February 15, 2006 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on February 15, 2006.
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(Caen : éds. C&F, 2005) ISBN 2-915825-03-3 http://www.cfeditions.com
A printed book intended for anyone interested in the "outside" (non-anglophone) digital information world... a world as-yet remarkably lacking in, or some might say "free of", the particular philosophy and bias and cant which permeate so much of the anglophone approach to all of this now...
A text, moreover, presented in English & French & Spanish & Portuguese, evoking previous trans-national and multi-lingual eras: for instance the 16th century, back when the Biblia Políglota Complutense appeared in Latin & Hebrew & Greek...
Word Matters offers texts written in conjunction with the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS):
http://www.itu.int/wsis/ (Geneva 2003, Tunis 2005)
-- by people inspired by the WSIS effort, people who in turn have inspired the effort itself, a broad-ranging and remarkable group, representing a truly transnational approach.
The basic idea, declare the principal three among the thirty-plus writers involved, is that,
"'information' cannot be reduced to mere questions of infrastructures and techniques... it also raises important social issues..."
-- and so, they say, they are interested in not a "world information summit" but in the human societies affected by, and to some extent resulting from, the new information technologies.
Tensions already have developed, these authors say, between,
"the international dominant position [which] holds that only deregulation of markets can guarantee the existence of the infrastructure necessary for universal access to the Information Society",
"movements [which] are fighting to ensure that information remains above all a public good and [are] calling for regulation and public governance"
Yet the situation is complex: complicated on the one hand by,
"The decision by the most important power in the world to reject multilateralism and international democratization"
-- but also on the other by,
"Increasing collective fear, nurtured by world-wide terrorism and by talk of 'total security'... the choice of Tunisia as WSIS host -- that is of a country that does not allow free circulation of information -- constitutes a paradox which only can be explained by the current security context."
So the book is interesting... Expecting a tract, in the simplistic "good vs. evil" battle now distressingly-familiar to readers of big media headlines, a reader here obtains instead a more balanced view, one rejecting simplicity and acknowledging complexity from the outset: it's a refreshing change, from the normal political hue and cry increasingly heard most places.
The essays cover a broad range of subjects, from "Information Economy" to "Cybercrime", and from "Digital Libraries" to "Free Software". There are people here interested in "Virtual Communities", and others distressed by "Piracy". "Internet Governance" is of vital concern to some, while "Digital Divide" is more the central problem to others. "Gender", "Accessibility", and "Human Rights" all play central roles in our information societies going forward, various writers here point out.
The contributors themselves are as interesting, and seem to be as varied, as the subjects they present: not normally the case, in the Western-engineering-dominated Internet and digital information discussions... One writer here is an English woman living in Ecuador, who has been active from there for 15 years in digital information networking. Another is a Sorbonne PhD currently working as legal advisor to the State Computer Agency in the Presidential Office in Sénégal.
One writer has worked in information technologies in Brazil, for 25 years: on a project for that nation's Presidential Office, as coordinator of a national Free Software Project, and as professor at the Instituto Superior Tecnológico CEVATEC in Lima, and advisor to the Universidad Abierta de Cataluña. Another is in Denmark, where she co-founded an NGO, "Digital Rights", and serves on the board of another, "European Digital Rights (EDRI)". Another of these contributors is in Southeast Asia; still others are in India, the Congo and Ivory Coast, the Philippines, Québec.
This sort of variety can guarantee, at the very least, variety itself: rarely would such a varied group share common concerns, or rank those concerns in similar ways. Among the social issues surrounding digital information, moreover, an additional problem arises: concepts which appear similar turn out not to be -- try "democracy", in any context -- and rankings of importance which look the same at first glance turn out not to be, in application, as any advocate of "Women's Rights" or "Citizen Expression" or "Education" discovers quickly, once on-the-ground in a foreign situation. There always is something "different", overseas.
The more reason, then, why such a gathering of multinational and transnational outlook and experience is so valuable... Word Matters, as the English version of the book's title suggests -- that might have been rendered, too, "Words Matter" -- the approach taken is to find out not only what is important, about "information societies", to a greatly varied group of people, but also to examine very carefully how they express their views --
For the book is wonderfully multilingual. Each short essay appears in four languages, arranged uniformly in four columns across the two open pages: first in Portuguese, then English, then Spanish, finally in French. Unobtrusive markers, both on the pages and in the table of contents, indicate in which language the text originally was submitted.
