The term incommunicado generally refers to a state of being without the means or rights to communicate, especially in the case of incommunicado detention and the threat of massive human rights violations. The latter also implies an extra-judicial space of exception, where torture, executions and “disappearances” occur all-too-frequently in the lives of journalists and media activists, online or offline, across the world.
After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the bilateral order, the discourse of human rights has become an important placeholder for agendas of social change and transformation that are no longer articulated in third-worldist or tri-continentalist terms. Yet despite the universalizing implications of human rights, they can also invoke and retrieve the complex legacy of specific anti-colonial and third-worldist perspectives that continue to inform contemporary visions of a different information and communication order.
The term ‘incommunicado’ was chosen as the name for this research network of activists, academics and geeks to acknowledge that while questions related to info-development and info-politics are often explored in a broader human rights context, this does not imply embracing a politics of rights as such. Instead, one of the aims of the Incommunicado project is to explore tactical mobilisations of rights-based claims to access, communication, or information, but also the limits of any politics of rights, its concepts, and its absolutisation as a political perspective.
Incommunicado 05 Conference
The program of the Incommunicado 05 conference, held in Amsterdam on June 15-17, 2005, had an explicitly broad and investigative character. Besides obvious WSIS topics such as internet governance and open source, the event attempted to put a few critical topics on the agenda, such as the role of NGOs, the ‘critique of development’ in the internet age, and the question of ‘info-rights’. Some debates were also new and had to be explored, such as the role of ICT corporations as ‘partners in development’ at the UN or the role of culture and corporate sponsorship in the ICT4D context.
While participants agreed that the standard scope of ICT4D debates and research needed to be expanded, there was not yet any agreement on how this might best be done. What is certain is that the kind of critique the incommunicado network was set up to explore and facilitate is unlikely to proceed through the consensus-building model of civil society caucuses and inter-institutional networks. Given the commitment to different, even mutually exclusive logics and models of institutionalisation in different camps, from media activists to a development NGOs and academic ICT analysts, the mutual engagement in a spirit of self-critique has its more or less obvious limits.
But this is not necessarily a weakness. Part of the Incommunicado idea was a critique of the assumption of a general comprehensibility and commensurability of efforts grouped under ‘civil society’, a shift in emphasis to trace the faultlines of such conflicts and identify their stakes rather than their resolution and subsumption to a master-paradigm that would then serve to contextualise and inform a new politics.
We are witnessing a shift from in the techno-cultural development of the web from an essentially Euro-American post-industrialist project to a more complexly mapped post-third-worldist network, where new south-south alliances are already upsetting our commonsensical definitions of info-development as an exclusively north-south affair. Before the recent “flattening of the world” (Thomas Friedman, 2005), most computer networks and ICT expertise were located in the North, and info-development – also known by its catchy acronym ‘ICT4D’, for ICT for development – mostly involved rather technical matters of knowledge and technology transfer from North to South. The old ‘technology tranfer’ discourse is becoming questionable, if not put upside down. While still widely (and even wildly) talked about, the assumption of a ‘digital divide’ that follows this familiar geography of development has turned out to be too simple. Instead, a more complex map of actors, networked in a global info-politics, is emerging.
Different actors continue to promote different – and competing – visions of ‘info-development’. New info-economies like Brazil, China, and India have suddenly emerged and are forming south-south alliances that challenge our sense of what ‘development’ is all about. However tempting, these new developments and particularly the emerging alliances should not be romanticized in terms of a new tri-continentalism. However, the cohesion of the new south-south alliances originates in part from the shared resistance to an emergent Euro-American front on intellectual property rights (IPR) and related matters.
Ambitious info-development projects struggle to find a role for themselves either as basic infrastructure, supportive of all other development activity, or as complement to older forms of infrastructure and service-oriented development. Often they are expected to meet a host of often contradictory aims: alleviating info-poverty, catapulting peasants into the information age, promoting local ICT and knowledge based industries, or facilitating democratisation through increased participation and local empowerment. Meanwhile, of course, info-development also facilitates trans-national corporate efforts to offshore IT-related jobs and services in ever-shorter cycles of transposition, leaving local ‘stakeholders’ at a loss as to whether or not scarce public subsidies should even be used to attract and retain industries likely to move on anyway.
Info-development creates new conflicts, putting communities in competition with each other. But it also creates new alliances. Below the traditional thresholds of sovereignty, grassroots efforts are calling into question the entire IPR regime of and access restrictions on which commercial info-development is based. Commons- or open-source-oriented organisations across the world seem more likely to receive support from southern than from northern states, and these coalitions, too, are challenging northern states on their self-serving commitment to IPR and their dominance of key info-political organisations.
