Letter from No Man’s Land

The ground on which a United Nations conference takes place is No Man’s Land, outside the legal jurisdiction of the surrounding country. Here, in a barren field on the outskirts of Tunis, it is No Man’s Land par excellence.

Buses shuttle laptops -and their requisite laps- from tightly guarded hotels to a gigantic, tightly-guarded, white plastic tent here. Tunisians aren’t allowed anywhere near either the hotels or the tent. In fact, they’ve been sent on holiday. All schools and government offices are shut. The gigolos that normally press their services on female visitors must take a break or face jail. The streets are empty of traffic.

Inside the tent, the laptops can put conference information on websites, so laptops across the globe can get it. But not laptops in Tunisia. Such internet sites are blocked by the Tunisian government.

‘This is not what the internet was supposed to be about,’ several laps bleated loudly at conference sessions.

Supposed to be about? Duh, wasn’t the internet born as a US State Department project to hide information from the Soviets during the Cold War? I guess laps’ memory-banks only go back as far as the invention of Linux. The rest is prehistory, when homo-sapiens roamed the earth, not laptops.

Tunisia’s President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who proposed this Summit, demonstrates the power of information technology. In Ben Ali’s hands, a simple fax machine is a thing of wonder. His face is everywhere, fluttering on pennants wreathing the city, leering at you from every hoarding, billboard and pillar. He seems to share a PR agent with Kim Jong Il, and a plastic surgeon with Berlosconi. Is it Botox, you wonder as you confront his pasty death-mask for the thousandth time, or cyber-mummification? Maybe he doesn’t even really exist; it was a hologram that spoke at the opening of the conference. The moment a foreign head-of-state referred to Ben Ali’s lack of devotion to freedom of information, the video feed conveniently stuttered and denied the world his words.

Yes, in the Information Society, things are easier, more efficient and speedy. Take hunger strikes for instance. Tunisian democracy activists learnt from information technology that every UN summit requires some drama, a riot or two perhaps, to grab a couple seconds of television time. With a zillion police and secret police ranging around, riots aren’t really advisable. The activists mounted a hunger strike instead. The press duly hared off to laud them. Once their images were digitally transmitted to a laptops round the world and the conference began to wind down, the hunger strikers went to lunch. Who said a hunger strike is a joy forever? Missing breakfast for democracy counts too. Where’s the rule that says you have to die for your cause? That might put you in the same category as suicide bombers.

The People Have no Bread? Let them Eat Gobble-de-Geek

And the Information society is to end hunger, not prolong it. Techno-geeks from Microsoft, Ericcson, Nokia -all the usual suspects- have mounted dazzling exhibitions to show the UN how they will solve the 3rd world’s problems. As we know, UN bureaucrats’ main task is to pile jargon onto jargon until it becomes gobbledegook. Here it became gobbledegeek.

Take the fact that African teachers are dying of AIDS or running off to Britain where they can earn a pittance. UNESCO has a cunning plan to end this. You know all those grandmothers and aunties left behind in places like Lesotho to care for the AIDS patients and AIDS-orphaned? Well, the geeks are going to turn them into teachers.

Never mind the fact that AIDS has already turned them into nurses. Never mind that they themselves are illiterate, speak languages no laptop has ever heard, have no computers… or electricity to run computers. Never mind that they have to scrape a living to feed the orphans as well… and gather firewood… and spend 12 hours a day trudging uphill for water… and flee from rampaging soldiers… Never mind the fact that information technology hasn’t prevented a decline in basic skills like reading and arithmetic in the developed world.

How are those 3rd world losers going to afford Microsoft’s services? Privatisation, of course. Sell the telecommunications companies they invested in during pre-history, when people used their heads to think, not their laps.

The Jamaican government has a cunning plan to combat poverty, its minister revealed. Jamaica is going to sell its telecommunications company and invest in broadband. How will that combat poverty? Jamaica will still have no economic resources except cocaine-trafficking. Perhaps the traffickers will become more efficient. They are avid users of information technology; each of them carries around not one, but five, mobile phones. In any case, it’s only in prehistory that poverty was defined as a lack of food and shelter. The UN has added ‘information-poverty’ to the definition.

If you have nothing to privatise, the World Bank will lend you money to pay Microsoft and the other usual suspects… and add to your debt burden.

The World Bank also had a cunning plan. The World Bank also had a cunning plan. It flew in a woman from India to reveal how information technology was making the poor less poor. She came armed with a brilliantly-organised power-point presentation – but argued instead that food and shelter were the real priorities of the poor, not information technology. And she was backed up by the latest research.

A very broad and systematic study, published by a British university two months ago, showed that only 2% of people in rural areas of developing countries are interested in the internet as a source of information. People prefer radio and television. But that’s prehistoric technology involving journalists. In the Information Society, bloggers are the heroes of the day. In the tower of babble that is the internet, ‘the moon in Aries is causing your poverty’ has equal weight to ‘government corruption is causing poverty’.

The white men in suits purveyed their gobbledegeek using a prehistoric tool – the mouth. Guess whose words are carrying the day? It doesn’t matter what technology you use, here, or what hard information you have. It’s how much money, or how many guns, which amounts to the same thing: power.

So the information society is going to be business – as usual. Let’s face it. Mobile phones are mainly used to tell your wife you’re going to be late for dinner. And the research shows that poor people want them for the same purpose, keeping in touch with their relatives. With markets in the developed world saturated, Nasdec shareholders are looking towards 3rd world. In Sri Lanka, people are willing to spend a whopping 15% of their incomes on phone services. Those who have incomes, that is.

The Chinese are spectacularly absent from this Summit, apart from their official delegation. While we are fantasising about the society of the future, they are busy creating it.

This article was written for a Dutch newsmagazine at the end of last year during the summit on the information society.

Niala Maharaj is a writer based in Amsterdam. Her first novel, Like Heaven, will be published by Random House on June 1. Her website is here.

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