|Volume 18, Number||The CPSR Newsletter||Summer 2000|
The Seattle Statement:
Moving the Democratic Communication Agenda Forward
by Doug Schuler
Home to massive forces of globalization--exemplified by the software behemoth Microsoft and the plethora of their insurgent yet not-so-powerful dot-com wannabes--as well as home to resistance to globalization--as exemplified by the week of demonstrations in the streets which scuttled the ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organization in the waning days of the last century, Seattle currently holds special significance. among the world's cities.
In May, 2000, 400 people gathered in Seattle to take up related issues. Participants at the "Shaping the Network Society: The Future of the Public Sphere in Cyberspace" symposium discussed ways in which citizens working together can play a constructive role in negotiating the tricky path between blind acceptance or rejection of the many forms of "globalism." The idea that the participants should create an enduring collective pronouncement came from Fiorella de Cindio, one of the founders of the Rete Civiche di Milano, the Milan Civic Network, and a computer science professor at the University of Milan. Fiorella was interested in "bringing something back from Seattle" that could be used to help her in her work developing democratic technology in Milan, in the rest of Italy, and beyond.
Using some of the remarks I made on the first day of the symposium as a seed, about 20 attendees worked collaboratively on the last day to create the statement. We wanted to agree on a simple declaration that would help us and others all around the world to orient educational programs, research projects, activist struggles, and policy work in a loose framework that nevertheless would be progressive and linked with the realities of this era. The resulting Seattle Statement contains six working hypotheses that, used as a unified set, represent a critical perspective on communication activism, policy, and technology at the dawn of the 21st Century. It is intended to help motivate discussions, projects, and new collaborations.
The Seattle Statement draws attention to the fact that modern circumstances, technological and social, are creating an increasingly complex "globalized" world in which powerful economic and cultural forces may make themselves felt at locations which are quite removed from their source. Horace Mitchell, Director of European Telework Online, rightly points out that "Globalism" is an ambiguous and contentious term that masks a bewildering set of issues. Like "justice", "democracy" and other abstract terms, people don't agree on an exact meaning. It's unclear, for example, whether "globalism" refers to economics, culture, politics or all of the above. It's also unclear how "new" the phenomenon actually is. People also disagree as to its direction, its rate of diffusion, its desirability, and what can or should be done to encourage or check its further influence. But for all of that, the idea of "globalism" is an important idea worldwide. And any discussion of new public communication spaces and strategies will take place in this context: the world is becoming "globalized" and the discussions about the world are about "globalization."
The "Network Society" affects everybody, but with vastly disparate results. Some people and institutions create the rules and benefit from them; others are obliged to abide by them, often paying a heavy toll if they choose to break them. Peter Day's research reveals that "information society" policies "focus on utilization of ICTs to underpin existing power structures in society." It is within this new context, where changes both subtle and stark are rippling through our lives, our society, and our environment, that our quest for a new public sphere must be grounded. The statement reminds us that the human and environmental landscapes still contains profound injustices, and dangerous trends that can't forever go unchecked. It also reminds us that the world's communication systems and the powerful institutions that control them are failing in many of their responsibilities and, in some cases, are actual enemies of democratic civic society. Rather than being mesmerized into inaction by the rapid changes, our hope is to develop information and communication systems that can play some role in helping humankind's collective intelligence in order to confront the world's problems more effectively.
The forms that public spheres will take will depend on the particulars of the location. The needs, resources, and interests of the people that will use them vary widely from place to place. The contexts, also, are incredibly diverse. In Serbia, for example, where Milosevich's police seized the B92 radio in the dead of night, the state is often the enemy of an independent public sphere. In Western Europe and in other developing countries (the US is a prominent example) corporate mass media poses different types of threats: commodification of information, propagandizing, and degradation of public deliberation, for example. This diversity raises an important issue: Do people in these different locations share common goals; can the Seattle Statement offer hope for both? Also, as previously discussed, the developed world of Sweden, Canada, New Zealand, and the like is very far removed from developing countries like Bangladesh, El Salvador, or Ghana. Are two distinct statements the answer or is there enough common ground for a common vision? Are there invariants that are not overly general but still appropriate for both?
The Seattle Statement is not the last word on democratic communication nor was it ever intended to be. Its creators strove to make a fairly simple case for the development of a "public sphere," for the collective use of communications as a complement to rights based declarations. We hoped that the statement could be used as one tool among many in the continuing struggle for a communications tapestry that helps people formulate an intelligence and compassionate response to and reconciliation of the critical issues facing the earth and all its inhabitants today.