Meanwhile lesser-known members of the UN family, such as the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), are beginning to feel the heat brought on by “no-logo”-style campaigns that are targeting the entire range of public international actors and bring an agenda of accountability to the institutions of multilateral governance. As a response to the increasingly contradictory info-political activities of the major agencies like the ITU, UNDP, UNESCO, and WIPO, even the UN has begun to lose its aura. As public tagging of a perceived positive UN role in governance, humanitarianism, and peacekeeping shifts towards corruption and inter-agency rivalries, (carefully guided by neo-conservative think-tanks), the ensemble of supra-state apparatuses supposed to sustain visions of a post-imperial order suddenly seems mired in a frightening family dispute that threatens to spin out of control.
Critique of Info-Development
The critique of development and its institutional arrangements – of its conceptual apparatus as well as the economic and social policies implemented in its name – has always been both a theoretical project and the agenda of a multitude of ‘subaltern’ social movements. Yet much work in ICT4D shows little awareness of or interest in the history of such development critique. Quite the contrary, the ICT4D debate, whose terms are often reproduced in the members-only loop of a few influential NGO networks like APC, OneWorld, or PANOS, along with a small number of states and influential donor organisations, remains surprisingly inward-looking, unable or unwilling to actively challenge the hegemony of an a-historical techno-determinism. These global NGOs and Western info development government agencies are new to the fact that there are now a multitude of actors that operate in ‘their’ field. The Incommunicado project is just of many efforts to broaden the ‘ICT4D’ scope. A part of this process is a critical investigation into the role of info developmental NGOs.
Even many activists believe that ICT will lead to progress and eventually contribute to poverty reduction. Have development scepticism and the multiplicity of alternative visions it created simply been forgotten? Or have they been actively muted to disconnect current struggles in the area of communication and information from this history, adding legitimacy to new strategies of ‘pre-emptive’ development that are based on an ever-closer alliance between the politics of aid, development, and security? Are analyses based on the assumption that the internet and its promise of connectivity are ‘inherently good’ already transcending existing power analyses of global media and communication structures? How can we reflect on the booming ICT-for-Development industry beyond best practice suggestions?
Pushed by a growing transnational coalition of NGOs and a few allies inside the multilateral system, open source software has moved from margin to center in ICT4D visions of peer-to-peer networks and open knowledge initiatives. But while OSS and its apparent promise of an alternative non-proprietary concept of collaborative creation continues to have much counter-cultural cachet, its idiom can easily be used to support the ‘liberalisation’ of telco markets. Long occupied with the struggle between free software and open source approaches, FLOSS research is only now addressing some of the paradoxes of immaterial labour and its voluntarist ethic.
Civil Society vs ‘The Grassroots’
We have become used to thinking of ‘civil society organisations’ and NGOs as ‘natural’ development actors. But their presence is itself indicative of a fundamental transformation of an originally state-centred development regime, and their growing influence raises difficult issues regarding their relationship to state and corporate actors, but also regarding their self-perception as representatives of civic and grassroots interests. In spite of the neat sociological grammar of declarations and manifestoes, increasingly hybrid actors no longer follow the simple schema of state, market, or civil society, but engage in cross-sector alliances. Responding to the crisis of older top-down approaches to development, corporations and aid donors are increasingly bypassing states and international agencies to work directly with smaller non-governmental organisations. And while national and international development agencies now have to defend their activity against both pro- and anti-neo-liberal critics, info-NGOs participating in public-private partnerships and info-capitalist ventures suddenly find themselves in the midst of another heated controversy over their new role as junior partner of states and corporations. Responding by stepping up their own brand-protection and engaging in professional reputation management, major NGOs even conclude that it is no longer their organisational culture but their agenda alone that differentiates them from corporate actors.
The spectacular world summit on the information society (WSIS), barely noticed by the mainstream media but already uniting cyber-libertarians afraid of UN interventions in key questions of internet governance, is over. While many info-activists are assessing (and re-assessing) the hidden cost of invitations to sit at ‘multi-stakeholder’ tables along with mega-NGOs and corporate associations, others are already refusing to allow an organisational incorporation of grassroots or subaltern agendas into the managed consensus being built around the dynamic of an ‘international civil society’. Mirroring the withdrawal from traditional mechanisms of political participation, there is growing disaffection with multilateralism as the necessary default perspective for any counter-imperial politics. Unwilling to accept the idioms of sovereignty, some even abandon the very logic of summits and counter-summits to articulate post-sovereign perspectives.
