Speaker by Various Artists

Netizens of the world unite

by Richard Neville

Last week I spoke at the “Gala Dinner” hosted by the Australian Internet Industry Association at Sydney’s Luna Park. The speech followed an address given by the Federal Minister of Communications, IT and the Arts, Daryl Williams, QC, who recently took over from his predecessor, Les Patterson. Previously Daryl had been the Attorney General, where he presided over the shrinking of our civil liberties and never once uttered a squeak of protest about the unlawful jailing of two Australians in Camp X-Ray.

The Vote of Thanks was given by Ziggy Switkowski, the CEO of Telstra, who spent his mike time schmoozing the Minister and praising his firm to the hilt. The theme of last night’s event was “ENGAGE!” This morning, as I try to file this report, Telstra Big Pond has DISENGAGED. Without any warning to customers, it is “upgrading”, according to a recorded message. To converse with a live human about the problem is out of the question. Last night’s organisers wanted a few words on the “Future of Online Democracy”. This is what they got:

Last month I left Australia on a hunch, triggered by a report I saw on the web, and flew off to Bombay with one of my daughters. At the same time, an old friend from Seattle, David, flew to Sydney and stayed as a guest in the house I share with my wife, Julie, a writer of excellent repute. One night over a bottle of wine at the kitchen table, David looked deep into the eyes of my wife and, as she was later to confess, he asked her a question no-one had ever asked her before: “Hey, have you ever Googled yourself?”

Julie was embarrassed by this question and yet…. at the same time, she was excited. What could it mean? By no means a tech head, she had finally started to feel at ease with email, but was yet to set out for the wilder shores of the web.

Who’s mousing around with my wife?
David moved beside her, gently took her hand and pressed it firmly onto his expectant mouse. Some time later my wife returned from the journey a changed woman, realising that her identity was no longer confined to a single location … or nation, or category. She had become postmodern woman. Her writings, her name, her reputation, she realised, all floated around in cyberspace, unbounded. Her sense of self had suddenly become globalised. She was now a citizen of the net.

And all us of here tonight, are we too citizens of the net? Sure we are. But what kind of citizens? Are we passive… and inert, part of a vast sleepwalking target market, or are we active, globalised and engaged?

Let’s conduct a little test:

The reason I flew off to Bombay at short notice and at some cost, was to attend what turned out to be one of the most amazing events of my life. It was like a world music Woodstock without the mud, and the Nimbin Aquarius Festival without the pot. It was also like a huge anti-war moratorium, as well as corporate conference and a hint of a UN plenary session all rolled into one. On a video hook-up, the crowd was welcomed by Nelson Mandela, and … what a crowd! The event attracted over 100,000 people from 132 nations, including reps from 2,400 NGO’s …. and the delegates included some of the world’s leading thinkers, writers, musicians, social reformers, the odd Nobel Prize winner and big time politician, as well as untouchables, vegetarians and around 50 Australians.

This vast hothouse of dissent and social justice dreaming hit the headlines in the Times of India, and sparked debates on Asian TV. Let’s conduct a little test. How many of you here have ever heard of the World Social Forum?. Let’s see a show of hands. (In an audience of 400, about a dozen hands are raised.)

The Instant World Affairs Knowledge Test
How many of you have heard of another event , which took place at the same time - the World Economic Forum at Davos? (A 90% show of hands).

Even though this event attracts less of a crowd and fewer original thinkers and social reformers, your raised hands are a sign of the times. It confirms the triumph of economic man, homo economistus, who now stands proud on top of the rubble of a world at war, a world reeling from social injustice and one in the throes of an eco calamity.

In the West, the World Economic Forum is front-page news, day after day, while the World Social Forum is barely a footnote. Is this Australia in the 21st century - so multicultural in the food halls, so myopic in its global vision?

But wait – this is not a discussion about the sensibility of Australians as a whole, as a people. It is about the kind of sensibility that is being reflected back to us from our mainstream media, from our current political leadership. (Don’t worry Daryl, I won’t get started on you…)

Out in the big wide world, there’s actually something shifting in the wind, a new mood pushing at the edge of our awareness. What could it be?

