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Towards a Sustainable Information Society: Deconstructing WSIS

Editor: Jan Servaes, Nico Carpentier
Publisher: Bristol, UK and Portland, OR: Intellect Books, 2006
Review Published: March 2007

 REVIEW 1: Arthur L. Morin
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Nico Carpentier

In their introduction to Towards a Sustainable Information Society: Deconstructing WSIS, co-editors Jan Servaes and Nico Carpentier point out that "broadcasting, telecommunication and information policies are now converging at a European and worldwide level, alongside technological and economic convergence" (6). The use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has helped give rise to (or is helping to give rise to) a knowledge or information society. As this book and its predecessor (Servaes, 2003) make clear, efforts to develop relevant regional (for example, EU) and global policies are already under way. Servaes and Carpentier write that "the transition to a fully sustainable IS [Information Society] requires one critical ingredient: collective positive action to shape it. The WSIS [World Summit on the Information Society] was an attempt to create such a moment at the global level" (8).

Servaes and Carpentier are interested in WSIS for two reasons: first, because of its involvement in attempts to formulate global policy; and second, as an analogue to the development/maintenance of a European Information Society. One could argue that the use of a multi-stakeholder approach in formulating policy would be the way to achieve meaningful voice, recognize cultural diversity, and accommodate all other legitimate groups and interests. This was the approach to which the WSIS ostensibly committed itself. The WSIS had two world summits: one in Geneva in 2003 and one in Tunis in 2005. Part if not all of the book was written before the 2005 summit. Servaes and Carpentier's edited volume indicates that there was some success regarding efforts to accommodate "civil society," but the overall sense of the book is one of dissatisfaction with both the process and the outcome of WSIS -- and with European-wide efforts to establish the Information Society.

The fundamental argument of the book is that the policy process, as it now works, is not entirely acceptable. The challenge is how to craft regional and global policies (structures, processes, actions, and outcomes) that successfully address three concerns: first, accommodating the needs of the varieties individuals, groups, or interests affected by the convergence of ICTs and economics -- with a great deal more emphasis on "civic" and other non-economic interests than in the past; second, allowing for a meaningful voice for these individuals and groups; and third, finding a way to do this while also sustaining the environment, the economy, social and civic vibrancy, and cultural diversity, all with a recognition of the need to allow for "dynamic" evolution to meet future needs, perceptions, and values and provide "the development of greater opportunities for future generations" (7). Apparently, the achievement and indefinite continuation of this combination at some meaningful level would constitute a sustainable information society.

Servaes and Carpentier's edited volume and its predecessor help broaden the perspective of an American audience by providing a European (and Australian) view of the information society and public policy pertaining to it. Some of the chapters in the book are papers that were presented at an ECCR [1] conference held in March 2004. The book includes chapters by others as well. The co-editors have much to offer. Servaes is a Professor at the University of Queensland in Australia and has taught in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Carpentier has been with the Free University of Brussels and has served on the ECCR Executive Board.

In the book's Introduction, Servaes and Carpentier note a shift in the definition of the term "Information Society" (IS) -- from technical to socio-economic and cultural definitions. In the book's Introduction, Servaes and Carpentier note a shift in the definition of the term "Information Society" (IS). The definition had focused on the technical aspect but shifted to “socio-economic and cultural definitions" (5). There are those who want to emphasize that technology is a tool and that there are many ways to reach “a future Knowledge Society" (5). Servaes and Carpentier note that the EU's effort to formulate IS or KS policy is affected by global, national, and international dynamics. The WSIS is both a forum and a process for grappling with these dynamics. Efforts to make WSIS more inclusive through a "multi-stakeholder approach" (9) met with some success, though civil society organizations faced significant difficulties and apparently small private businesses were underrepresented.