If WSIS actors operate with a kind of matrix that covers the relevant institutional actors, policy becomes a matter of shifting resources and responsibilities by way of playing different actors against each other. Some of that makes sense to us, alliance-building within the specific ensemble that constitutes the info-development regime. WSIS could perhaps been a very different space had it not been hosted by ITU but UNESCO, now everything was framed by default by ITU’s a-historical don’t-even-think-of-mentioning-NWICO techno-managerialism. On a different level, the very idea of info-development implies a commitment to the logic of representation – needs, actors, and remedies can all be identified etc., and this is where policy-making indeed becomes a matter of faith. The formalisation associated with development processes – the discomfort with informal economies, the translation of diffuse desires into needs, and the transformation of people into autonomous bearers of rights to development – is just a consequence of this more fundamental commitment. On this level, a critique of info-development must also explore the role the logic of representation continues to play.
But often the ultimate space of ‘critique’ is defined in terms of an almost mythological ‘grassroots’ and popular democracy as authentic sources of legitimacy and ‘last instance’ of accountability, so all you need for a critique of civil society and NGOism is to show their gradual (and almost inevitable, it seems) estrangement from a social movement grassroots, facilitated by their adoption of corporate models of professionalisation and an emphasis on organizing efforts that are compatible with an intergovernmental summitism. The WSIS summit machine, however, continued to hum along, largely unimpressed by action plans, civil society declarations, and manifestoes, and in this failure already seemed to produce its own critique. The label ‘civil society’ papers over so many differences that its use should perhaps also be considered in tactical terms, a way to create a very specific kind of intelligibility for political claims that does not really limit their rearticulation in alternative idioms.
In an eager response to the newfound enthusiasm for ICT4D through Public-Private Partnerships (fuelled largely by the ongoing UN financial crisis and the broader neo-liberal privatisation agenda), major info-corporations are advertising themselves as “partners in development” and promote ICTs as the vehicles for “good governance and effective service delivery” („e-governance“), but also to stake out their own commercial claims, crowd out public-sector alternatives, and subvert south-south cooperation. ‘PPP in ICT’ will be the focus of another project by members of the Incommunicado network, soon at .
Within ICT4D research hasn’t been a priority. What we found most often are best practice stories, and while there must be critical assessment reports, they tend to be written for internal use only. Ministries, funding bodies, foundations and NGOs are not eager to share their inside knowledge with outsiders out of fear that any ‘negative’ information will compromise their position in the scramble for funds and eventually lead to budget cuts. This makes it hard, if not impossible to have an open debate about the terms that floating around, and also to come up with new concepts.
Beyond setting up lists and collaborative weblogs, research is also a means of ‘opening up a space’ both in terms of activism and knowledge production. This also requires calling into question the assemblage of ‘mots d’ordre’ that make up the info-development discourse. Such ‘mots d’ordre’ – including, but not limited to ‘access,’ ‘capacity building,’ ‘poverty alleviation,’ and ‘stakeholderism’ – are not made to encourage debate but to foster agreement on a consensual perception of what info-development is. We have witnessed this in the context of WSIS, and Incommunicado got started in the context of WSIS. However, even if it maintains a critical distance to it – as do, by now, virtually all groups that have been involved – it is still marked by this focus on the critique of a policy-driven process organized around a fairly standard set of actors. But what’s actually happening below the threshold of civil society is a rich and dynamic source of new forms of info-political engagement and new conceptual approaches, so research on the development discourse must engage such micro-level studies as well the ‘donor discourse’ – reproduced in a trans-national regime that includes state and non-state agencies, philanthropic and profit-oriented efforts – that serves to filter such efforts from the outside of the established research system.
Finally, ICT4D research needs to be considered in the context of shifts in the mode of production of ‘science’. Some sociologists argue, for example, that we are witnessing a transition from a an “academically-centred mode” that values scientific autonomy and peer evaluation, to a “flexible mode” that is participatory and trans-disciplinary, addressing a host of economic and social questions through research that is accountable, open, and transparent. Such a flexibilisation of scientific production is the ultimate wet-dream of donors more committed to the vague notion of a “knowledge society” than to the controversial questions of what such a new scientific ethic of accountability, openness, and transparency might actually mean in practice, including a controversy over the criteria of relevance and reliability that determine whether or not efforts that do not uncritically accept the hegemonic assemblage of ‘mots d’ordre’ still receive support, or a debate among researchers over whether they should really embrace a new flexibilisation paradigm that still remains committed to the exclusion of ‘lay people’ outside the institutionalized expertism we have come to accept as the only source of research.