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CPSR Newsletter Vol 18, Number 3
Volume 18, Number 3 The CPSR Newsletter Summer 2000

The Seattle Statement:
Is it Radical? Is it Radical Enough?
by Doug Schuler
In the aftermath of the "Shaping the Network Society" symposium I claimed that the "Seattle Statement" was "radical" to Sarah van Gelder, the editor of Yes! The Journal of Positive Futures, one of the attendees. This essay is an attempt to defend that claim.

The word "radical" enjoys far-ranging employment in fields of knowledge as diverse as linguistics, mathematics, chemistry and political philosophy. Of the, say 30 or 40 definitions in Websters Third New International Dictionary, the definition that reads "tending or disposed to make extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions" may be the most applicable to this discussion.

The Seattle Statement was developed on the last day of CPSR's "Shaping the Network Society" symposium in May, 2000. The statement has now been signed electronically by over 200 people from nearly 30 countries and five language versions (English, French, Hungarian, Italian, and Spanish) now exist. The statement contains six working hypotheses that, by themselves, may seem tepid and non-controversial to some people. The overall message, however, of the statement is that massive changes in nearly all of the usual modes of communication would be required to meet the objectives called for in the Seattle Statement. For those reasons it must obviously considered radical. Unfortunately there is substantial evidence that the objective of developing a new public sphere that meets the needs of civic society is becoming increasingly unattainable in an era of intensive global media corporatization. The right questions to ask are what will people do with the statement and whether the statement is radical enough to help motivate and orient people in this struggle.

One of the Seattle Statement's most central points proclaims the importance and potential of humankind's communication venues especially for addressing multifaceted and seemingly untractable problems in a complex, globalized world. The citizenry of the world, including people without power or resources, as well as people with embarrassingly excessive amounts, have enormous potential--largely untapped-- or dealing with those critical problems involving health, education, the economy and the environment. But what is standing in the way? The answer is that most of the communication systems worldwide (including the Internet) are undemocratic and are not designed or used in any direct sense to support collective problem solving. The systems are controlled in most cases by national governmental agencies and/or by private, commercial concerns. Access to "their" airways is tightly controlled, licensed, censored and restricted. Stories from marginalized groups, alternative viewpoints, and experimental formats are virtually unknown in "traditional" media systems. Democracy and access is rarely an objective in its own right--profit-making pushes those principles into the dustbin.

The Seattle Statement champions the idea of collective problem solving, a concept that is nearly synonymous to democracy, a radical concept in its own right though currently watered down and undervalued. The statement calls for a new focus on proactive civic innovation: researchers, librarians, activists, and even technologists can be leaders in the development of tools, technology, and civic society institutions that can help us more effectively address issues that face society today. The Seattle Statement, moreover, issues a strong (though, possibly understated) challenge: The powerful institutions and social forces of today are not being successful in meeting civic sector missions that they claim to address. Worse, the needs of civic society may be undervalued and even threatened by these actors. A new, alternative, and at times, oppositional "public space" is required.

The Seattle Statement only hints of a new communication paradigm. The Seattle Statement is thus quietly insurgent. Ultimately the Seattle Statement gives rise to a radical vision. Whether or not a given statement is too radical or not radical enough is of little consequence. What matters, and the time is short for it to matter, is whether the statement can be an aid, or rallying cry, of any sort for democratizing communication and for effectively utilizing these liberating forums for collective problem solving.

The Seattle Statement doesn't say how to accomplish these aims because the people writing the statement didn't have the knowledge about how to encapsulate the millions of ideas, projects, experiments, and visions that people all over the world are currently developing. The next step is the all-important synthesis that British researcher Peter Day calls the "theory/policy/action nexus." To take this step, the Seattle Statement offers encouragement and the opportunity for solidarity and ongoing dialogue. The Seattle Statement is a significant start, but it's just a start. We invite everybody to sign the Seattle Statement. More importantly we extend an invitation to help make the new public sphere called for in the Seattle Statement a reality.

What's inside...

© Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
P.O. Box 717
Palo Alto, CA 94302-0717
Tel. (650) 322-3778
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