So a reader easily follows the language of her or his personal choice, vertically, scanning that column from top to bottom; while, for clarifying concepts and checking variations, the other three languages are available as well, alongside, in the neighboring three columns. The format is congenial: like "parallel texts" of poetry translations, offered by some publishers -- instead of the forbidding "multilingual" conference report format, done by some international agencies, which simply crams all language versions together sequentially, leaving it to readers to thumb back-and-forth among them if they must.
The ideas expressed here are novel, as well. In his essay Hervé Le Crosnier observes, for example, that,
"the role of libraries in preserving, conserving and making available documents is still fundamental. Unlike the technical illusion of a world of documents that is 'auto-organized', open to all and where information moves freely, tackling the issue using the experience of libraries as a starting-point enables us to imagine, on the contrary, a balance between technological innovation and social conditions..."
-- and in hers Kemly Camacho asserts a need for,
"Changing perspective so that technologies are at the service of societies..."
-- while Dominique Cardon insists,
"The citizen-user of new information and communications technologies has different characteristics from those of mass media consumers: the reader, the listener, the TV viewer, etc...."
-- and Adriana Lau adds,
"Multilingualism Matters... Managing the translation phase has not been easy... we had to use email as the only form of communication. The original text for each article was immediately sent out to the team for translation... Once translated, the article was placed on the project's Internet site, allowing all authors to read it, and the process of debating the different concepts could begin... this book provided solid proof of the utility of new information technologies in today's society."
The book is a useful and even necessary addition to any library of "Internet" and "Information" and "Globalization" materials: at least because it represents an outside point of view to what usually gets heard.
It offers not so much an anti-Establishment point of view, however: there is plenty of material available elsewhere from that often narrow-minded quarter, most of it as ill-informed and filled with "philosophy and bias and cant" as the technical literature tends to be, on "social questions". No, this book is more the view of the real outsiders, of many of them anyway, who are as fascinated by the new technologies as anyone else is, but simply have some new questions, about "social applications" -- questions not answered or even asked, in the anglophone world which largely has brought us "things digital" so far.
Call this book not "anti-" but a broadening, then, of the Establishment point of view... It being a broad and complicated world, out there, one still relatively unpopulated with digital technique, it would make good sense to consider as many social and cultural points of view as possible -- as various digital vendors are finding out now, very expensively, in China and in Europe and elsewhere -- before taking the Globalization plunge.
If you happen to read international relations theory for fun -- as I do, a weird highschool-age habit which for some reason I never outgrew -- you must be struck with how dismal the stuff has become, recently. "Pre-emptive strike", "terrorism", "bird flu", "fundamentalism", "clash of civilizations"... and uncertainty, everywhere... the demise of the nation-state and its replacement with who-knows-what... Since the 1989 Fall of the Wall, and particularly since "9/11", the paradigm has shifted, the Old Order hath changed, and things have fallen apart while the centre truly cannot hold -- if not in reality at least in international relations theory. "We see through a glass, darkly" as never before, it seems.
So it is refreshing to read the essays described above. They are, for the most part anyway, enticingly upbeat, and forward-looking, and even optimistic. They concern some of the Great Issues addressed by the Establishment punditry: "Internet Governance", "Cultural Diversity", "Gender", "Digital Divide", "Intellectual Property", "Cybercrime". But unlike mainstream media, which tends nowadays to focus on the negative -- on the sensational, and nearly all of that catastrophic -- hurricanes and nuclear war and terrorism and whatever else -- there _are_ some people left on the planet, apparently, who still see some possibilities.
These people aren't the "counter-culture": that's just the folks opposed to the mainstream, the "anti's". As gloomy a bunch as the Establishment folks, the "anti-" folks are, products of the same simplistic Manichean thinking: anti-Development, anti-Growth, anti-this, anti-that, particularly anti-Globalization. Those of us who are fans of Globalization, as well as those of us who are foes, tend to ignore how powerless we all are, really. The world is Globalizing, inexorably and inevitably, simply because it's grown smaller. The point is how best to Globalize, not whether to.
So that last is the refreshing take, of most of the writers in this book. Not a Third Way -- that over-used and somewhat betrayed term -- but a New Way, perhaps. Amid all the gloom and doom in panic-stricken nation-state capitals, nowadays, Something Completely Different may be exactly what we all need.
Jack Kessler, firstname.lastname@example.org
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