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Bruce Sterling Is Worldchanging

Imagine that the United Nations married the Internet. Any matchmaking program would consider them a dream date. After all, they're both (a) supposedly global in scale and (b) fearsomely crippled.

The UN has cumbersome rules, no popular participation, and can't get anything useful done about the darkly rising tide of stateless terror and military adventurism. The UN was invented  to "unite nations" rather than people. The Internet unites people, but it's politically illegitimate. Vigilante lawfare outfits like RIAA and MPAA can torment users and ISPs at will. The dominant OS is a hole-riddled monopoly. Its business models collapsed in a welter of stock-kiting corruption. The Net is a lawless mess of cross-border spam and fraud.

Logically, there ought to be some inventive way to cross-breed the grass-rootsy cheapness, energy and immediacy of the Net with the magisterial though cumbersome, crotchety, crooked and opaque United Nations.  Then bride and groom would unite their virtues and overcome those gloomy vices gnawing at their vitals.  The global worldchanging multitudes could beat back the darkness of the gathering New World Disorder while swiftly improving the cramped lives of the planet's majority in a beneficent orgy of networked interdependence! Wow!

That's a spectacular vision, but I'm not the one making it up. Last year in Switzerland, world delegates from 180 nations triumphantly proclaimed the dawn of universal global access to information!

"We, the representatives of the peoples of the world, (...) declare our common desire and commitment to build a people-centered, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society,  where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and  knowledge(...)"

The World Summit on the Information Society is the weirdest global summit on the globe.


The sponsor of WSIS is the International Telecommunications Union, an outfit that formally belongs to the UN, but it is fifty years older. Today the terms "Union," "International" and "Telecommunications" are all archaic, so the ITU needs a raison d'etre. The ITU's idea of a summit looks nothing much like normal, formal UN summits, except for the customary big hall and swarms of translators. In the WSIS summit in Geneva in December 2003, diplomats abandoned their podiums to go mix it up with hardware vendors. That behavior is unheard of.  Odder yet, civil society groups (normally kept at a nice safe distance at summits, shrieking and sucking tear gas) were cordially brought right into the mix. At WSIS, the NGOS were finally treated as what they are: connectors, network brokers, and means of access.

If you want to crawl inside a big, scary, global summit and see its entrails without even leaving your chair, then WSIS is the summit for you.

There are many cautious distinctions formally made between the UN per se, the WSIS Summit,  the "summit organizing process," the ITU, and the website.  For our purposes, wsis-online is naturally where it's at.  Here Kofi Annan offers you a personal invitation to log right on to the dizzy apex of global policy-making.

Here it is. Have a look. Don't be scared. These guys really need you to give them something to do.

These WSIS attendees come from literally all over. They can't find a boss, a coherent agenda, any carrots or sticks, or any guns or butter. Instead they are immersed, apparently forever, in a dizzying host of thoroughly unlikely, lateral, polyglot connections: the "All-Ukrainian Association of Computer Clubs" rubs virtual  elbows with the Egyptian "Free Internet Initiative."  The Malaysian  Super Corridor tries hard to look really Super. The Australian Agency for International Development wonders how to improve matters in the Third World without getting car-bombed for it.

At WSIS, earnest people are trying hard to make it look like our world's net-transformation is happening on purpose.  There might be a tipping point in there -- if enough of  them can agree on a societal spirit and a set of online rules.  But their rules haven't yet been invented.  Why?  Because the Web doesn't know what diplomacy is.  The Net has got no such idea.  The Net's got  some social software, collaborative websites and buddy lists, but the Net still lacks any deliberative  tools that any diplomat or a parliamentarian would take seriously. There are no sound methods of establishing transparency, inclusiveness, and accountability for online negotiators, in all the major languages.  Nobody has addressed that market, because that isn't a market at all -- that is governance.

Here's the secret of summits: heads of state at summits do practically nothing.  They have dinner there, basically. All the real work gets done by legions of "sherpas." These summiteering technocrats handle the choice of issues, drafts of documents, rules of order, agenda-setting, prioritizing... the tangle of bureaucratic fooforaw that is the life and death of nations and international bodies. Sherpas are a digitally under-served group. Sherpas still do their labors face to face, in big international hotels. Nobody's come up with a good way to do serious sherpa-work online. A legitimate, accountable, binding, electronic, Net-based way.

