Steve Cisler on 5 Nov 2000 23:01:19 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] global CN 2000 (report)

 global CN 2000: First Global Congress on Community Networking: "the human face in Internet". Barcelona, Spain. November 2-4.

Steve Cisler

Waiting for a train from Port Bou on the Spanish border to Barcelona, I was sitting in the station restaurant at 5 in the morning opposite a producer from CNN who lived in a small town in Siberia and a Brit who left his London slum at 16 and had worked 14 years as a gardener on the Costa Brava. We were comparing the strangest meals we had ever eaten. Michelle, the CNN woman, was making us lose our appetite with descriptions of delicacies from Tuva and Kirghizstan. Both of my colleagues were recovering from painful divorces, and their nomadic ways increased after their families broke up. I was on the road much of the time going to conferences or working on projects at the edge of the Net. The local paper in Catalan showed a picture of captured "Mahgrebies" (Moroccans and other North Africans) who had been arrested by a coastal patrol and were being sent back. An Argentine waiter just arrived from Buenos Aires and without a work permit is being paid under the table by his employer. The constant mobility of people (with and without travel papers) is such a dominant theme in all our lives, that the challenges for those who stay in one town or region do not usually attract much attention.

The conference that is ending today is about these people and the kinds of networks being built and run to make life better for geographical communities. Of course, they also deal with the needs of new arrivals and diaspora groups. In the rural areas these networks are seen as a way of stemming the rural-to-urban migration of young people looking for work. This has not been proven, but it's a common hope.  This meeting has attracted about 500 people from many parts of the world, with large numbers from Spain, Europe, and Latin America, and a sprinkling from Africa, North America, and parts of Asia and the Pacific. I saw no Chinese or citizens from Arab countries. The coordinators from Spain, France, and the UK did a good job of raising support from local Catalan governments, Fondation Charles Leopold Mayer, the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, Airtel (a local telco), and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This allowed them to bring activists and grass roots workers from many projects around the world and to hold it in a hotel with good facilities in a wonderful city whose attractions lured some of the attendees from some of the sessions. It also attracted the attention of a number of EU officials, as well as people from the ITU, and some other foreign ministries.  Very few people from the corporate sector. Very few hard core technologists or hackers, though Alberto Escudero Pascual from Sweden was doing some very innovative things with wirelss. Quite a few of the attendees might be comfortable with the label "social entrepreneur."

As a conference it is a fairly standard arrangement: plenary sessions where lines of speakers addressed the multitude, struggled with Power Point, taking more time than allotted, and leaving a short time for a few comments. On the plus side, more time was devoted to numerous breakout sessions with a pair of presenters in each room who usually encouraged a lot of interaction with the much smaller and intimate audiences. These sessions, and of course the talking in the halls, were the heart of the conference. This conference stood out in two ways: the amount of resources devoted to translation (Spanish, French, English, Catalan)--even for the breakouts, and the public computing area. Since a good part of this conference is about public access sites (telecenters and community technology centers) it was refreshing to see so few people glued to the screen checking their email. Instead, most were meeting and talking with other attendees. (This message was composed in my hotel room where I went online only three times during the week I was in Spain.)

What were the main themes of the conference? Each geographic region was in a different stage of development. Canadian and U.S. community networks might be considered "mature" while others in Europe and Australia are in ascendancy. Part of it is public awareness, different flows of funds (the U.S. has never had a great deal of outside support, but EU funds for various programs have helped many cities and regions), and the way the Internet has developed and overshadowed the local concerns of community networkers. Sites all over the world that were started by ad hoc groups of citizens and activists are facing competition not only from dot com enterprises but also local governments who are staking their own claim to the provision of services to citizens. They come late to the game but with greater resources than some of the non-profit groups.  The Africans and Latin Americans have more interest in economic development, training, and the provision of access through telecenters, but in Argentina there is also a growing interest in community networks.

Telecenters (a placeholder word that covers a variety of physical sites for public access, training and learning) are being sponsored by dozens of foundations, government, and now companies in order to meet universal service obligations, to spur economic development, to give kids something to do after school or keep them off the street, and to provide a place to talk about the changes taking place as a result of the very technology being promoted by the centers. Often, the local people will shape the center to meet their needs. Thousands of franchise centers are being built in India, Colombia, Argentina, and Peru, and nobody is sure how they will fit into the different communities. Many of the present ones have been more customized through the use of interviews, focus groups, and asset mapping techniques to involve the local people. Most franchise models don't allow for that kind of flexibility, but they are intended to make money and not rely on constant creative fundraising from foundations.

The coordinators of the conference would dearly like to form a consortium of community networking and telecenter associations in order to have credibility with EU (and other) funding sources, to be taken seriously as an NGO (maybe even becoming a BINGO--Big NGO), and to have money to help other organizations around the world who have not been able to raise as much support. This conference was very expensive, and the 2001 meeting in Argentina has to start raising more money right now. Others would like to see the conference just be part of a more ecological development of links, activities, and synergies between those present and are not convinced a formal structure is needed. However, the drive to have a formal organization seemed to be of more interest.

