Incommunicado 05 is a two-day working conference working towards a critical survey of the current state of ‘info-development’, also known as the catchy acronym ‘ICT4D’ (ICT for development). Before the recent “flattening of the world” (Thomas Friedman, 2005), most computer networks and ICT expertise were located in the North, and info-development mostly involved rather technical matters of knowledge and technology transfer from North to South. 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. Development-oriented systems (like simputers and MIT’’s $100 computer system) emerge and re-emerge. The corporate sector suddenly discovers the “bottom of the pyramid” and community computing, in their drive for markets beyond those now increasingly stagnant in the OECD countries, and among the prosperous and professional in the rest of the world.
However tempting, these new developments and particularly the emerging alliances should not be romanticized in terms of a new tri-continentalism. Brazil’s info-geopolitical forays are anything but selfless. And while China’s investments in Africa have already been compared to the 19th century scramble for Africa led by European colonial powers, many expect it to be soon exporting its ‘Golden Shield’ surveillance technologies to states such as Vietnam, North Korea, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, for all of whom it is acting as a regional internet access provider.
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. In parallel, and in eager response to the newfound enthusiasm for ICT4D through Public-Private Partnerships (fueled largely by the ongoing UN financial crisis and the broader neo-liberal privatization agenda), major info-corporations are advertising themselves as “partners in development” and are promoting 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.
Ambitious info-development projects struggle to find a role for themselves either as basic infrastructures supportive of all other development activity or as complement to older forms of infrastructure and service -oriented development. And 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 democratization through increased participation and local empowerment. Meanwhile, of course, info-development also facilitates transnational 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 organizations 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 organizations.
Meanwhile lesser-known members of the UN family, such as the World Intellectual Property Organization (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 (dare one say confused) 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.
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 organizations. 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 organizational 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, will conclude later this year. 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 organizational incorporation of grassroots or subaltern agendas into the managed consensus being built around the dynamic of an ‘international civil (information) 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. And alongside this of course, is the day to day reality of those at the grassroots and most importantly working as policy, research and practice info-intermediaries to find ways of using (and remaking) ICTs to be of benefit to the “multitudes”.
The ‘incommunicado’ project started early 2004 as a web research resource combined with an email-based mailinglist. It was founded by Soenke Zehle and Geert Lovink, who had earlier collaborated during the European Make World and Neuro events, that attempted to develop critical work around new media and no border issues.
Incommunicado didn’t start out of the blue. It was a merger from two lists, Solaris, founded late 2001 by Geert Lovink and Michael Gurstein, and a defunct G8 Dotforce list. The Solaris email list was an early attempt to develop a critical discourse around the ICT4D policy complex and was inspired by the then-newly opened centre Sarai in Delhi, a place that embodies new cultural practices beyond the classic development models. Beginning in late 2003, the first World Summit on the Information Society accelerated the awareness that critical voices, inside and outside the Machine, had to gather in order to reflect on the circulating metaphors and rhetoric. Poor outcomes of the alternative ‘WSIS, We Seize’ campaign, which positioned itself outside of the world conference spectacle, proved that there is a great need for a radical critique of notions such as ‘information society’, ‘e-governance’, ‘digital divide’ or ‘civil society’.
At the moment there are 300+ subscribers to the list, and at any given moment in time 50-70 users are either reading the incommunicado rss-news or searching the collaborative weblog, whose topic areas include network(ed) ecologies, ICT for Development, internet governance, analyses of the NGO sector, and emerging South-South relations. So far, incommunicado has been an exclusively online resource and list community, consisting of researchers, ICT practitioners, activists and social entrepreneurs. The event in Amsterdam in June 2005 will be the first meeting of this emerging network. Future plans include the launch of an open-access journal or an incommunicado reader.
On Being Incommunicado
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 tricontinentalist 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 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 mobilizations of rights-based claims to access, communication, or information, but also the limits of any politics of rights, its concepts, and its absolutization as a political perspective.