Media Beat: SIMULATING DEMOCRACY CAN BE A VIRTUAL BREEZE
by Norman Solomon
American Reporter Correspondent
WASHINGTON -- Few media eyebrows went up when the World Bank recently ca= nceled 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 atmo= sphere free from heckling, violence and intimidation," says a World Bank of= ficial, 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 explanatio= n: "We decided that you can't have a meeting of ideas behind a cordon of po= lice officers." Presumably, the meeting of ideas will flourish behind a cor= don of passwords, bytes and pixels.
If hackers can be kept at bay, the fe= w hundred participants in the Annual Bank Conference on Development Economi= cs will be able to conduct a lovely forum over the Internet. The video conf= erencing system is likely to be state-of-the-art, making possible a modern = and bloodless way to avoid uninvited perspectives.
The World Bank's retre= at behind virtual walls may fulfill its goal of keeping the riffraff away, = with online discourse going smoothly, but vital issues remain -- such as po= licies that undercut essential government services in poor countries, while= promoting privatization and user fees for access to health care and educat= ion.
"The objectives of the World Bank with this failed conference were simpl= y an image-washing operation," said a statement from a Barcelona-based camp= aign that had worked on planning for the demonstrations. Now, the World Ban= k is depicting itself as the injured party.
Protest organizers are derisive about the Bank's media spin: "The repres= entatives of the globalized capitalism feel threatened by the popular movem= ents against globalization. They, who meet in towers surrounded by walls an= d soldiers in order to stay apart from the people whom they oppress, wish t= o 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 hea= rd."
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-shatte= ring 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 digitize= d.
But there's nothing inherently democratizing about the Internet. In fact= , it has developed into a prodigious conduit of political and cultural prop= aganda, 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, wh= ich provides a regulated leisure and shopping environment dominated by in-h= ouse 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 Ba= nk 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 cybersp= ace 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 Pennsylv= ania 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 worl= d, disruption must be kept to an absolute minimum. If global corporatizatio= n is to achieve its transnational potential, the discourse among power brok= ers and their favorite thinkers can happen everywhere at once -- and nowher= e in particular. Let the troublemakers try to interfere by doing civil diso= bedience in cyberspace!
In any struggle that concentrates on a battlefield of high-tech communic= ations, the long-term advantages are heavily weighted toward institutions w= ith 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.