Chapter one, "The unbearable lightness of full participation in a global context: WSIS and civil society participation," was co-authored by Dr. Bart Cammaerts (then at the London School of Economics and Political Science) and co-editor Carpentier. This chapter points out that the ability and legitimacy of the nation-state to act in global arenas have weakened. Nation-states both depend on and compete with other actors, among them Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). One way this jostling of contrary and common interests is manifested is in the use of rhetoric. Cammeart and Carpentier's analysis can be thought of in terms of four questions. First, were CSOs invited to WSIS-related meetings and were they invited to contribute to WSIS-related procedures? The answer: yes, though rhetoric in formal documents effectively placed them on a lower tier of power. Second, did CSOs attend WSIS-related meetings? The answer: yes, though the number that attended the meetings fluctuated and the impact of CSOs varied. Third, were CSOs heard? The answer: yes. Fourth, did the language of resolutions and rules articulate constraints on the behavior of CSOs? The answer: yes. The authors point out that attendance at WSIS-related meetings provided networking opportunities that would otherwise not have existed, but that multiple factors hindered participation by CSOs. The effect of these factors was not uniformly felt by every CSO and some CSOs found ways to express displeasure with how they were treated.

In the second chapter, "Communication governance and the role of civil society: Reflections on participation and the changing scope of political action," Claudia Padovani and Arjuna Tuzzi, then both at the University of Padova, provide a brief discussion of civil society then engage in an analysis of the rhetoric of civil society actors and "official texts" (62). Their analysis is built upon a sophisticated methodology for measuring "complex textual units" (67) -- word phrases considered as unique identifiers [2]. WSIS-related meetings seem to have provided an opportunity for the emergence of consensus among civil society actors on the ideal 'governance' -- that it is global, inclusive, and participatory (the authors make this point more tenuously). The authors conclude that the rhetoric of official documents use different frames of reference, in comparison to the rhetoric of NGOs and actors at the grassroots: the former looks at the macro level, for instance, and the latter are concerned about "the 'how' of governance: responsiveness and accountability of institutions and empowering participation of actors" (66). The authors seem to be encouraged by the possibility that disparate civil society actors can reach consensus. Those fearing increased fragmentation as more and more groups are able to reach around the world via ICTs will also find this possibility heartening.

Divina Frau-Meigs, who has multiple publications and has taught in Paris, is the author of chapter three, "Civil society's involvement in the WSIS process: Drafting the alter-agenda." This chapter touches on a variety of topics that are relevant to civil society's role in developing global policy (though Frau-Meigs never provides a definition of the term 'civil society'). It is not entirely clear whether only NGOs are the voices of civil society, or if other actors are as well. Frau-Meigs considers the limitations of the WSIS process, the capacities and limitations of NGOs, the politics and use of the Internet, the lack of consensus regarding the meaning of the term "research," the role of researchers, the agreement between all actors that education is important but disagreement on the ends or purpose of education, the role of what she calls Non-Governmental Institutions (she mentions ICANN, ITU, and UNESCO), and the viability of a tripartite framework (government, corporate, civil society) for a multi-stakeholder approach. This is the first chapter to explicitly raise the issue of the legitimacy of NGOs and civil society actors – an issue worth much more consideration than it receives in the book. While Frau-Meigs raises many concerns, she does end the chapter on a positive note: "Without intending it, the WSIS process is functioning as the largest consultation offline and online that has yet been undertaken on the management of media resources. This in itself is a positive sign that a measure of change is under way" (93).

Ned Rossiter, who has lectured at the University of Ulster, is the author of chapter four, “WSIS and organized networks as new civil society movements." Rossiter argues that the current bureaucratic, institutionalized, multi-stakeholder approach to decision-making is so problematic that a radically new approach is necessary. For Rossiter, the current approach is too much an artifact of the modern system where governed and governor are too completely implicated and entangled in the governance of the social order to make it possible for the governed to achieve the requisite degree of independence and autonomy. Rossiter believes that it is a mistake to replicate on the Internet the representative/institutional/multi-stakeholder approach because the fundamental problems of the old system will also be replicated. Rossiter's preferred approach is the use of geographically unbounded socio-political networks -- or what Rossiter calls "organized networks" (100), because these networks have the capability to achieve the necessary degree of independence, autonomy, and scale (local, national, regional, international) appropriate for a particular issue.

