November 21, 2005

Postcard from Tunis: Veni, Vidi, Wiki, Wifi, Wimax…

Postcard from Tunis: Veni, Vidi, Wiki, Wifi, Wimax…

Free wifi in the Tunis airport

Displayed at the airport in Tunis this weekend [Camel Ryder / Flickr]

TUNIS — “The place is feeling very post-modern,” says DJ Spooky, the cyber hip-hop oracle and artist also known as Paul Miller, as we enter the “information society” carnival. By po-mo he means (I take it): fragmented, momentary, media-saturated, ironic, contradictory, “subversive” of something and nonetheless corporate, official and “safe.”

Chiefs of state by the several score, including Muammar Khaddafy from Libya next door and Robert Mugabe from Zimbabwe, have come to pay homage to the age of information. Business cards drift like confetti. Most of the UN’s member states are represented here: Japan’s showcase took the equivalent of half a city block; Armenia, e-Mauritius and e-Croatia got tiny storefronts. Yet the friendly chatter (as at all Internet gatherings) is animated by rumors that all the old terms of authority are changing; that an anti-gravitational architecture is taking over; that the liveliest domain on the Web in the long run tilts anti-national, anti-imperial, anti-chauvinist, even anti-commercial; that the god inside the machinery favors the new networks of expressive individuality and the evermore vibrant diasporas of culture and human interest.

The political environment for creating the Third World does not exist anymore… Information technology has the power to have made that difference. The question going forward are: how do we connect with individuals we want to connect with… and drive change? Forget the divides, digital and otherwise. We are one human community.

Akhtar Badshah, MIT-trained architect and Microsoft director of community affairs

I came to the Tunis “summit” with the Berkman Center team probing “creativity, culture, capacity…” on the Web, curious about how humanistic innovation might be promoted through these miraculous links.

I come away thinking less about Tunis, more about Carthage, buried beneath it on the beautiful S-curve midway along the North African coast. Barely a day’s sail south from Sicily, Queen Dido’s Phoenician “new city” in the West was the seat of a Mediterranean empire in its own right until it was ground to dust by the Romans in three merciless Punic Wars more than a century B.C. The old slogan “Cartago delenda est” bubbled up sua sponte from my Roxbury Latin memory base as we walked the ruins yesterday. “Carthage must be destroyed.” We were not far from the dateline of Julius Caesar’s legendary bulletin: “Veni, vidi, vici.,” issued long after the battle was won.

So Carthage set the context of my information summit. And the Bush team’s high-fives and whoops of triumph when the Tunis talks kept Internet governance in US hands underlined the imperial theme.

Ruins in Carthage

Some of what’s left of Carthage at night [sharif / Flickr]

We learn in school that the Romans destroyed Carthage. But the modern perspective adds that Carthage (even as it was rebuilt as an outpost of Roman power) was the point at which Berber, African and mid-Eastern cultures and blood found their way into the limelight of the West. The information summit felt like another lively transfer point, maybe a hinge of history, where the inequities of power, by any measure, are pretty appalling.

We cocky, loud American Romans are so much better at talking than listening. We are so much more intent on kicking ass than on picking up clue phones. We are NFL obsessives in a soccer-playing world. And we have way too many toys.

In serious and popular culture we suffer an ugly trade imbalance — from some analog of the tariff barriers and export subsidies that ruin African farmers with low-price American corn. We give the world Britney Spears and Madonna and stifle the breath of artistic genius abroad, at our own huge expense. The world still remembers that we once exported Louis Armstrong, on records and on State Department tours. The most poignant plea I heard in Tunis was from the Ethiopian vibraphonist, rhythmist, talent scout and bandleader, Mulatu Astatke, “the Duke Ellington of Ethiopia.” African governments, he said, should be making a commitment to musical training, traditional and contemporary, in every high school. “We are losing our culture,” he said.

It is still a puzzle to me whether and how Internet culture is going to right the imbalances. One felt three anomalies in all the conversations at Tunis.

First, the blundering, oblivious exercise of American military power in Iraq (“Fallujah delenda est!”) makes a very strange background for our professed interest in building an ecology of creativity, tolerance and change, an environment of listening and learning, on our Web.

Second, gray-haired men are making the machines and the rules for a play space that kids will fill up and grow on. Maybe this is not a problem to worry about. “Kids can’t invent the Calculus,” said Alan Kay. “They can only show us how to be unafraid.” If the Web’s inventors turn out to be geniuses at the level of Leibnitz, Newton, Bach and Shakespeare, kids will be playing gratefully in their space till the end of time. If not, maybe the kids can rebuild it.

Third, we come to the Internet space with big hang-ups about ownership and control, with lawyers and a vast armamentarium to protect “intellectual property.” The problem is not just the old habit of appropriating the cultures of the world as part of the “gift economy.” It’s more that we feel an inherent “open source” logic in the Internet, a universal copying machine, which is itself the engine of a superabundant “gift economy” in culture. One way or another, the property claims will have to go.

For the record, I cheered as enthusiastically as anyone when Hossein Derakshan, the Iranian exile blogger we’ve learned to call “Hoder,” celebrated the US retention of effective governance of Internet domain names–not that they matter interestingly, but the symbolism was important at a time when China is making an export industry of technology that blocks, filters, censors and punishes bloggers — in Zimbabwe, for example. “Internet governance cannot be extended to include China and Iran,” Hoder said at a panel on Expression Under Repression. “The US, for all its faults, is committed to freedom, and China, Iran and Zimbabwe are not!”

But one would have wished for some grander visions. This apparently last summit on a revolutionary technology did not invoke a revolutionary idea. If we believe in the Internet, we should be implementing, as Andrew McLaughlin of Google said, “the best connectivity for the most people,” now. From a rural development perspective, Ashok Jhunjhunwala of the Indian Institute of Technology at Madras, could barely believe that “nobody has set a goal at this summit: that every village should be connected.”

So let us generate our own visions — new models of early and lifelong education; a revaluation of the music, painting and poetry we love and a reconsideration of where it comes from; and vastly bigger investments (emotional and financial) in the young, the poor and the rural.

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