Why I do not despair
Next time you’re on the net, try Googling the World Economic Forum – you’ll get almost four and a half million hits. Impressive, huh? Then try Googling the World Social Forum. What do you reckon? Any guesses? (Somebody shouts, “Two”). Wrong – in less that a second you’ll come up with about five and a half million hits – that is, outscoring the Davos event by more than a million.

This is why I do not despair about the state of the world, despite the calibre of the people who are now ruling it. (Relax, Daryl …) At the grass roots level, most people seem to realise that it is not just an economy we actually live in, but a society.
So how come the global sample of Social Forum awareness is so much out of kilter with the awareness of it in this group? A minute ago you were all riding high, imaging yourself to be worldly wise and informed citizens served well by your media – but no – a huge event of global significance passed you by, glued as you are to the information systems controlled by homo economistus, our non diverse and highly homogenised corporate media.

Laughing all the way to internet kiosks
Most of us live inside our own cultural ghettos, myself included, and we’re often not even aware of the fact. The great gift of the web for the citizens of the world, as well as a considerable number of the poor who manage to find their way to internet kiosks, is that millions of people now have the opportunity to break out of their information prisons, to burst their bleak bubbles of bias, conformity and illusion, to confront and interact with an array of alternative viewpoints, to defy the editors, the subs, the media magnates …. to enter a rich, wild , uncharted territory, that can help us act locally and engage globally.

The only role Government needs to play to preserve the net’s freedoms is to support the provision of ubiquitous broadband for all and sundry as quick as possible.

Future threats and challenges which will continue to cause endless arguments, such as spam, porno, hackers, privacy, viruses, copyright and the free software movement. Sometimes the concerns are justified, at other times they are exaggerated, often by fat cat operators whose history of exploitive practices is coming back to haunt them.

The rush to share music files is not just about price, it’s about the desire for individuals to express their own taste, to customise their own playlist and to resist the stale paradigm of one package suits all.

You can’t go surfing in Singapore
Some governments are desperately trying to keep the lid on the net. I hear that downloading an MP3 music file in Singapore will land you in court with a $10,000 fine. A few weeks ago at the Cathay Pacific airport lounge in Hong Kong, my daughter logged onto hotmail. Every time she started to enter a swear word, the text turned into gobbledygook. She tried every filthy phrase she knew, and gave up – fuming: “I mean, Dad, how can I write to my friends without swearing”? Actually, I was thrilled at this effort to extend her vocabulary, and tonight I would like to express my gratitude to Government of Beijing.

When broadband is ubiquitous and wireless is the norm, the net will become a dangerous placed for politicians, I’m happy to say.

Even with the humble phone-line connection, the small mountain town of Blackheath, NSW used the net to mount a public protest big enough to rescue its famed swimming pool from the dark intentions of the local council.

And what about Korea? In December 02, the country’s national elections transformed the entire political landscape overnight, owing to the advent of webocracy .

Keep in mind that over 70% of homes in South Korea possess broadband, compared with less than 5 per cent here. Over 10% of economic activity is related to IT - one of the highest levels in the world. Young people get just about all their information from the web, according to the New York Times, not even bothering with TV. They just download the programs.

The Beleaguered Bloggers of Baghdad
The voice of this New Korea is the web based Ohmy News, arguably the world's most domestically powerful news site. It was online organising that swept Korea’s new president into power, Mr Roh - who is apparently the world's first political leader to comprehend HTML coding. (How about you, Daryl?).

In South Korea, the citizens of the net are credited with “jolting the country into switching from conservative to liberal, from gerontocracy to youth culture and from staunchly pro-American to a being deeply ambivalent ally - all seemingly overnight. (New York Times, March 6, 2003). Welcome to Webocracy.

Since launching my own modest and totally uninfluential website two and a half years ago, one of the things I’ve discovered about the relationship between the old media and the internet, is the number of major stories that break online long before they ever pop up in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, or our TV news.

