Jun 13, 2000
The name 'Seattle' in this year at least symbolizes the campaign to ensure that the ideals of social justice and democracy are not swept aside in the ongoing rush to globalism.
Even proponents of globalism - such as myself - hesitate when the world-wide networking of markets and societies leaves a trail of poverty and repression in its wake.
Moving forward should not mean a disregard for environmental standards, a disregard for the safety and health of workers, or a disregard for democratically elected civic governments.
That said, the Seattle Statement, written by the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility at a recent conference in that city, represents noble ambitions but unfortunately poor execution.
Here is the statement:
- The world is becoming "globalized" and communications technology is an important part of that process.
- The human race is faced with a multitude of major problems that are receiving inadequate attention.
- Civic society throughout the world has enormous -- insufficiently tapped -- resources including creativity, compassion, intelligence, dedication which can help address these problems.
- At the same time civic society is undervalued and threatened.
- Information and communication technology offers enormous potential for civic society for education, health, arts & culture, social services, social activism, deliberation, agenda setting, discussion, and democratic governance.
- Active, informed citizen participation is the key to shaping the network society. A new "Public Sphere" is required.
The document is signed by three dozen computer and internet professionals and, of course, a campaign is on to attract more signatures.
As written, the document will not draw my signature. Not because I don't support the ideals, but rather, because such a sloppily written document should not stand as a manifesto for any association or organization.
Let me take it point by point:
1. The world is becoming "globalized" and communications technology is an important part of that process.
Strictly speaking, the world has always been "globalized" - it wouldn't be a world otherwise. What the authors mean is that human society is becoming globalized - or more accurately, that we are on the threshold of developing a global society.
This point, reworded, is a statement of fact, and as such uncontroversial. We are forming a global society, and we are doing so because communications technology makes it possible, if not inevitable.
2. The human race is faced with a multitude of major problems that are receiving inadequate attention.
Scientists - even computer scientists - should know that humanity as a whole is not a race, it is a species. A "race" is a more or less arbitrary subdivision of a species.
And like all species on the planet, humanity faces a multitude of problems. Individually, we are each one of us faced with the fact that we will die some time in the future. Collectively, we resist that trend, with ineffective results thus far, but with some hope and promise of extending our lifespan.
Given that all of human endeavour is dedicated toward fostering and forwarding our lives, it thus seems ridiculous to say that the problems facing humanity are receiving inadequate attention.
The authors probably mean to point to specific problems, such as those facing the environment or those surrounding working conditions in developing nations. And the authors are probably arguing that we should address those specific problems instead of focusing on liberal trade laws or global standards for commerce.
In this the authors have a point. They want to say that our global agenda ought to focus on much more than mere commerce. They want to say that a global society should respect the environment and place a value on human life and dignity.
In other words, they are saying that we should work globally to address non-economic issues as diligently as we work globally to address economic issues.
3. Civic society throughout the world has enormous -- insufficiently tapped -- resources including creativity, compassion, intelligence, dedication which can help address these problems.
It would have been helpful had the authors defined "civic society" - to me "civic society" means City Council, and believe me, we do not want City Council addressing cat bylaws, much less global problems.
Probably what the authors mean is that segment of society which would be deemed "non-productive" by global capitalists: our lives as they exist outside the workplace when we are engaged in pursuits other than making money.
Some of us, when we are not working, divert ourselves through the pursuits of darts, camping, excessive drinking, trivia and, occasionally, writing software. Others, however, devote themselves to community building, charity work, political activity, and other socially good activities.
Typically such activity is marginalized because it exists outside the main corridors of power. Community leagues may exert a powerful voice in a city, but City Council and its administration, despite their flaws, actually run the civic corporation, because that's what they are paid to do and that is their area of (putative) expertise.
That is ever and as it should be, and quite frankly, we do not want amateur hobbyists running civic affairs. But at the same time, the authors correctly point out that there is a wealth of talent and expertise willingly offered by the populace in the interests of better civic government and administration, and that this offering should not be refused. Wise city administrators include the efforts - especially the organized efforts - of their citizenry in the formulation of civic policy.
As holds true at the civic level, also holds true at the global level. As we move toward a global society we can see outside the corridors of government and commerce any number of citizens, organized and disorganized, willing to help foster and nurture this fledgling civic state.
From time to time, even, such masses of volunteers are recognized for their efforts, as when well coordinated and properly applied, they play a significant role in improving the lot of millions. The International Red Cross, for example, or Doctors Without Borders have both been awarded the Nobel Prize for their dedication to civil goals on a global level.
If we look at the internet itself, we see one of the most massive assemblage of volunteer labour in a common cause ever in the history of society. True, much of the work in developing and designing our global communications system was performed at the behest of - and in the pay of - governments and corporations. But also noteworthy are the contributions of thousands, even millions, of volunteers who created online resources, built free-nets, sat on standards bodies, and otherwise promoted the development of this wonderful technology.
A wise global government would not restrict itself to the input - and influence - of those working on government or corporate payrolls. Agencies responsible for regulating and promoting the many areas of global culture - everything from trade agreements to workplace standards to labour codes - would do well to involve the global equivalent of community groups.