Declarations, manifestos, charters and other types of collective statements are issued periodically from assemblies on all manner of things. The intent, of course, is to define a group vision and use it as an inspiration for future actions. In recent years, a number of notable statements related to communication and the Internet have been presented to the world. The pattern is clear: diffuse vision--succinct statement--action campaign. The People's Communication Charter is an initiative of the Third World Network (Penang, Malaysia) and the Center for Communication & Human Rights (Amsterdam, the Netherlands) and was one of the first and most far-reaching of these statements. The Charter presents a holistic view of communication and covers a wide variety of important communication issues including respect and freedom, literacy, protection of journalists, cultural diversity, participation, justice, and consumption. Key to their approach is the idea that people must be vigilant about defending their "communication environment." Besides seeking ratification from individuals and organizations, one idea has been to launch an "International Tribunal" to hear complaints and evidence related to issues in the Charter. It is important to note that Cees Hamelink of the University of Amsterdam (and a panelist at DIAC-2000) has linked aspects of the charter to existing United Nations and other international treaties and agreements.
2000 has been a particularly fertile year for communication declarations. Manifestos, declarations, and the like are springing up all over the world. The Papallacta Manifesto was designed by Tele-centros.org, a community of persons and communities in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Manifesto is intended to ensure "Internet for Everybody." The basic ideas are that access to adequate telecommunication is essential and that in an era of increasing disparity of wealth between "norths" (or "haves"--which might even be in the "south") and "souths" (or "have-nots"--which might even be in the "north"), government intervention will be required to bring about universal access at affordable rates. Their manifesto consists of seven goals which all suggest important follow-on work. As of June, 2000, the manifesto had about 12,000 signatures at is various mirror web sites and had been presented to ITU as well as national regulators in various Latin America countries. CPSR, in cooperation with other groups--the Association for Progressive Communication, for example--has been working to democratize the work of ICANN and to carve out a larger role for civil society in cyberspace. And from Bamako, the capital city of Mali in Northwestern Africa comes the Bamako 2000 Declaration, penned by civic leaders and government officials from African and European countries. Their declaration begins by noting the vast potential that Information and Communication technology (ICT) offers for civil society. It then notes ten "benchmark principles" including universal access to ICT, the "right to freedom of expression," and "protection of worldwide public access domain for information," a strong endorsement of the importance of ICT for "publics." Like the Papallacta Manifesto, the Bamako 2000 Declaration calls for policy changes. It also calls for adequate funding for the work, a "redefinition of the role of stakeholders in such as a manner as to leave more space for citizen initiatives." And, like the other declarations, the Bamako 200 Declaration calls for a democratic discussion on the future of ICT, an idea unlikely to win favor with the architects of today's transnational media conglomerates.
And, hot off the presses, and not to be outdone, the G8 group of the eight largest and richest countries of the developed world have recently published their Okinawa Charter. Interestingly, this Charter echoes some of the language found in the other more grassroots-oriented statements. The Okinawa Charter, for example, talks about ITC's potential to "strengthen democracy," "promote human rights," and "enhance cultural diversity." According to the Charter they also believe that "everyone, everywhere should be enabled to participate in and no one should be excluded from the benefits of the global information society." Beyond the rhetoric, however, lies an uncritical endorsement of all the forces that propelled the Seattle protesters to the street to show their opposition to the WTO. These include reliance on the undemocratic WTO and World Bank and a focus on market forces in "spurring competition, promoting enhanced productivity, and creating and sustaining economic growth." Their answer to the question of who should shape the network society is the one we've told: "business as usual." Similarly, their idea of "participation" alluded to in the text, bears little relationship to any recognizable definition of "participation" and strengthening democracy is apparently a mere side effect of more ICT penetration. Indeed Michel Menou believes that the G8 countries' newly-found concern about the "digital divide" is disingenuous: "If the G8 governments would really be committed to reducing poverty, they would have implemented the decision taken at the last year summit to eliminate or refinance the debt of the poorest countries. Since they did not, their attention to the so-called digital divide, may be more driven by their desire to expand their IT and E-commerce markets, and their influence in general".
The people who developed the Seattle Statement were well aware of its limitations. One of the criticisms it's encountered is that it's too general. "How could anybody be against it?" was a common question. Most people wanted to know what actions were being proposed. Without actions, the statement is empty rhetoric. Greg Laudeman, a community telecommunications specialist in Georgia issued a succinct challenge: "Operationalize this!"
Greg goes on to say that "We need to state and demonstrate how to be active and informed, and how it will help individuals--whether in rural Georgia, on an Indian reservation, or in an African township--to improve their quality of life in immediate and real ways." Then, answering his own question, Greg offered seven suggestions including the development (and legitimation--D.S.) of critical research and an international--single source--clearinghouse which made "tactics, resources, best practices, etc." widely available. Greg and Steffen Schmidt both also stress the idea of working with existing community groups. If the focus is all on policy and abstractions, people may not feel that there is any relevance to the work.
Abdul Alkalimat has some excellent suggestions for carrying this work forward with "cyberorganizers" who integrate social science, technology, and activism. Abdul would like to see an academic degree program for "cyberorganizers" and raised the provocative idea of a two-week "CPSR Summer School" with courses, seminars and presentations. Philip Machanick of the University of Witswaterand in South Africa recommends something along similar lines, "mainstreaming currently marginalized communities" like Native Americans, Africans, and Australian Aboriginals." Philip is not advocating passive use of the net, "but actively seeking out participation from such groups, and valuing their contributions." Sounds like a job for a cyberorganizer!