Well over a year ago it was obvious to any netizen – if not to Howard, Bush and Blair - that many of the claims about Iraq’s arsenals were a load of hogwash. It was circulated on the web over a year ago that the documents provided to the UN by the United States suggesting that the African country of Niger sold uranium to Iraq had been faked. Who by? It will probably be the web which reveals the culprit.

Talking of uranium, it was also the web that first displayed the documents revealing that when the Swiss technology giant ABB won a deal to supply North Korea with two nuclear power plants, one of its board members was none other than Donald Rumsfeld. In the year 2000, ABB reportedly netted $200 million from its contract with North Korea.

Today, the most up top date and insightful reports from Iraq come not from mainstream media, but from the citizen bloggers of that beleaguered land. If you haven’t seen it, check out Baghdad Burning. It adds an element to the web which is often lacking – humanity, grace and passion.

A story too shocking to tell over dinner
The most exciting aspect about engaging the world through the net, is to enter a space of creative collaboration. Here’s my final example:

At the end of last March, during the early stages of Operation Enduring Freedom, a bomb exploded in Shua’le, a poor, Shia Muslim suburb of Baghdad. The blast killed 62 residents and maimed many more, most of them women and children. The journalist, Robert Fisk, rushed to the site and found the scenes of pain and suffering to be among the most appalling he had ever witnessed. Fisk visited a two-year-old girl, Saida Jaffar, who lay in a dilapidated hospital swaddled in bandages, a tube into her nose, another into her stomach. “All I could see of her”, he wrote, “was her forehead, two small eyes and a chin. Beside her, blood and flies covered a heap of old bandages and swabs”.

The Pentagon maintained that the blast must have been caused by Iraqi anti aircraft fire, while the locals said they saw an American plane overhead and a sliver of silver. Fisk managed to get his hands on a smoldering fragment of the bomb, which displayed a 12 digit serial number, as well as another number, ending 96214. Fisk published these codes in his UK newspaper, The Independent, available Online. Hours later, the citizens of the net had sourced this missile to a plant in McKinney, Texas.

The bright lights of dark Gods
This plant is owned by the one of the world’s biggest arms suppliers, and a favourite of own Defence Force, Raytheon. I clicked on its homepage and found that Raytheon’s business goal is “to provide superior solutions for customers”. The superior carnage at Shua’le was apparently caused by a missile known in the trade as Harm, a High-Speed Anti-radiation Missile. It carries a warhead designed to explode into thousands of aluminium fragments that spare buildings and destroy humans – which is why Iraqi doctors reported such horrific injuries On its website, Raytheon’s stated major value is to, “Treat people with respect and dignity”.

In case you were wondering about the origin of the word Raytheon, it means “light of the Gods”. Sure … but what sort of Gods?

With another click of the mouse, I discovered that one week after the superior solution was dished out to the people of Shua’le, the then chairman and CEO of Raytheon, Daniel P Burnham was actually in Canberra, Australia, where he addressed the National Press Club. In a copy of the speech provided on Raytheon’s home page, Mr Burnham boasted that “even just a few years ago, the level of accuracy of Raytheon’s missiles, would have been considered pure fantasy”.

As far as I can ascertain, during the question time, not one member the Press Club audience was discourteous enough to ask the Chairman of Raytheon how he felt about the accuracy of missile 96214.

However, L and G, it is still not too late to engage the arms industry. Rayethon’s earnings for 2003 topped $US18 billion. It also turns out that its Chief Technology Officer, Terry Stevensen, will be appearing Canberra on Feb 24/25, to speak at the annual conference of the Australian Defence Magazine.

No doubt he will be promoting Raytheon’s new internet powered, Non-Line-of-Sight Launch System, also known as NetFires. This unleashes a product that possesses an all too human sounding personality. It’s known as LAM, which stands for a Loitering Attack Missile. Perhaps one of you media people here could get yourself to Canberra and ask the Technology Officer what proportion of Raytheon’s massive revenue has been earmarked for the survivors of the missile attack on Shua’le?

Long live the web, ladies and gentlemen, for providing the information for this speech. The revolution in online democracy is only just beginning.

This article was first published on Richard Neville's web site. It is reproduced by permission.