World-Information Forum Vienna (2000): Conference Report
The World Information Forum, held in connection with the World Information Exhibition at Vienna's Technical Museum, brought together a number of distinguished speakers who all addressed, each from a different perspective, the political and artistic dilemmas as well as the opportunities contained in the transition to a digital world. Reflecting the many of the topics and concerns around which the work of World-Information.Org revolves, the speakers and panellists discussed issues of democratisation, surveillance, digital grassroots activism, as well as artistic practice in digital networks, with Pauline van Mourik Broekman from Mute Magazine, London as chairperson.
Ben Bagdikian, Professor Emeritus of Communication, was regrettably prevented from attending the conference in by a last-minute medical emergency. However, he made the extended version of his talk available to the conference. Following a welcome message by Konrad Becker, the paper served as the basis for a brief introduction to WIO's work by Wolfgang Suetzl. In fact, Bagdikian's paper on "Democratisation and the Digital World" in many ways addressed key concerns of World-Information.Org. Unless the political nature of modern information and communication technologies is recognised, Bagdikian states, there is a danger that the democratic achievements are eroded. Freedom and unrestricted availability of information is fundamental to every democratic system of government, but can hardly be spoken of when the global information channels are in the hands of a few powerful corporations inspired not by democratic ideals, but by a desire to generate profit. Another factor undermining democratic norms is the erosion of privacy, a problem whose urgency is still not fully understood but becomes drastically apparent when the development and increasing acceptance of interception and data capturing techniques in the digital realm is considered. Against this background, retaining and expanding democracy in the face of informatisation requires a concerted effort of governmental and non-governmental democratic forces across the globe, and the creation of international forums capable of designing internationally valid norms against the abuse of democratic rights in the digital world.
The uneven distribution of information resources across the globe was then addressed by Kunda Dixit from Nepal. Dixit criticised the hype that surrounds information and communication technologies and that makes it appear as a remedy against all ills in the eyes of development agencies, third world elites and western corporations alike. Where everything else has failed, so the argument runs, information and communication technologies will finally bring about the desired effect: elimination of poverty, and educational and health standards matching the "developed" nations of the west. Yet large scale infusions of new technologies in the ailing economies and societies of the third world are bound to fail when basic technical infrastructure is not in place. Building schools and providing clean drinking water may be a less profitable business, but unlike the ICT phantasies of development experts and managers they respond to urgent needs. On the other hand, simple communication technologies such as short-wave radio, frowned upon by the priests of technical progress, are vastly under-utilised. In the final analysis, however, no technology can solve problems that are political in their nature, and that need therefore need to be addressed politically.
The presentation of Steven Wright, director of the OMEGA foundation, and author of the report on technologies of political control for the European Parliament, took up a particularly alarming aspect of informatisation: the rise of the surveillance state and the sneaking elimination of privacy. In a presentation backed up by a wealth of visuals and graphics, Wright told the story of the spread of surveillance technology, and of surveillance becoming a standard tool of political repression even in the midst of democratic states. Advances in communication technologies tend to immediately be integrated in technological systems of political control, projecting the power of policing into new areas of society and culture, and rapidly blurring the line between law enforcement and open repression, and between the military and the police. How far the undermining of the right to privacy has already progressed and is being further promoted become apparent with disturbing urgency in the presentation, which ended by portraying antisurveillance initiatives both on governmental and non-governmental level.
The second half of the conference was dedicated to questions of artistic practice and social activism in digital networks. A panel consisting of publicist and filmmaker Hito Steyerl (G), Alice Dvorska (CZ, INPEG), Marion Hamm (UK, IndyMedia), and Honor Harger (UK/AUS, Tate Modern London, r a d i o q u a l i a) discussed their experience in promoting digital art and using the digital media in campaigns. Anti-globalisation campaigner Dvorska spoke about INPEG's (Initiative Against Economic Globalisation) experience in using the New Media as communication tools in rallying against the IMF Summit in Prague in 2000. Although Internet Access in the Czech Republic is not as widespread as in many western European nations, the net proved to be quite effective in bringing together resistant groups and individuals. Hamm also referred to the empowerment potential of the new media, emphasising the importance of a combination of activities in virtual and real space, and pointing out the dilemmas arising out of this double-track approach, such as the tension between providing a completely free access to a website and the need for editorial work. Harger's contribution concerned the relationship between the internet and the broadcast media. r a d i o q u a l i a is an experimental new media broadcasting platform that explores new forms of broadcasting as well as providing performative space combining web streamings with traditional media. Steyerl provided an illuminating insights into her work on the hierarchy of surveillance, where docusoaps such as Big Brother, CCTV surveillance of public places merge within the imperatives of the global information economy.
At the end of the days session there was a clear feeling that in spite of the potential authoritarianism exercised in digital networks, it is within complexities of these networks themselves that openings appear from which resistant and autonomous practices can be launched, provided that democratic values and creativity can be asserted both in the real and the virtual worlds. The networks can then also serve as a mobilising agent for broader public criticism and help to empower individuals and cultural groups.