by Jack Kessler, email@example.com
with Selective and Partially - Annotated Lists of Resources, Online and Off-
Versions of the following have appeared online regularly, since 1992, as a feature of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which is distributed for free via email every month except August. Ejournal subscriptions may be obtained via email request to: firstname.lastname@example.org. The text contains a selection only: additional online digital information resources develop in France every week, on the Minitel and the Internet -- one can be sure only that there are more, not fewer, than what follows online in France now.
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by Jack Kessler, firstname.lastname@example.org
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One keen interest of the original American Library Association session for which "How to Digitize a Nation..." was prepared was "democracy". The question posed to the speakers was, "What are the varying means by which librarians and information planners can enhance the democratic potential of the new information technologies?"
From the French perspective, much might be said here about the political use of digital techniques in France now -- of the often - impressive W3 sites of political parties of every stripe, of "grass roots" online political campaigns conducted "via Minitel" and "via Internet", of greater participation from the provinces, of greater domination by the center, of rich people using fancy hardware and of poor people dialing in from public terminals in post offices -- but there are similar stories to be told elsewhere, in the US or in China or even as of this year (1998) in Mozambique.
And the "digital democracy" stories, told anywhere, never seem to be conclusive. Just as one appears to prove that digitization will be a force for "good", another proves just as definitely that it will be a force for "evil": Grameen Bank modems in the smallest Bangladeshi villages, but then dish antennas forcibly removed in Guangdong, political organizing of the unemployed via Minitel in Provence, but an impressive and distressingly - effective "Front National" extremist - right wing W3 site as well. "Digitization" can't seem to make up its mind whether to be "democratic" or not.
France is a difficult place in which to analyze "democracy" of any type. It is where much of the idea was invented, and the constant comparisons of anyone else's version to the "democracy" of the French, certainly over the last two centuries, make the ideas both too familiar and too complex to be analyzed easily in any entirely new context, such as that of "digitization". France, in its politics, is both too near and too far away: the legacies of Jefferson and Montesquieu too often make things appear similar which are different, and different which are similar.
I propose instead, then, to take an excursion even further, one which will highlight an important aspect of "digital democracy", as it is developing in France and elsewhere, but from a "foreign" situation literally on the other side of the world. It can provide a "phenomenon of the stranger": an oblique approach, to the complexities of "democracy" in a place like France or the US, which can highlight a single important aspect precisely because it is from a context so foreign and unfamiliar.
The Internet Society, very recently, took on Thailand. Digital information's global tidal wave has swamped Thai shores -- as it has all others -- and like everyone else the Thais are busy constructing channels and barriers, in desperate attempts to contain and control it. In the Thai case the chief concerns are pornography, civil unrest, their Buddhist religion, and their royal family: the Thais had drafted legislation protecting all four of these from the Internet, and the local branch of the Internet Society had endorsed the legislation.
But then the Internet Society -- a body nominally international but primarily US in composition and outlook -- firmly censured its Bangkok branch, citing the basic Society charter devoted to freedom of information. The Thai members retreated, protesting that they had seen the legislation only as a compromise less restrictive than other measures which had been proposed. The Society, however, was unrelenting, insisting that its charter commitment to freedom of information would brook no compromise. It threatened de - certification of its Thai branch. The Thais submitted, transferring involvement to their local ACM branch and withdrawing Internet Society endorsement of the Thailand legislation.
This same "censorship" scenario can be found cropping up elsewhere in Asia -- think of "Internet control and censorship" issues in Singapore and Malaysia, not to speak of Vietnam and North Korea and Burma / Myanmar or Cambodia / Kampuchea. Censorship, but also "competing values" issues, must be faced nearly everywhere, as one considers such issues in places like Chile, or Nicaragua, or Paraguay, Nigeria, Libya, Mozambique -- all now have Internet nodes -- or in France.
