SIMULATING DEMOCRACY CAN BE A VIRTUAL BREEZE
Few media eyebrows went up when the World Bank recently canceled a global meeting set for Barcelona in late June -- and shifted it to the Internet. Thousands of street demonstrators would have been in Spain's big northeastern port city to confront the conference. Cyberspace promises to be a much more serene location.
The World Bank is eager to portray its decision as magnanimous, sparing Barcelona the sort of upheaval that has struck Seattle, Prague, Quebec City and other urban hosts of international economic summits. "A conference on poverty reduction should take place in a peaceful atmosphere free from heckling, violence and intimidation," says a World Bank official, adding that "it is time to take a stand against this kind of threat to free expression."
A senior adviser to the huge lending institution offered this explanation: "We decided that you can't have a meeting of ideas behind a cordon of police officers." Presumably, the meeting of ideas will flourish behind a cordon of passwords, bytes and pixels.
If hackers can be kept at bay, the few hundred participants in the Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics will be able to conduct a lovely forum over the Internet. The video conferencing system is likely to be state-of-the-art, making possible a modern and bloodless way to avoid uninvited perspectives.
The World Bank's retreat behind virtual walls may fulfill its goal of keeping the riffraff away, with online discourse going smoothly, but vital issues remain -- such as policies that undercut essential government services in poor countries, while promoting privatization and user fees for access to health care and education.
"The objectives of the World Bank with this failed conference were simply an image-washing operation," said a statement from a Barcelona-based campaign that had worked on planning for the demonstrations. Now, the World Bank is depicting itself as the injured party.
Protest organizers are derisive about the Bank's media spin: "The representatives of the globalized capitalism feel threatened by the popular movements against globalization. They, who meet in towers surrounded by walls and soldiers in order to stay apart from the people whom they oppress, wish to appear as victims. They, who have at their disposal the resources of the planet, complain that those who have nothing wanted to have their voice heard."
The World Bank's gambit of seeking refuge in cyberspace should be a wake-up call to activists who dream that websites and email are paradigm-shattering tools of the people. Some who take it for granted that "the revolution will not be televised" seem to hope that their revolution will be digitized.
But there's nothing inherently democratizing about the Internet. In fact, it has developed into a prodigious conduit of political and cultural propaganda, distributed via centrally edited mega-networks. America Online has 27 million subscribers, the New Internationalist magazine noted recently. "They spend an incredible 84 percent of their Internet time on AOL alone, which provides a regulated leisure and shopping environment dominated by in-house brands -- from Time magazine to Madonna's latest album."
At the same time that creative advocates for social change are routinely putting the Internet to great use, powerful elite bodies like the World Bank are touting online innovations as democratic models -- while striving to elude the reach of progressive grassroots activism.
If, in 1968, the Democratic National Convention had been held in cyberspace instead of in Chicago, on what streets would the antiwar protests have converged? If, on Inauguration Day this year, the swearing-in ceremony for George W. Bush had taken place virtually rather than at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where would people have gathered to hold up their signs saying "Hail to the Thief"?
Top officials of the World Bank are onto something. In a managerial world, disruption must be kept to an absolute minimum. If global corporatization is to achieve its transnational potential, the discourse among power brokers and their favorite thinkers can happen everywhere at once -- and nowhere in particular. Let the troublemakers try to interfere by doing civil disobedience in cyberspace!
In any struggle that concentrates on a battlefield of high-tech communications, the long-term advantages are heavily weighted toward institutions with billions of dollars behind them. Whatever our hopes, no technology can make up for a lack of democracy.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.