Framing Paradise in Europe

Amelia Andersdotter, Swedish Pirate Party

Image via Wikipedia

PARADISO. a word bursting with promise, was chose as the title of a conference at which to discuss the future.  Subtitled, Ínternet and future societies’, it was never exactly clear whether the intent was to discuss what the present internet is, what the future internet might be, or even which societies were involved.  On one hand, the conference was being held under the auspices of the European Commission and indeed, under their very roof: Charlemagne at Schuman, shorthand for the acre or two in Brussels which is the power seat (or so the bureaucrats would like to think) of Europe: the location of the European Councail, Parliament and Commission.  http://paradiso-fp7.eu/events/2011-conference/  .  All the presentations available can be found at: http://paradiso-fp7.eu/events/2011-conference/agenda/.

The photo above is of one of the most interesting speakers at this conference, a Member of the European Parliament representing the Swedish Pirate Party.  Her presentation is unfortunately not available on the official Paradiso website.  Her name is Amelia Andersdotter.

Interestingly, the conference was free and open to all: all those, of course, who could be in Brussels for three days in early September.  Registration was limited to 450 attendees, thereby excluding the other 6,999,999,550 for whom attendance was impossible for one reason or another.  It was no surprise therefore to find that the majority of attendees were from Brussels itself (surely the bureaucratic capital of the world) and furthermore, that at least 30% of the attendees were invited speakers.  The majority of these were representatives of the EU in one form or another, CEOs or owners of IT companies.  For decency’s sake, a few representatives of the social sciences were invited:  amongst these, Philippe Quéau, Representative of UNESCO to the Maghreb; Ruben Nelson, Executive Director, Foresight Canada;  Lynn St Amour, President & CEO, The Internet Societyand Australian Genevieve Bell, Director, Interactions and experience research, Intel Labs.   For the post part, the attitude that became evident during the conference was epitomised by a quotation from Wired which Angela Hariche of the OECD offered:

Google‘s founding philosophy is that we don’t know why this page is better than that one: If the statistics of incoming links say it is, that’s good enough.  No semantic or causal analysis is required. Wired 2008

Unfortunately, I missed the opening evening, and so cannot comment on that.  The winner of an international children’s drawing competition was announced, in which children from several countries (a strange selection of these…) were asked to depict the internet of the future.  For the most part, the children showed that they are as human as the rest of us: they are unable to predict the future but rather, at best, extrapolate from and exaggerate characteristics of the present.  One picture was, in particular, quite alarming: a person which his back to us is placed in front of a screen which shows a female characteri behind a desk.  She is surrounded by symbols of commercial concerns: FaceBook, Twitter, MSN.  The enquirer is clearly cast as subsidiary and trivial, a supplicant at the altar of technology, in need of its blessing and, at the same time, a consumer of ICT and its products.

The presentations  from the conference are downloadable from the link mentioned above, as mentioned, as so they are not duplicated here.  Please read them as you may well disagree with what I have to say here, which constitutes my impressions and opinions only.  Overall, it was hard to determine the purpose of the conference.  I was labouring under the delusion that it was a forum for discussion; a place where those who had studied the issue: the intersection between ICTs and society.  Sociologists considering social change, futurologists, and perhaps developers of advanced technologies discussion their design and use processes in order to bring about the social ‘development’ and ‘progress’ of society.  Was this the place to start piecing together the many bits of the complex mosaic so that a clear image of the future and how to achieve it would emerge?  But rather than identifying and dealing with the challenges that we are currently facing, I came away with quite different impressions.

The mindset of the majority of the speakers, participants and attendees seemed to be still strongly located in an industrialist, late capitalist/consumerits, modernist or ‘scientific’ world view.  Either they are unaware of, or do not wish to recognise, that different models exist and may perhaps be more useful, given the theme of the conference.  It seemed as if the speakers were invited particularly in order to convince the policy-makers in the Brussels bureaucracy what budgets they should consider for the issues they identified: issues that largely explored what developments their companies could undertake and, furthermore, that their companies (or committees) would be able to meet the challenges of the contemporary world successfully, as they had already created and could deliver solutions.

No magic wand was evident.

Perhaps (and caveat: I am cynical) the devout wish of the organisers and participants (for the most part) was to give the illusion of providng an open public and transparent platform at which all interested parties could express their views, debate and reach consensus, although the real (obscured?) intent was to ensure the continued funding of ICT projects in the EU.  The use of public monies for such purposes was not questioned, in spite of the present economic problems of the world, and particularly the Eurozone.  In other words, ‘problems’ were viewed selectively and not holistically.

The list of the ‘problems’ with which ‘society’ is now confronted was chanted as a liturgy by nearly every speaker: climate change, the financial crisis and political confusion, amongst them.  Of course, the solution – or the keys to paradise to continue the metaphor – is ICTs, particularly as conceived and executed by the interested parties.  ‘Research’ appeared to refer to the development of new technologies, and it was an outcome devoutly to be wished that the EC would supply a budget robust enough to support such ‘research’.  Strangely – to me, anyway – problems such as unemployment and joblessness, poverty, illiteracy and ignorance, and even education (no, not even elearning) were not mentioned.

Nor were solutions to specific problems offered, except for it being suggested that a more interactive, participative democracy may be possible using the internet.   This was particularly ironic for me, because as a member of the LinkedIn Paradiso Group, I have made a couple of comments in the discussion surrounding the event, only to discover that not only have they all be deleted, but I have been expelled from the group!  While I could have guessed that the organisers may feel omnipotence as they are, after all, setting out to change the world, I did believe that open discussion was a pretty important part of contemporary and future life, never mind paradise or other utopias.

Another element of confusion was the geographic focus.  It appeared as if there would be an emphasis on Europe, but alas, here too I was mistaken, confusing ‘geographic’ focus for ‘economic’ focus.  There were representatives from the United States, China and India.  And the mobile phone situation in Mali was discussed, if only to illustrate how it was possible (although I am sure seldom exercised) to access the internet from an old mobile phone.  My experiences in Africa, having spent the best part of 4 decades there, suggest that few people use mobile phones for internet access, and even fewer have smartphones of any kind.  And the internet is far from easily available or cheap.  And there are questions of literacy etc but I’ll leave it at that for the moment.

It’s all very well talking about how ICTs change our lives (in middle-class, affluent, well-resourced populations), as Neelie Kroes did in her opening address, but without being specific, and looking at both the good and bad, such statements are less than meaningless.  It’s not the ICTs, Neelie, it’s what people do with them.  And what do they do with them?  They share ideas (information) across time and space.  Quickly.  And that’s about it.  And it’s not even this that is so very important:  what is most important of all is what people do with those ideas, how they know which ones are useful, which they can trust to make decisions and to act upon, which ideas will help them – in the long run – achieve happiness, act in sustainable ways, or whatever else the current objectives of humans happens to be, as varied and diverse as they (and which include making a profit, controlling people, ensuring safety or whatever).

There were some speakers that hinted that a new way of thinking about the world – and in fact, just thinking, as a new experience – was now required, and I must agree.  Sustainability, well-being and happiness:  can it be that these same people really desire these ends?  Carlo Sessa, President of ISIS, Italy, coordinator of the PASHMINA project and member of the Global Europe 2030-2050 expert group, spoke towards these ends, and his comments were very interesting.  But how may they achieved against the hegemonic backdrop of vested interests and profiteering?