Many of us recognize that much more press coverage is being given to the problems of unequal access, the different penetrations rates of the Internet in all countries, and the continuing belief that digital fluency, to use Mitch Resnick's phrase, will determine which people, towns, and countries do well in the coming years. While the evidence for this is present in many countries (Clinton's visit to a computer center in the Navajo Indian reservation in the U.S. being my country's example) it is also a recurrent theme in Kofi Anan's speeches, those of the World Bank, and last summer for the G8 meeting in Japan. There, they endorsed the work submitted the World Economic Forum's group and named this the Digital Opportunity Task Force(whose public statements were scrutinized at this conference by Garth Graham, a veteran of Canadian community networking. It is not online at this moment. Contact for the precise web location about November 15.) The DOT Force document says they (the governments and probably one company from each country plus the U.S. Markle Foundation) will sit at the table with a few developing countries to work out the kind of plans that will be most useful.  Bertrand de la Chapelle, who tracks new ICT for the French Foreign Ministry, said this is a time when the third sector ("civil society" NGOs, etc) will also be invited to the table within the next two months. The challenge is an interesting one. How will certain NGO/civil society representatives end up "at the table." 

First, there is a spectrum of opinions about how to engage the government and business sectors. Street protests over globalization in Seattle, Bangkok, Davos, Washington, Prague, and Melbourne have presented a challenge to the governments and corporations usually on the other side of the police lines. Obviously, many don't want "dialogue" or to work out compromises. They don't want to be "at the table." One example is Jose Bove who was invited to the Davos Forum but refused to go, whereas Martin Khor of the Malaysian Third World Network (very big in the anti-globo circles) did accept. Some groups are in such opposition that they don't want to work out deals or be part of any closed discussions with G8 reps and high tech companies.  Others have been burned by previous partnerships and do not want to get involved again. Then there are those who remain very suspicious but are willing to talk. Others see their own role as facilitators, as people who can speak the language of the non-profit and social sector but also that of the governments and companies. Moderate groups frequently talk of strategic public-private partnerships. Others are in need of funds that they will deal with the devil if it helps them attain their organization mission. There are also the Alpha NGOs that already have the contacts, the resources, and the confidence to put themselves forwards as representatives in such a discussion. However, other candidates might be from labor, religion, and even family groups which represent many more people than do computer technology non-profits. In a sense, the core of the issue is who do NGO's or other civil sector groups represent, and how will they be selected? To discuss this theoretical problem about who represents the third sector, Michael Gurstein is setting up an open mailing list very shortly. Write for more information.

There were enough rooms to house the dozens of workshops on a myriad of topics. Each one had at least two translators, and that certainly facilitated understanding. I attended sessions on telecenter formation, art and community networks, an Asian regional meeting, and one on city services and community networks. Other topics included poverty-illiteracy-debt in developing countries; indigenous groups and the Internet (led by Maori representative Robyn Kamira of New Zealand); optical Internet; wireless networks; interactive webcasting; community-based training; knowledge-based cities; social entrepreneurs; working with young people and people with disabilities; civic digital rights; e-democracy; local employment and enterprise; women working in the information society; community health care; sharing information across communities; multilingual services; linking old media and new; partnerships with business; building community networks through twinning (i.e. cities or villages in different countries helping each other); and various regional meetings.

Manual Castells, who fled Barcelona during Franco's time, did a videoconference from U.C. Berkeley, and talked about the use of new media for social organization, giving the example of the supporters of the Zapatistas (who themselves use more secure methods of communication that IP traffic moving over networks owned by companies and surveilled by governments) building up worldwide awareness and sympathy for the rebels in the forests of Chiapas. Since the publication of Castells' first volume on the network society, he has become aware of the city and regional community networking activities. He was even aware of the recent changes to Amsterdam Digital City which has gone commercial.

Much of the third day was spent discussing the proposed consortium. Four years ago at an international community networking conference in Taos, New Mexico, a group of about forty of the faithful tried to form the International Association of Community Networks, but a Canadian recommended that the American get their own shit together before going international, and another person used the complaint about lack of diversity in the organizing group to question its claim to be international.  I call this the "where is your Hmong fisherman?" challenge. By citing the lack of fine grained representation, anyone can say an organizing group lacks credibility. But in 1996 we did decide to concentrate on U.S. issues and not start an international group. Now the organizers of the Barcelona conference are trying again.   

The steering committee for the future global CN group met to thrash out some ideas after all the formal presentations concluded.  The organizers were quite exhausted, and most of the 60 people present wanted to contribute, each in their own language. We sat in a circle and traded ideas and worries without official translators. I stayed silent for most of the time because my hands are full with INET 2001, and I did not think I could add much to the process.  Many people volunteered to help for the forthcoming Argentine conference, but some West Africans left. They were quite unhappy because they had been planning another global conference in Dakar for 2001, and now it seemed to be in the background as everyone rushed to work on the Argentine meeting which may be about the same time. I’m not sure how that will be resolved to the satisfaction of the Dakar group.

For some of those present, this meeting was a window into a world they barely knew existed. They were excited because it seems to be an intersection of human values, new technology, and a dedication to local participation that is lacking in other development or technology projects. For those of use who have been in this game for a while it was good to see a renewed wave of interest and resources and to meet people from areas just getting started. The Australians are planning a youth and community networking conference in 2001, but they made the point that more young people need to be involved in each meeting, no matter where it takes place, and that will be a real challenge because most youth are not habitual conference attendees but are usually showcased for one meeting or session. I did not have time on stage to make my comments, but they are in the proceedings that were distributed, and they should appear on the conference web site later.

Steve Cisler, Barcelona