Winter-Spring 2002

Buenos Aires, Montreal, and Seattle: Civic Unrest and Civic Intelligence
by Doug Schuler

In December 2001, 550 people from South America and around the world gathered in Buenos Aires, Argentina for the 2nd Global Congress on Community Networks to discuss their projects and their dreams for equitable access to communication. Argentina's economic situation has been deteriorating for years: the government was now paying wages in scrip; withdrawals from saving accounts were severely limited; pensioners were receiving reduced benefits. Outside of the conference hotel, on the streets, the financial problems that had been festering for years were rapidly mutating into a crisis that was visible even to a casual visitor. There were long unhappy lines at all the banks and cash machines and noisy street demonstrations were becoming commonplace. And just days after we had all returned to our homes, riots and looting broke out all over Argentina, and a brutal response by the police resulted in nearly 30 deaths. In the ensuing turmoil Argentina had five presidents in a rocky twelve day period, the national ministry of finance was set ablaze, grocery stores ransacked, and the congress invaded. The people blame corrupt and uncaring politicians, privatization of state assets, and a globalized economy which has no compassion. As of mid-January, the situation is still unresolved and serious. Some of the more pessimistic predictions include fragmentation of the country, a return to fascism, or a civil war.

Shrine at Plaze de Mayo
Shrine at Plaza de Mayo, December, 2001 (from

In the background, but not totally absent, is the gloomy shadow of Argentina's "Dirty War" in which a rightwing junta terrorized the country between 1976 and 1983, killing some 10,000 to 30,000 people (the "disappeared"). During a break in the conference discussions I visited the Plaza de Mayo, adjacent to the presidential offices, where the mothers of the "disappeared" (Asociaciòn Madres de Plaza de Mayo) have been holding vigils for over 20 years. By lucky coincidence, an anniversary event was taking place in the plaza. In Argentina's late spring warmth (in contrast to Seattle's cold and rainy fall that I had just left) I unexpectedly came across the beautiful and powerful – and immensely moving – shrine to the disappeared which had been erected on the plaza. An immense rectangular structure some forty feet tall was covered on all four sides by photos of women and men, mostly young, who had been deemed dangerous enough by the military to be tortured and executed. The stark memorial and the ongoing efforts of the mothers and their allies help keep alive the memory of the brutal repression in Argentina while serving as a reminder that dissident voices are at risk to varying degrees outside of Argentina as well as within. The memorial also demonstrates the important lesson that information assumes many shapes, from coldly digital statistics to the arresting, palpable, public, and human tribute that the Madres had erected.

Police Chasing Women
Argentine demonstrators and police (from

Against the background of globalized economic forces, government corruption, incompetence and arrogance, and a frustrated and volatile mass of people caught up in systems that they feel powerless to confront, community communication activists like ourselves need to ask – and attempt to answer – the difficult questions of our reformist objectives: Do our civic efforts add up? Do they help isolated individuals one at a time or can they have the power to ultimately transform society into one that is more humane? Are today's institutions so entrenched, humankind's predilections so hardwired that any alternative is doomed and any person who indulges in alternative thinking is naive? Or are we merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?

My presentation on "civic intelligence" was intended to contextualize the work of the delegates and help foster a common agenda. Similarly, the goals of the congress were to give strength and coherence to the community networking / telecenter-CTC movement worldwide. The work will continue on in Montreal in the fall of 2002. They hope, beyond that, to help influence the United Nations with its Information Society summit scheduled for 2003 in Geneva. The Public Sphere Project of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) is also working in this area as are thousands of other groups around the world.

The Public Sphere Project in conjunction with the National Communication Association's Task Force on the Digital Divide is striving to help move this discussion forward in two ways. The first is by convening an international symposium May 16-19, 2002 in Seattle on the topic of "Shaping the Network Society". This symposium will bring together researchers and activists, educators and policy-makers, journalists and artists, and everybody in between, for face-to-face discussion and community building.

The second is an ambitious complementary effort to develop a "knowledge base" that reflects our collective, global wisdom of our community. We are attempting to build a foundation that gives our movement strength, that inspires us and instructs us, that binds and bridges communities, both local and global. To accomplish this we have been soliciting "patterns" via a pattern management system on the web. Patterns are structured chunks of information that contain a problem statement, a proposed solution to the problem, a context where the pattern can be used, and a discussion. The idea of this sort of structured pattern is borrowed from Christopher Alexander, an architect, now retired, from the University of California, Berkeley, who used it in his immensely popular book, A Pattern Language, co-authored with colleagues, which contains 253 patterns for the design and construction of human life-affirming habitations. We are attempting to do the same thing in the communication realm.

Over 150 "patterns" have now been proposed by communication researchers and activists from twenty countries, and their scope thus far is breathtaking. One pattern addresses the role of memory and responsibility as symbolized by the Madres shrine. Other themes include: tools and strategies for community technology centers, community networks, organizations, towns, digital cities, and world summits; universal voice mail, media activism, and new technologies; open source community software, search engines, classification systems and cultural databases; resources for health, education, social change, and anti-poverty work; policy work around privacy, civil liberties, and combating the increasing inequality that new technologies may help usher in.

We welcome everybody who is interested in the continuing democratization of information and communication to come to the symposium in Seattle. The broader "pattern language" that we're developing will reflect our values and ideas while, hopefully, inspiring others to join this struggle as well. We invite you to view the patterns that are currently under consideration and to propose new ones. In any work for social justice, information and communication will play some part. We are now defining that crucial part. Civic intelligence can make civil unrest unnecessary – at least that is our hope.

Doug Schuler is the director of CPSR's Public Sphere Project and coordinator of the May "Shaping the Network Society" conference in Seattle in May.

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