WSIS is a site for digital sherpas trying to imagine and invent such a thing.

WSIS may not succeed -- but somebody probably could. Then you'd truly have the worldchanging infant of the Net and the UN. The group that pulled that off could be bigger than the self-appointed Davos Forum, faster and smarter than the Porto Alegre contingent, less cranky than the Soros initiatives, less creepy than Bilderberg, more potent than MoveOn, and faster-spreading than Napster.  Imagine that -- what if that actually worked?

Bruce Sterling, Worldchanging Ally#1, is the author of a mess of great books, including Holy Fire, Tomorrow Nowand Zenith Angle,and the man behind the curtain at Beyond the Beyond.

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What if it doesn't work? What if you get all the bad traits of the two combined?

Posted by: Nemo Ignotus on 1 Oct 04

Then it's just another ineffectual summit. Eh. Try again. Try a hundred different things. In parallel.

As Bruce says, the important question is: What if it does work?

Posted by: Paul Harrison on 1 Oct 04

Then that offspring dies and you crossbreed again.

Posted by: Jason Michael Smithson on 1 Oct 04

The medium is the message, of course, and this is why internet culture is so dynamic. What makes the culture of the United Nations the way that it is? Unfortunately, "internetizing" the U.N. will not change its ways.

While discussions and conferences about the future have their uses, I think that there is much more power in the visualization (what you have done through writing) and in the disruption of implementing change, whether by osmosis or by force.

To graduate from its status as a very large charity (which does some really great things), the United Nations needs to become more governmental. It may be better for the U.N. to continue doing what it already does well.

Laws, real laws, need legitimacy through enforcement. Governments have a credible army, taxes, and elections. Short of those things, the U.N.'s constituents will selectively enforce its findings on their own terms. Often this enforcement is violent, with long-lasting consequences.

This approach has actually worked out pretty well since the U.N. was organized: South Korea, Kuwait, and Serbia being good examples of U.N. mandates enforced through the violence of a constituent. It is a great human tragedy that no one with a decent army really cares about the people and resources of Rawanda, North Korea, Arab Palestine, and Sudan. Not yet, any way.

The latest "adventures" in destroying and rebuilding nations, of course, are Afghanistan and Iraq.

Iraq could work out, but it depends on our capacity for believing in their future (and our willingness to take big risks). If enough of us can visualize what is possible for the Iraqi people, we won't give up on the hellish task of wiring them into the physical networks and the legal rulesets that embody globalization.

Those who refuse to participate in the generation and implementation of such a vision must not really care. I really believe this. At some point, moral opposition to war must give way to the logistics of improving people's lives and the world around us. Who cares if there is profit in it for "elites"? Wasn't there profit for the U.S. and Japanese industries in creating a safe South Korea? Wasn't there death there on a massive scale? It was all worth the trouble.

FInally, there is no way to improve matters in the Third World without getting car-bombed for the trouble. Not to mention planed, video-beheaded, or simply gunned down. These horrors are the cost of conversion.

The terrorists and petty dictators have few other methods in their limited toolset. I am willing to endure it. Are you?

It is not as if the United States is forcing this pre-singularity down the world's throat. Every big player on Earth is participating in globalization with fury, and often with the help of international bodies such as the World Bank.


Posted by: James Martin Luther on 1 Oct 04

I'm extremely skeptical that the UN can ever accomplish much of anything.

Bruce, why don't you talk about the first WSIS? The one where Robert Mugabe showed up and got a standing ovation from the delegates: his awful record on human rights apparently being less important than the fact that he gave a speech with the usual UN shibboleths in it. This doesn't exactly fill me with confidence that the WSIS is going to be a force for much of anything, nor does the fact that they held it in Tunisia this time around.

Posted by: Nemo Ignotus on 2 Oct 04

Zuboff and Maxim have criticised this idea thoroghly in their The Support Economy (com.). The gist of it is that this last phase of capitalism, managerial variety, is dead as a doornail and now harming people badly. They suggest a move to federations, flexible bundles of businesses offering deep support to individuals and families, earning trust and intimacy thru the people people at the interface, putting support at that edge.

The shift is from heliocentric, corporate centered activity to individuals, people on a shoreline in an ecology of constant motion, Copernican in scope, like what the Hubble shows us, universe to cosmos.

