King WSIS & I

My adult life growing up was spent in an international environment working for an organization whose head honcho believed in the right to communicate and even hoped that this right might be included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Tim Berners-Lee had launched his big dream just down the road. It was a vibrant time of believing that the answers to all our problems lay in Internet technology. Governments were already on board but were, and still are, basically luddites, so enter the companies. Buzzwords were “progress”, “development”; buzz whispers, “Big Bucks”. Developing countries were encouraged to leapfrog, but no-one was there to catch them when they fell.

At the first preparatory meeting for the first WSIS in Geneva 13 years ago, I put on my civil society badge and asked where the artists and writers were? Civil society back then was excluded from meetings, not always directly, but barriers were certainly not easily removed. We were connecting the world. The arts were very low, if at all, on any agenda.

On the eve of the Tunis Summit in 2005 I was fortunate to meet Sihem Bensedrine who told me how Tunisia was using Internet technology. But the WSIS Summit went ahead there. And then came the Arab Spring. Things got hot for governments and companies. Privacy issues once taken for granted were thrown to the wind and the buzzword became “cyber-security”. Civil society spoke up and wanted an in. Another conundrum for governments and business.

Then came WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, Ed Snowden. You can read all about it on the net, if you dare. Just don’t forget to slip on your Google condom.

Today, WSIS is still at it, with even some discussions open on UN web TV. But it’s a different world now with governments leaning precariously to the right, forgetting the lessons of history and why a UN was created at all. The buzzword now is “terrorism” with governments playing into the hands of a new pretender for world dominance. Crying “wolf” has taken on a whole new meaning as politicians pump the sales value of fear for all it’s worth.

And the arts in all this? Are they the last remnants of humanity in this burgeoning Orwellian world? It would seem so. Humanity, or rather social intelligence, is a dangerous thing, a thorn in the side of those wishing to control and censor while paying lip service to promises made and treaties signed.

The arts may well be the last frontier that still belongs to you and to me.

“In any society, the artist has a responsibility. His effectiveness is certainly limited and a painter or writer cannot change the world. But they can keep an essential margin of non-conformity alive. Thanks to them the powerful can never affirm that everyone agrees with their acts. That small difference is important.” – Luis Bunuel