Amsterdam. June 15-17, 2005
In early 2004 Geert Lovink and Soenke Zehle started a research project and mailing list devoted to a number of subjects, including a critique of information and communication technology for development (ict4d). As they said in their introduction, “there is a great need for a radical critique of notions such as 'information society', e-governance', 'digital divide' or 'civil society'”.
The conference grew out of discussions on the list and planning by Lovink's Institute of Network Cultures, Zehle, and an Indian organization, Sarai New Media Initiative. Sponsors included Waag Society in Amsterdam, and aid organizations based in the Netherlands: Buza, Hivos, and IICD.
I was interested in the meeting because so few conferences about technology in developing countries offer serious critiques about the assumptions many participants make about such projects. The event was held at a favorite Amsterdam meeting place called De Balie June 15-17. Other interesting events had taken place there including Next Five Minutes, Tulipomania, and the World Information Order, all of which had provided me with interesting interactions and prescient commentary on the world as it was, and as it might evolve. These notes omit summaries and comments on many of the sessions, but the full archive will be online at debalie.nl in July. The organizers are editing a reader to be available later this summer. Many of the sessions focused on open source software and the role of civil society in World Summit on the Information Society. The final WSIS meeting will be held in Tunis, Tunisia in November.
One of the critical challenges for planners whose target audience uses the Internet and communicates before and after a meeting is how to make the best use of valuable and unique face-to-face time. Most of us like to put the face before the ascii if we are at all involved with an interesting mailing list.
The outside support allowed them to bring in participants from all over the world: Ecuador, Burkina Faso, India, Philppines, South Africa, Macedonia, Brazil, and a number of other countries. Aside from a couple of long papers that were read, most of the speakers used a more casual form of interaction with each other, the moderator, and the audience. There were many breaks, and De Balie is a favorite gathering spot for drinks, a smoke, and wireless access—a not so social behavior and seemingly less popular there than in my home in Silicon Valley. Logistics, from my point of view, went smoothly, but a couple of speakers did not make it due to visa problems.
I had been away from this kind of meeting since 2003 after which I went offline for eight months to travel and talk with those not using ICT as well as intermediaries who were helping unconnected people in Mexico and the U.S. Given the range of participants and the subject matter, I found it very invigorating and a way to renew some acquaintances that had been lost when I went offine. No email means you don't really exist for some people.
One of the first speakers was a West African woman, Nnenna Nwakanma, who reminded us that those with intermittent or slow connectivity have trouble coping with the massive amount of interesting mail flowing through the incommunicado list. Jebesh Bagshi from the Sarai New Media Initiative in Delhi talked about the writings and ideas expressed through the Cybermohala (computer house) project. Some of the products were wallsheets and posters for the masses who don't use computers. Bernardo Sorj from Brazil said too many people were pushing “digital inclusion” while ignoring basic literacy. Amen! He said we should be more focused on national realities such as the vast gulf within Brazilian society and less talk about global civil society. He made the point that NGOs were in show business, and this was expressed through their skills with the media. NGOs need a discussion between the “state, science, and the market.” Anthony Mwaniki, OneWorld Kenya, talked about his Vodafone sponsored project that promoted SMS in a Nairobi slum. It was a good presentation—the kind attendees at Davos would like: how a big company can help in a poor, grass roots project in Africa. Anriette Esterhuysen, the head of APC, who said that ICT should be discussed as a tool, part of a greater complex. She said her organization took part in WSIS because these issues had to engaged at a global level. Other attendees were more skeptical about the usefulness of the whole WSIS process. This theme was a major one, but I did not take part in any of those sessions. However, Ralf Bendrath, an attendee from Germany and part of the German delegation in Geneva-WSIS has posted his own report on the meeting:.