The pyrimidal structure that the UN offers can not be salvaged. It is obvious in the dot com bust when the managerial capitalism tried and tries to adopt and control this technos that will not be harmnessed, this wild thing. Bundled federations can include the corporations who can bundle with others to get things that are needed made, because we know that it works, given limits (putting Hinkley's 28 words into their codes).

The many examples that are cited here 'a dizzying host of thoroughly unlikely, lateral, polyglot connection' are those bundles. If the politicians and their intstitutions get humble enough to come along with the rest of us from the fire into the lifeboats, or if they can help by help building a few boats, they will be welcome greatly. They will be the last.

Posted by: Kim McDodge on 2 Oct 04

I don't put much faith in the UN or WSIS as institutions or see them being involved in the solution to the problems facing us. They are, after all, traditional top-down, top-heavy heirarchies that suffer from information flow inefficiency.

But there will be a need for deliberative functions, for ways to aggregate opinion & decisions so we can collectively decide which directions to move in & which projects to persue.

I suspect it will end up taking multiple forms; some of it will look like a market, some of it will look like a reputation service & some of it will be implicit, tacit information embedded in the relationships between individuals as they create social capital in blogs, wikis, YASNS's & other yet-to-be-invented formats, assisted by aggregation tools like technorati & feedster.


Posted by: Tim Keller on 2 Oct 04

FInally, there is no way to improve matters in the Third World without getting car-bombed for the trouble.

It is impossible to overstate how ignorant and racist that comment is.

Posted by: Robin Green on 3 Oct 04

"It is impossible to overstate how ignorant and racist that comment is."

There is actually nothing racist about it. I personally think that it is right on. Would you please elaborate on how it is ignorant and racist?

Posted by: Jason on 3 Oct 04

The UN has cumbersome rules, no popular participation, and can't get anything useful done about the darkly rising tide of stateless terror and military adventurism.

One follows from the other, imo. You have 'adventurism' because the UN can do nothing about terror.

This approach has actually worked out pretty well since the U.N. was organized: South Korea, Kuwait, and Serbia being good examples of U.N. mandates enforced through the violence of a constituent.

Serbia/Kosovo was not a UN mandated operation. The UN dragged it's feet, as usual, while genocide happened. It was a NATO operation and to use Kofi Annan's words 'illegal' acoording to the UN.

The UN is worthless. How is it the Sudan is elected to UN Human Rights Commission whilst practicing genocide at the same time?

Posted by: Rupert on 3 Oct 04

As he often does, Bruce has hit the nail squarely on the head. The UN cannot enforce law and order among the world's nations without having real power. The UN has no real power because the heads of state who are its constituency do not want to give it real power, since that would mean giving up some of their own. Heads of state in turn are under no great pressure from their national constituency to give the UN more power, because the UN has no popular mandate. Most ordinary people do not want the UN to have more power, because ordinary people have no democratic control over the UN and are rightly suspicious of "world government". When a national government core dumps, there are neighboring countries for people to flee to - if a world government were to lapse into authoritarianism, then what do we do?

What we obviously need is a "UN-like" institution with a popular rather than a national mandate. Its power structure must be religiously based on the "one person, one vote" principle, without regard to national boundaries. It must give everyone the power to participate directly in its deliberative processes, at whatever level they (individually) choose to. It must operate in every nation that has the modicum of political freedom necessary to permit grassroots organization - regardless of whether it has any active support from that nation's leaders. It will have no real political power at first, but with a true popular mandate its popular legitimacy will grow over time. And this popular legitimacy will eventually put increasing pressure on national leaders to delegate some of their power to a form of world government that could actually work, rather than wasting time and money in dead-end bureaucracies like the UN.

We can accomplish these goals - the Internet has already given us all the basic technological tools we need; now we just need to figure out how to use them right.

Posted by: Bryan Ford on 3 Oct 04

I hate to get technical in this kind of thread, but hierarchical governance is an inevitable consequence of the current technical architecture of of the Internet. As long as IP addresses (the fundamental unit of space in the Internet) are a fixed number of bits long, there is a fixed sized pie that will have to be divided among all the stakeholders according to some rules, and some organizational structure that decides which groups get big slices and which groups get little slices.