It is not, however, that such places do not believe in "freedom of information". All do. All have read Jefferson and Locke, and Rousseau and Madison and Montesquieu. Revolutionary leaders all over the world have been better able to quote French and US writers on civil liberties than any French or US citizen could -- from Gandhi to Mao to Ho Chi Minh. Most of the countries which they founded have constitutions patterned after if not taken directly from that of the very civil libertarian United States. Debates about whether such - and - such a country "really believes in" freedom of information are sterile, in the modern world: everyone does, nowadays everywhere.
But different peoples have different scales of values. "Freedom of information" and "democracy" are only two of many social values which are possible. When such values conflict, they must be prioritized.
So it is not that the Thais do not esteem "freedom of information", it is just that they place problems of "pornography, civil unrest, their Buddhist religion, and their royal family" higher, on their own local value - ranking. Someone in the US perhaps gladly would die for "freedom of information" rather than for "religion" or for any US "royal family" -- but to a Thai these priorities are reversed, Thais feeling deeply about their King and Queen and their Buddhism, and fervently but simply a little less so about more abstract freedoms such as civil liberties and democracy.
So "democracy" arguments generally are at cross - purposes overseas -- advocating "democracy" gets universal but meaningless agreement nowadays, nearly everywhere: in settled democracies such as those of the US and France, in the emergent "instant" democracies of Eastern Europe and Asia, and even in very un - democratic states everywhere. The question should be not so much whether "democracy" is valued -- everyone says they like democracy, now -- but where it is ranked, and what exactly people will sacrifice for it: that is a very different idea still in Thailand, or in Lyon, than it is on Leesburg Pike or along Stephens Creek Boulevard.
In a final essay, written just before his death last year, the Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin re - emphasized the distinction to which he had devoted his life's work: the difference between "relativism" and "pluralism" -- to him, relativism believes in nothing, allowing for all points of view, while pluralism believes in something, but still allows for as many differing points of view as possible. [BerlinI]
The Internet, and digital information generally, can be entirely American, representing an entirely American point of view, on things as mundane as its multilingual capacities and the structure of its domain name systems and meta - languages, or as broad and deep and complex as the freedoms and democracy of the people who develop and use it. Or the Internet, and digital information, can be pluralist, allowing for "as many differing points of view as possible".
To return to France, then -- by way of Bangkok and Oxford -- yes the French are using digitization in their political sphere, and of course they have a deep and complex understanding of the role of "democracy" in their politics.
But no, digitization is not leading inexorably to any particular form of "democracy" in France, any more than it is in Thailand: in both places the elites and the masses both increasingly are online -- in both places, as everywhere else, digital techniques are being employed by extremists as well as by the center, by the full spectrum of local political opinion on "democracy" as well as on other issues.
So "digitization per se" is not necessarily "good": there is at least as much possibility that it will be used to impose an Orwellian and Huxleyian totalitarian control, as that it will be used to promote any sort of French - style or US - style "democracy".
The real "democracy" question is not whether some "digitization magic wand" can promote it -- any more than "digitization" might cure all of the ills of education, or of national finance, as some have dreamed and even now are proposing -- but where it stands on the priorities list of any local national agenda. It stands fairly high in this regard in both the US and France, perhaps a little lower in Thailand, perhaps lower still in the many countries where things like "religion" or "security" or "starvation" take precedence.
So achieving democracy -- if it is to be achieved -- still is the messy, participatory, negotiation process which it took both the US and France each several hundred years to develop. The world certainly has come a long way, thanks particularly to both the US and France, at least in having settled upon a general definition of what "democracy" is -- this drawn largely from US and French authors.
But there are no further shortcuts, certainly not technological ones. The process of achieving democracy still is a task of convincing one's stubborn neighbors, and even more stubborn family, in New York as much as it is in Paris, and in Moscow and in Beijing: this takes patience and time, no matter how much "information" is available or what new tools are used -- for such a task technology offers no "quick fix".
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