Philip also suggests an idea that's come up on the network list: having faculty members or graduate students visit colleges and universities on a formal basis. Philip suggested that an appointment to his university is a possibility. Brian Loader of the University of Teesside in the United Kingdom suggested a degree program that was jointly offered at a variety of schools around the world. Students could be working on a single degree but could be working in communities and taking their course works in a variety of schools all over! Murali Venkatesh is interested in involving professional groups, particularly the Association for Computing Machinery in this work. Murali, who has begun a collaborative effort with Alcatel, wants to sensitize vendors and service providers in addition to professional groups about community networking and public sphere issues. According to Murali they're aware of the broad issues but not the constraints that people face in public sphere work or the positive effects of community partnerships.
Many people brought up the importance of localizing: making the approach fit the circumstances. Too often people and institutions in the developed world are calling the shots--or trying to--and these directives and ideas aren't universally applicable. In Latin America, Africa, and other places, for example, it's inconceivable in the short-term to wire every household. For that reason, people are developing tele-centers for community use. (see, for example, the IDRC telecenter site.) Partha Pratim Sarker and Venkatesh Hariharan talk about the importance of localizing operating systems and of being in control of their technical platform and are therefore very interested in using and promoting Linux. Mike Gurstein, of TechBC in Vancouver, Canada, reminds us that economic development in a local area (in funding telecenters, for example) should mesh with "larger strategies of macro-economic development" and this will likely suggest major policy changes.
Scott Robinson, a professor at the Metropolitan University in Mexico City and Susanna Finquelievich, of the University of Buenos in Argentina, mentioned several ideas that were not explicit on the Seattle Statement itself. In particular the idea that different cultures, different contexts, and different publics require different "public spheres." Susana's research shows that public spheres don't just vary between developed countries and developing countries but within and across countries as well: A "first world" exists "which extends from the cities of Rio de Janeiro-Brasilia-Sao Paulo in Brazil, goes down to Montevideo in Uruguay, stretches to Buenos Aires-Rosario-Cordoba-Mendoza in Argentina, reaching to Santiago in Chile," leaving outside the prosperity region millions of people in poverty. In fact, it was this recognition of the diversity of local conditions that suggested that it would be premature to attempt to place a precise definition on the "public sphere" at that time. We need to discuss this and to note the similarities and differences that exist in different locations. I'm particularly intrigued with Kwasi Boakye-Akyeampong's suggestion of starting a CPSR/Africa. Our dialogue must move beyond the boundaries of the developed world if we can meet this challenge and starting new CPSR chapters outside of the US and other developed countries is probably a good way to enrich this.
Susan Kretchmer and Nancy Kranich are currently planning an innovative project in which people all over the world tell their stories about how they and their communities have benefited from communication in public forums, including both virtual and actual physical spaces (such as libraries, community networks, town meetings, traditional mass media, etc.). This story telling could be done on-line (for example, through special forum areas set up by community networks) and in physical settings as well (for instance, at gatherings in public libraries and perhaps a mini-DIAC meeting). The purpose is to get citizens thinking about public space as a crucial part of their lives, as individuals and as part of an interconnected local and global community. In addition, by working together and concentrating our energies within this day or week of activities, they hope to capture and focus the attention of the news media to illuminate these issues for an even wider audience. They are also planning to establish an archive of the stories on the Web and in other places to serve as a permanent resource that could be continually updated. They hope to work with CPSR, telecenters, community networks, the National Communication Association (NCA), the American Library Association (ALA) and others in the U.S. and around the world to jointly create a successful "Telling Stories about Communication and Community in Public Spaces" event sometime in 2001, probably in early April.
Moving the Agenda
As many of you know, we have just launched an electronic campaign to gather signatures. The Seattle Statement is now on the Web and over 200 people from 30 countries have signed the statement electronically. Moreover, in keeping with our intent to engage on a broad level, we also have translated versions in French, Italian, and Spanish available and many more are planned. We are working to make other versions available including the Hungarian one that Szilard Molnar has translated and circulated throughout Hungary. (We are interested in more translations! Please check out our translation assist page if you are thinking of providing us with a new translation. Thank you!!)
Gathering signatures is only one part of the Seattle Statement campaign. The main focus, of course, must be on exploring the idea of a public sphere itself while simultaneously building and supporting public sphere projects and a public sphere movement worldwide. University of Brighton researcher Peter Day calls the synthesis of these seemingly disparate threads as the "theory, policy, and action nexus." There are thousands of projects under development and millions of people--including those people quoted here and the 400 people who participated in the symposium--who are working on those projects. We believe that we have an historic opportunity to do that and we hope that the Seattle Statement can play some part in seizing this opportunity.
Other Charters and Manifestos
© Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
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