Or to put it in a nutshell: A global government should include representation from non-economic sectors of society.
4. At the same time civic society is undervalued and threatened.
Civic society - defined as the non-economic component of society - is not undervalued and certainly not threatened.
Individuals throughout society value most those enterprises they would undertake on a volunteer basis. Ask any suburban father which is more important to him: his nine o'clock sales meeting, or his son's soccer game. People who select the former are widely regarded as dysfunctional.
That said, the bodies which are determining the nature and structure of global society - bodies such as the World Trade Organization or the International Monetary Fund - function largely in a vacuum, largely without input from the non-economic sectors of society.
And it is this non-involvement which is the real issue. For even were civic society highly valued (as I argue it is), its non-involvement in world government should be a concern.
For governments, as distinct from corporations, often make non-economic decisions. They spend money on infrastructure, for example, where there is no direct profit to be had. They fund civic agencies, such as police and fire protection, which do not offer a substantial return on investment.
They do this because the goods of society are not all economic goods; they do not result in short term economic gain, if any gain at all. The City of Winnipeg will never recover the millions of dollars it spend on its floodway, but as the city fathers of Grand Forks - their downtown under water and burned into a scorched hulk - such investments are necessary for the common good.
Bodies such as the IMF and the WTO, while they do involve some government representation, are responding increasingly to corporate concerns. They answer, if they answer to anything at all, solely to the profit-oriented sector of society. As such, there is a danger that they, just like the Grand Forks city council, may engage in short term and potentially harmful planning.
The members of the WTO are not concerned about long term environmental hazards because they are responding to the short term demands of shareholders and investors. They are not concerned about working conditions because the social instabilities in a far-away society do not impact their lives.
At some level, the government of world trade and commerce requires input from the non-economic sector. Either corporations themselves must become more democratic, or the world bodies on which they sit must become more democratic. There needs to be a way for a father to put his son's soccer game on the agenda.
Information and communication technology offers enormous potential for civic society for education, health, arts & culture, social services, social activism, deliberation, agenda setting, discussion, and democratic governance.
What they mean is that information technology enables a global democracy as well as a global culture.
Information technology enables global communication, which means that people from around the world can participate on decision making bodies.
Or to put the same point another way around: the only barriers to global democracy are political, not technological. There is no "seat at the table" for non-economic participants. 5. Active, informed citizen participation is the key to shaping the network society. A new "Public Sphere" is required.
By "the network society" the authors probably mean the "global society" to which they earlier alluded. Consistent terminology is the key to a successful manifesto.
The authors are arguing, in a roundabout way, that there ought to be a forum in which non-economic issues may be discussed, a forum which has a voice on world bodies and a real impact on the resulting shape of global society.
They are arguing, essentially, for a global democracy. In this I agree with them.
Now indeed there are many sectors of society who rightly fear a world government, especially if that world government combines the efficiency of the United Nations with the values of the many tin-pot dictators which make up its membership.
But gradually, the member nations of the U.N. are embracing democracy, and gradually, world opinion is moving toward the establishment of certain rights and freedoms for all citizens of the earth.
It may now be some 42 years after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but there is a feeling worldwide that we may be moving toward some instantiation of that document's aims and ideals.
A world government which does not practice jack-boot democracy and Byzantine efficiency is not something to be feared. A world government dedicated to fostering the rights and interests of all citizens should be embraced.
There needs to be a balance between the economic and non-economic sectors of society. Both are needed for a harmonious and prosperous future, but either taken to extremes is injurious to people and society as a whole.
And with the economic sectors of society rushing toward globalization, the non-economic sectors of society are hard pressed to match pace. A company which can shift its operations from nation to nation with ease and fluidity can afford to mock - or even dictate - the laws of nations powerless to act against it.
While people argue that free trade improves the lives and lot of all it touches - which is to a large degree true - unregulated, it also fosters a "race to the bottom" where nations and societies abandon their social responsibilities in an effort to attract these wayward travelers.
Such a race could never actually reach the bottom worldwide - as Henry Ford said, people need to be able to afford the products of commerce - it nonetheless has the potential to force some parts of the world (and particularly those less democratic parts, such as China and Indonesia) deeper into despair.
A healthy society requires that the needs of all its citizens - not merely its most wealthy and powerful - be heard. We understand already that societies moved only by economic interests cannot function. This is why - at the national level, at least - we are moving toward democracy.
We should use today's information technology to foster the development of a global democracy to work alongside the emerging global economy.
Thus, the Seattle Statement, Revised:
- Communications technology is fostering the development of a global society.
- we should work globally to address non-economic issues, such as those addressing environmental and social concerns, as diligently as we work globally to address economic issues.
- A global government should included representation from non-economic sectors of society.
- To accomplish this, either corporations themselves must become more democratic, or the world bodies on which they sit must become more democratic.
- Information technology enables a global democracy as well as a global culture.
- We should use today's information technology to foster the development of a global democracy to work alongside the emerging global economy.