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SIMULATING DEMOCRACY CAN BE A VIRTUAL BREEZE


Solomon

Few

media eyebrows went up when the World Bank recently canceled a global meeting

set for Barcelona in late June — and shifted it to the Internet. Thousands of

street demonstrators would have been in Spain’s big northeastern port city to

confront the conference. Cyberspace promises to be a much more serene location.

The

World Bank is eager to portray its decision as magnanimous, sparing Barcelona

the sort of upheaval that has struck Seattle, Prague, Quebec City and other

urban hosts of international economic summits. "A conference on poverty

reduction should take place in a peaceful atmosphere free from heckling,

violence and intimidation," says a World Bank official, adding that "it is time

to take a stand against this kind of threat to free expression."

A

senior adviser to the huge lending institution offered this explanation: "We

decided that you can’t have a meeting of ideas behind a cordon of police

officers." Presumably, the meeting of ideas will flourish behind a cordon of

passwords, bytes and pixels.

If

hackers can be kept at bay, the few hundred participants in the Annual Bank

Conference on Development Economics will be able to conduct a lovely forum over

the Internet. The video conferencing system is likely to be state-of-the-art,

making possible a modern and bloodless way to avoid uninvited perspectives.

The

World Bank’s retreat behind virtual walls may fulfill its goal of keeping the

riffraff away, with online discourse going smoothly, but vital issues remain —

such as policies that undercut essential government services in poor countries,

while promoting privatization and user fees for access to health care and

education.

"The

objectives of the World Bank with this failed conference were simply an

image-washing operation," said a statement from a Barcelona-based campaign that

had worked on planning for the demonstrations. Now, the World Bank is depicting

itself as the injured party.

Protest organizers are derisive about the Bank’s media spin: "The

representatives of the globalized capitalism feel threatened by the popular

movements against globalization. They, who meet in towers surrounded by walls

and soldiers in order to stay apart from the people whom they oppress, wish to

appear as victims. They, who have at their disposal the resources of the planet,

complain that those who have nothing wanted to have their voice heard."

The

World Bank’s gambit of seeking refuge in cyberspace should be a wake-up call to

activists who dream that websites and email are paradigm-shattering tools of the

people. Some who take it for granted that "the revolution will not be televised"

seem to hope that their revolution will be digitized.

But

there’s nothing inherently democratizing about the Internet. In fact, it has

developed into a prodigious conduit of political and cultural propaganda,

distributed via centrally edited mega-networks. America Online has 27 million

subscribers, the New Internationalist magazine noted recently. "They spend an

incredible 84 percent of their Internet time on AOL alone, which provides a

regulated leisure and shopping environment dominated by in-house brands — from

Time magazine to Madonna’s latest album."

At

the same time that creative advocates for social change are routinely putting

the Internet to great use, powerful elite bodies like the World Bank are touting

online innovations as democratic models — while striving to elude the reach of

progressive grassroots activism.

If,

in 1968, the Democratic National Convention had been held in cyberspace instead

of in Chicago, on what streets would the antiwar protests have converged? If, on

Inauguration Day this year, the swearing-in ceremony for George W. Bush had

taken place virtually rather than at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where would

people have gathered to hold up their signs saying "Hail to the Thief"?

Top

officials of the World Bank are onto something. In a managerial world,

disruption must be kept to an absolute minimum. If global corporatization is to

achieve its transnational potential, the discourse among power brokers and their

favorite thinkers can happen everywhere at once — and nowhere in particular.

Let the troublemakers try to interfere by doing civil disobedience in

cyberspace!

In

any struggle that concentrates on a battlefield of high-tech communications, the

long-term advantages are heavily weighted toward institutions with billions of

dollars behind them. Whatever our hopes, no technology can make up for a lack of

democracy.

_________

Norman Solomon’s latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His

syndicated column focuses on media and politics.

 

 

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