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WSIS: Internet Can Create, Not Crush, Culture

Marty Logan

TUNIS, Nov 19 2005 (IPS) - You cannot resist the Internet, so you might as well bathe in its tidal wave-like wash over the world’s cultures, says the director of the centuries old Alexandria Library in Egypt.

“The idea that a lot of people will lose their identities I think is wrong. This in fact is going to produce wonderful results. People in different cultures will continue to express themselves and will be enriched by exposure to different cultures,” Ismail Seragelden, director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, told a meeting on the Information Age on Friday.

“It’s an inevitable process, so why complain? It’s great. I think artists are going to continue to reinterpret their cultures. What we need to do is work together to ensure access to all people,” added Seragelden at a discussion titled Cultural Memory and Diversity.

More than 18,000 people from government, civil society and international bodies met in the capital Tunisia this week for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the second part of a United Nations initiative to discuss how to ensure that all the world’s people can have access to the Internet and other information and communications technologies (ICTs).

Many in the international community, from isolated communities of indigenous peoples with just a few hundred members, to some of the world’s largest non-English speaking countries, have warned that the stunning growth of the English-dominated ‘Net’ threatens their unique way of life.

About one billion people now use the Internet, almost 50 percent of them in English, although that proportion is falling steadily.

“The history of how cultures met one another shows that the most common outcome was killing…the next step was conquer and assimilate. This is ongoing today. We also have the (alternative) idea of a multicultural society but if you see what’s happening in France you can see that one culture doesn’t care much about what happens in the other,” said Peter Rantasa, executive director of the World Culture Forum Alliance.

It is also important to note that heritage is not memory, he added. The former is what remains after its creators have disappeared; the latter is linked to a living culture. But the problem today is that “every politician understands that cultural heritage is a good thing because if you put it in a brochure, then tourists will come.”

In October, the United Nations cultural body adopted an international treaty to protect cultural diversity after more than three years of sometimes testy debate, usually pitting the United States against the rest of the nations.

Article 1 of The Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions reaffirms the sovereign right of states to create cultural policies “to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions” and “to create the conditions for cultures to flourish and to freely interact in a mutually beneficial manner.”

The treaty was championed by countries such as Japan, India, Brazil and Mexico, which argued that the books, films and other cultural goods that they produce are not simply merchandise but unique and rich expressions of identity.

Washington’s main argument was that if states erect roadblocks to free trade in such cultural products, they are breaking the rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). U.S. officials have been pushing developing countries to sign bilateral trade agreements in which they give up their rights to preserve and support their own cultural industries, including film, television and music.

One Internet-based endeavour appears to be both preserving and generating knowledge. ‘Wikipedia’ already contains more information than any traditional encyclopedia, says Jimmy Wales, founder and director of the Wikimedia Foundation. “For a while people were saying ‘why do we need an encyclopedia any more when we have Google’?” he told Friday’s discussion forum.

Because the digital encyclopedia contains a copy of every draft of every article written, “what will really interest me is to see how our views of someone like Julius Caesar change over time,” said Wales.

Volunteers write Wikipedia’s articles in nearly 200 languages and have total control over their work, he added; it does not belong to a private company. “It empowers our volunteers to know the knowledge belongs to all mankind,” added the founder.

And because that knowledge travels to the encyclopedia’s site via computers scattered throughout the world, “if all our servers are lost in a fire that’s fine because we could gather all the information in a week or so.”

With their small isolated populations, aboriginal peoples might be most at risk of cultural decimation in the Information Age. But one of the priorities of the WSIS indigenous caucus is an aboriginal owned and operated portal that would host websites by and about native people from all of the world’s regions.

“We want to use the information society and we want to be flashy as well,” said the U.S. indigenous caucus co-chair Kenneth Deer at a news conference on Thursday. “I’m sure a lot of you watched the old movies with cowboys and Indians where the Indians were the bad guys – we have to change that (stereotype) and we can use ICTs to do that.”

Deer’s Mohawk community in Canada’s Quebec province has already made big steps in that direction, taking over local cable TV service from the government and developing a community station to generate its own programmes. Its long-serving community radio station now broadcasts on the Internet’s World Wide Web.

Gerfried Stocker, director of the Ars Electronica cultural institute in Austria, cautioned the audience to not be obsessed with trying to protect culture. “I think it’s kind of a losing game…by this fury of preservation we forget how to create. We don’t ask what are the circumstances we need to enable the new generation to produce diverse culture instead of just replicating the culture produced by the media industry.”

Today “diversity is the name of the game,” declared Derrick De Kerckhove, director of the McLuhan programme at the University of Toronto. “We are now appropriating the globe for our own personal culture. We put it in our pocket with our mobile phones.”

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