Internet evolving
and operating in support of the public good understood in the broadest
possible way. One which doesn't restrict but rather enables the many but not
allowing the continued dominance of the few; one which is based on true
Internet Freedom that is the Freedom from Internet surveillance, from the
domination of a single language or a single culture, Freedom for a balanced
and widely distributed set of benefits from the outputs of the Information

Such a global compact can in fact be a true democratically anchored
multi-stakeholder initiative where national governments recognizing their
needs for sovereignty and support of national interests, corporations
looking for global level playing fields and stable environments for trade
and markets and civil society concerned with human rights and economic and
social justice can find common cause in building a new and global
Information Society for the common good.

Of course, such a development is completely idealistic and yet the Internet
is so important to all of us, to nation states, to the private sector in all
of its various components and of course to civil society-and even to those
who currently might resist such a development as undermining their current
benefits and advantages-for surveillance, for control, for "excessive"
profits.  If the alternative is a fragmented Internet, one which has no
basis of trust, where this fundamental infrastructure develops with huge
gaps and significantly weakened connections then, even those currently most
opposed might recognize that an Internet that functions is better than one
that doesn't and if the price of this continued successful functioning is to
have some taming of the wild west of digital space then better a solution of
compromise and finding mutual interest and benefit rather than one of winner

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