The fixed-size address was a technically expedient but politico-socially unwise decision made ten years ago when the IETF determined the nature of the IPv6 protocol. IPv6 addresses are 128 bits long, an unimaginably large space, but one that remains vulnerable to the same kind of bureaucratic mismanagement that allows a single company (which I won't name) to hoard nearly a full percent of the current IPv4 address space, and not give it up to desperate needs of other parts of the world, because there's no organization with any power to make them bother to, or any free market that would make it profitable for them to sell or lease portions of their allocation.

In cyberspace, names and addresses are the geography, and wars will be fought over real estate just like they have throughout history. There are alternative addressing models that are both decentralized and unlimited in scalability, such as geographical addressing or rootless relative hierarchical addresses but they require more complicated router designs, so that not only is it easier to fight than switch, it's cheaper. And given humans' apparent hardwired propensity towards violence, more fun, too.

Despite certain singularitans' devout wishes that cyberspace become fully autonomous from physical space, it ain't gonna happen. Wars that cannot be resolved in cyberspace will spill over into physical space, and as we have already seen, vice versa. Unless the terrorists actually win and civilization as we know it falls into a dark age, nation-states will retain their monopolies on large-scale violence, and nation-oriented organizations like the bumbling U.N. and the somewhat-more-efficient ITU will not be superseded by grassroots, egalitarian structures.

Posted by: Alton Naur on 3 Oct 04

I agree with the Bruce - I am optimist! - and have only a few comments, or
points I would like to make on the subject, as I didn't see them anywhere.

"What if it does work?" Well, perhaps it depends on what you mean with
"working". In my view it would be enough if it allows people to get in touch
and begin thinking about a different balance of things. In my view "it
works" if it opens new ways for discussion, if in a country a government
decide to do something relating to ICTs for the population, if a donor give
some money to improve connectivity, if an African kid could go to Geneva and
get a view of this huge thing and bring back new ideas and dreams.

Perhaps I am too idealistic, but big steps are done by small, microscopic

Just one of the things perhaps people didn't realize, is that during the
summit some interesting new issues have been raised by participants, and I
am not talking about the claims of the US (to keep ICANN going and UN - or
any other government - out of it) or those of developing countries asking
for funding. I am talking about emerging economies such as Brazil or India,
which are trying to get some room in a society till now dominated by Europe
and northern America.

So, well, maybe the summit will not achieve anything. Or the UN - and ITU -
will not be able to improve the situation. But thanks to these things people
get the occasion to be informed, to participate in a global event, which is
not a private club, such as davos or OECD, but where everybody is welcome.
Sure, this makes things more difficult (in democracy you accept everybody,
from brazil to china, lesotho and indonesia), but nobody said democracy is
the easiest way of governing.

Oh, just a small note for the person talking about Mugabe speaking at the
UN can be slow and bureaucratic, but they are really democratic, and open
(at least the WSIS is!). All representatives from countries were allowed to
speak if they wanted to, in an order which was decided drawing ballots.
Mugabe participated and was the third one extracted. So simple. If you want
to be democratic, and you start excluding people...when do you know where to

Posted by: giulia on 4 Oct 04

Just a correction on a previous comment: Robert Mugabe did _not_ get a standing ovation at the last WSIS. Mugabe was one of dozens of several world leaders who spoke at the summit, but his speech was most anticipated because he'd just announced Zimbabwe was leaving the British Commonwealth.

Mugabe's speech was a diatribe against western governments, as expected. Sitting in the summit chamber with the other delegates, I noticed how many people were shaking their heads in embarrassment, some quietly making jokes. This appeared to be equal-opportunity embarrassment, as delegates from the west and from Africa seemed bothered that his diatribe was taking away from the work that was actually being done at the summit, and was just a continuation of his rhetorical assault on the UK and the US.

When his speech ended, he received polite applause, no more or no less than any other leader who spoke that day in Geneva. A few people may have applauded, but they were in the extreme minority. And once he was done with his speech, he promptly left the summit, rather than participate actively in forums and constructive debates like the leaders of Nigeria and Senegal did....


Posted by: Andy Carvin on 4 Oct 04

Thanks for the eyewitness report, Andy.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 4 Oct 04

I'm more concerned about who's going to protect me *from* the WSIS.

Posted by: Bill Seitz on 5 Oct 04



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