It is one thing to imagine a need for civil society to participate in decision making on multiple levels. We can also agree that access to and use of the Internet is an important part of this participation. But if access is missing or if capability and will are absent, then the need to participate will never be met. In chapter five, "How civil society can help civil society," Stefano Martelli (then a professor at the University of Palermo) reports on the result of a survey of private-social organizations (PSOs) in Palermo, Italy. While many individuals working with Palermo PSOs seem to have the ability to use ICTs, apparently such use is not as frequent as might seem necessary. When faced with a list of activities and asked how important those activities were, a higher percentage of respondents answered "not at all important" than "very important" for every single activity. My impression of the survey results is that the PSOs are still in the developmental stage and tend to be insular. An effort to support the PSOs led to a telematic portal that included an online forum, an online chat line, limited information services, and other services. Any meaningful move toward the achievement of Rossiter's vision would seem to require similar efforts to build the capacity and commitment requisite to significant PSO participation on any level of decision making.

Miyase Christenson, then at Bahcesehir University in Turkey, wrote chapter six, "What price the information society? A candidate country perspective within the context of the EU's information society policies." Christensen draws a parallel between Turkey's efforts to be an acceptable candidate to the European Union and WSIS's effort to address information society policy globally. In both cases, while there was some recognition of the social and cultural elements, much of the focus was on technology, deregulation, and privatization. In both cases, there was an element of top-down policy. Christensen points out that policy development at the national level will be shaped by characteristics of that nation (for example, in Turkey's case, the lack of grassroots civil society organizations). In the case of both the WSIS and the EU, the imposition of requirements by those who have power upon those with less are in my view reminiscent of the politics of colonialism. The author appears to want both global or large-scale policy and a meaningful place for a wide variety of actors in the policy process. This is not the only chapter in which this tension is manifested.

Michael Bauwens, who started the Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives, is the author of chapter seven, "Peer-to-peer: From technology to politics." Bauwens essentially argues that peer-to-peer technology is particularly amenable to bottom-up, grass-roots, nonhierarchical, open, and decentralized communication, organization, and action [3]. For Bauwens, peer-to-peer is superior to the clustered characteristics of hierarchy, centralization, control, and asymmetrical access that define modern organizations and governments. Bauwens sees the alter-globalization movement as a successful demonstration of the potential of the peer-to-peer approach. For Bauwens, peer-to-peer is not about amassing power or the organizational reification of particular kinds of interests and power relations; rather, it is about equals organizing intelligence and power for the sake of justice, equality, and emancipation -- in short, to change politics, culture, economics, and society from a zero-sum game to a positive-sum game.

Paul Verschueren wrote chapter eight, "From virtual to everyday life." In this chapter, Verschueren traces the evolution of the study of communities with a significant connection to the Internet. His major point is that the study of these communities has gone through a maturation process: from thinking in terms of dichotomies to thinking in terms of more complex relations between people and machines. Verschueren argues that "the online/technological/global and the offline/corporeal/local should be treated as a single, connected, heterogeneous space" (179). For Verschueren, the question is not whether there are online and offline communities, but how groups and individuals -- neither of which is entering virtuality as a tabula rasa -- use ICTs to maintain, reinforce, enhance, and create community.

Five authors, Claudio Feijóo González, José Luis Gómez Barroso, Ana González Laguía, Sergio Ramos Villaverde, and David Rojo Alonso, collaborated to write chapter nine -- "Shifting from equity to efficiency rationales: global benefits resulting from a digital solidarity fund." The authors recognize that with regard to an ICT system the difference between advanced nations and developing nations is in several instances the difference between a system that needs to be modified and an underdeveloped system. In those instances, the market will not provide an adequate incentive for private investors to send capital to less-developed countries, and less-developed countries lack the resources to develop an adequate ICT system. What is needed, therefore, is financial aid from the developed nations. The authors argue that while equity is the right reason for financial aid that reason will not convince developed nations to fork over the needed financial support. However, since developed nations stand to gain from upgrading the ICT systems of less-developed nations (because of positive externalities), then the most pragmatic approach would be to help advanced nations see that cooperating with less-developed nations is in their interest. In developing and developed nations with sufficient capacity, the government has an obligation to foster the right environment for investment and development of a universal service ICT system -- where the specific definition of "universal service" may vary from nation to nation, depending on the level to which its ICT system is already developed.