Roberto Verzola of the Philippines outlined some of the problems about relying too much on a growing info sector. He believes there should be a balance in national economic sectors: agriculture (he is very involved in helping rice farmers), industry, and infotech. However, he pointed out the value extracted from someone making a CD and selling it compared with farmers harvesting and selling rice. Aside from an attachment to the land, it would seem that this disparity would make it hard to achieve the kind of balance advocated by Verzola. He said sharing is seen as a threat to the U.S. economy, and this is born out by industry studies of piracy and the effects on CD and DVD sales around the world. Verzola suggested that simpler and cheaper technologies such as video CD and community radio could be used for information sharing in places like the Philippines. One of the challenges he stated was that of “technological independence.” I believe that in a networked world with components and software from many countries assembled in one place and exported to others means that independence is very elusive if not impossible. Monica Narula of Sarai in Delhi read a paper detailing “the Delhi declaration, a new context for new media” the product of a meeting in January 2005 of the Open Cultures Network.
I missed the later morning sessions because of an interview, part of a series for a forthcoming DVD to be distributed at WSIS Tunis by the incommunicado team.
Information technology for development(ICT4D) and the critique of development session. Two questions were posed: what is ICT4D offering for social change other than a few best practices and is there any critical and/or alternative vision on the Din ICT4D? Tracey Naughton, the moderator, talked about the pitfalls of scaling up, the slow progress of establishing public computing centers in South Africa: 13 centers were set up and there is a need for 5000. She said that half a million phones were disconnected for non-payment of fees. (This happened in the U.S. rural areas during the great depression of the 1930's). Ravi Sundaram believes that ICT4D “ended” after September 11, 2001. Elites are detached from the audiences they describe. He and Solomon Benjamin, a fellow Indian were the only ones to talk about corruption (read “Tropic Gangsters” by Robert Klitgaard) during the conference. He said that corruption and illegal credit systems are part of political society that “deny rational life.” Solomon talked about Indians who secure low cost IFC loans at 2%, loan the money locally at 20%, and plough the profits into the U.S. superheated real estate market.
Solomon gave a separate presentation later about Bangalore India's switch from paper land titles to digital ones and how the GIS technology, combined with online records made it easier for city planners to centralize processes and push urban development projects that would displace many people in what some call the informal economy. He showed a wonderful short documentary on the kinds of small-scale economic activity that goes on at the sidewalk level of this huge city: manufacture of small fuel tanks, scavenging for minute amounts of scrap metal and hawking products of all types. It was the perfect complement to his talk. He commented on a diagram of a planned high tech corridor outside the city, “It will be larger than Paris, France.”
Another session looked at public private partnerships, especially Cisco and the UNDP. Lisa McLaughlin had been studying Cisco and its very successful network academies. Her critical analysis of this phenomenon was tempered by the experience related by Manuel Acevedo who had worked with UNDP and was involved the partnership. Mike Gurstein mentioned that another such PPP worth studying was that of Accenture. After the conference a new initiative tentativly called pppwatch is underway with Gurstein and McLaughlin as active participants.
There were short open sessions where individuals spoke about software in Cuba, info solidarity in Iraq, the lack of ICT in small organizations in southern Africa, and Enrique Chaparro's on the hidden costs of aid for ICT.
One of the final sessions had a looser format: Geert Lovink, Ravi Sundaram, and pump primed a discussion that focused on economic activity in India, China, and Brazil—three of the biggest players outside of the G8. It was fascinating to hear about the role of informal computer manufacturers in Brazil and the complex division of labor for pirated material in India, and yet it left unanswered, what about the smaller countries without the critical mass of talent and resources?
The wrapup session included a short talk on WSIS awards by one of the sponsors. One woman thought this was not appropriate in the context of the two days of critical presentation about WSIS, development, and what Solomon called digital capitalism. However, the organizers defended the talk, and out of this came the suggestion of having awards for worst practices in ICT4D. This idea is being discussed on the incom-l mailing list.
After I returned to Silicon Valley and looked at the program I realized there were many people I should have spoken with but did not have time. Many of those do not have the interest or personal bandwidth to participate in a mailing list, and this underscores the continuing need for face to face meetings such as incommunicado, in spite of the high cost and effort. I was impressed with the many points of view (not unusual) but also people's willingness to listen and perhaps modify their own ideas as a result of these encounters. Writing this report made me realize how much I missed, so I look forward to the audio archives and any plans for a second conference.