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Challenge 6: Switching on to the politics of the digital era

Access to the internet is becoming less of a problem - but does society have the structures to support free exchange of information? Howard Stateman

In part six of our multi-disciplinary Millennium Project series, Jake Wallis argues that the infrastructure of global communication networks is inherently political and calls for a switched-on populace.

Global challenge 6: How can the global convergence of information and communications technologies work for everyone?

Challenge 6 of the Millenium Project’s Global Challenges Facing Humanity is a tricky one. How can the convergence of information and communications technologies (ICTs) work for everyone?

The problem, as cyberpunk author William Gibson famously said, is that “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Some organisations have modelled online (ironically) the disparities in infrastructure and use of global information and communications networks. They use visualisation techniques to represent digital data. StatSilk uses data from the International Telecommunications Union (the United Nations’ specialist agency for information and communications technologies) to model the global distribution of broadband per 100 inhabitants: you can see it here. The interactive model lets you watch as broadband spreads across the globe over the decade 1999-2009. You don’t need to be William Gibson to see that broadband is not very evenly distributed.

The global community must discuss how pervasive networks can best serve social well-being. The problem is that the inequalities inherent in existing global structures - distribution of food, clean water, health care and so on - are already reflected across our global networks.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, originally envisaged the internet as a universal communications medium beyond the constraints of proprietary software and computing hardware. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which Berners-Lee directs, has an unashamedly universal mission:

The social value of the Web is that it enables human communication, commerce, and opportunities to share knowledge. One of W3C’s primary goals is to make these benefits available to all people, whatever their hardware, software, network infrastructure, native language, culture, geographical location, or physical or mental ability.

But W3C is just one stakeholder in the web’s development. Some of the others get more attention. The chief executive of Google, Sergey Brin, recently lamented the shift towards “walled gardens” on the web. Brin’s use of the term is interesting. In the context of the web, a “walled garden” is the term commonly used to describe online systems and data which are closed off in an environment designed to be inherently open. Brin was, of course, talking about Google’s primary competitors in the digital economy: Facebook and Apple. In fact, he may simply be talking about environments that can’t be indexed by Google.

Now that the infrastructure of the web is in place and extending, Berners-Lee has turned his attention to the potential of the vast quantities of data that reside online. His idea is that the more accessible the data is, the greater its creative application. Data can be re-used [for disaster relief]( or public accountability or even the maintenance of public spaces.

During the debate around the National Broadband Network (NBN), there has been significant confusion about the things improved networked infrastructure might offer Australian society. The government did not articulate the potential social benefits of public investment in broadband particularly clearly. It was clear throughout the debate that many of Australia’s elected representatives didn’t “get” the idea of the information society and digital economy - politicians asked why public money should be used to fund faster movie downloads for teenagers. The information society and digital economy are presented as models for development not just by the Department of Broadband Communications and the Digital Economy but also by international organisations like the United Nations Educational, Scientific Cultural Organization.

The shape of the global economy is changing. For a highly educated and highly skilled nation like Australia, the future is in doing smart things with smart technology. Manufacturing could get a competitve advantage, for example, by producing customised on-demand products rather than getting involved in mass production (which the global economy has essentially outsourced to cheaper labour in industrialising economies anyway).

The Gillard government initially presented an economic rationale for the NBN. However, the debate has shifted into areas of broader social benefit as potential applications in health and education develop. For a nation dominated by the tyranny of distance, the collapsing of time and space enabled by broadband networks offers much.

The danger in facing this particular challenge in its global context is that our thinking becomes technologically deterministic: we begin to equate technology with progress in an uncritical way.

The potential of the social web as a platform for popular activism was apparent during the Arab Spring. But the events that we see unfolding in Syria demonstrate that without the structures of civil society, the intense political mobilisation afforded by the web goes nowhere. Technology does not bring democracy; in fact, it can be an incredibly effective tool of state surveillance and control. Since the Arab Spring, the United States (US) Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has increasingly intertwined internet freedom within the [thread of US foreign policy](](

As economic and citizenship practices shift into networked spaces, we need to think about how those practices can be absorbed into wider civil society and political institutions, regional economies and public services. Iceland, for example, has managed to incorporate new media into the democratic process in a meaningful way. Whilst recovering from the collapse of its banking system the Nordic island nation recently used a combination of social media environments to crowdsource the re-drafting of its constitution. Technology can provide a platform for social change. What happens next depends on what society, collectively, chooses to do with it.

How do we promote international consensus around the development of communications technologies? One forum tries to respond to this specific question: the United Nations sanctioned annual World Summit on the Information Society. The 2012 summit, which met last month, identified areas that are crucially important to maximise the potential of networked ICT for global humanity. They drew attention to:

  • equitable governance of cyberspace by all stakeholders
  • environmental sustainability of ICT usage
  • access to ICT by women
  • the role of ICT in post-conflict resolution.

The infrastructure of our global networks is inherently political. Technology doesn’t create the future; the complex interaction of political structures and human agency does.

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