Barbara Thomass, then at the Ruhr-University Bochum, is the author of chapter ten, "PSB as an instrument of implementing WSIS aims." Thomass argues that Public Service Broadcasters (PSBs) can and should be part of the information society. Thomass believes that the purpose of PSBs makes them qualified and inclined to serve the public interest and the common good. She also believes that PSBs can be more effective by partnering with newer ICTs.

Servaes and Carpentier's co-edited volume, Towards a Sustainable Information Society: Deconstructing WSIS, is related to important questions about the information society and to politics more generally: what are the appropriate levels of representation (local, national, regional, global); which collective body/ies (if any) should represent individuals (cities, states, nations, multi-national regulatory regimes, the UN or some such organization, NGOs, corporations, civic groups, etc.); and is it individuals, values, principles, or something else that should be represented? One lesson we can draw from the book is the need to act locally, globally, and regionally. A second lesson is to recognize the capacities of formal organizations (expertise, interest, resources, motivation, and ability to focus on a particular issue) -- whether in the public or private sphere -- while also recognizing that the interests and motivations of those organizations do not always align with the interests of the individuals and groups those organizations purport to represent. A third lesson, substantiated by others, is that ICTs simultaneously allow for atomization and globalization: atomization, because of the ability to focus on a specific technological, political, economic, social, or cultural interest; globalization, because of the ability to use ICTs to achieve a global reach [5]. Those arguing in favor of networks as opposed to hierarchies and bureaucracy will note the ease with which interested individuals can organize, collaborate, accumulate resources, and focus attention on one particular matter. Because entry into and exit from networks is quite easy, others will worry about whether a network has the capacity to implement whatever policies are favored by
that network. Certainly, organizations and bureaucracies have the capacity to endure and therefore the capacity to stay focused on implementation. Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid WSIS is that it attempted to achieve a legitimate combination of these two disparate approaches (networks and bureaucracies) to acting collectively.

  1. The European Consortium for Communications Research (ECCR) and the European Communication Association (ECA) announced in November 2005 that the two organizations would merge into one organization: the European Communication Research and Education Association, or ECREA (http://www.eccr.info/ecrea/about.html, accessed April 13, 2006).

  2. Readers should carefully peruse the chapter's Appendix, which explains the authors' use of complex textual units, before they read the discussion and analysis that begins on the bottom of page 57. The three figures that the authors use to visually represent the "semantic space" (62) of the documents from various meetings are unfortunately not very helpful. The axes in the figures are never defined: the spatial relation of one "space" to another is not clearly articulated.

  3. However, in chapter eight, Verschueren writes: "Virtual communities, however, do not flow naturally from the technology employed. Their characteristics cannot be derived in any straightforward way from the possibilities and constraints offered by the technology. Social shaping of
    technology studies suggests [sic] that media technologies are the result of social choices. Using and developing these technologies is a culturally specific process located in historical and social contexts" (179).

  4. One example of this combination of atomization and globalization is the Portuguese Accessibility Special Interest Group (see Cheta 2004, 228). At least one of its associated websites is available in Portuguese and Spanish. (Websites accessed October 6, 2006).


Rita Cheta. 2004. "Dis@bled people, ICTs and a new age of activism: A Portuguese accessibility special interest group study." In Wim van de Donk, Brian D. Loader, Paul G. Nixon, and Dieter Rucht, eds. Cyberprotest: New Media, Citizens and Social Movements, pp. 207-232. London and New York: Routledge.

Jan Servaes, ed. 2003. The European Information Society: A Reality Check 2003. European Consortium for Communications Research series, Volume 1. United Kingdom: Intellect Books.

Arthur L. Morin:
Arthur L. Morin is Director of the Master of Liberal Studies Program, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, and Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas.  <amorin@fhsu.edu>

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