Ars Electronica Linz & ORF Oberösterreich
A Voice to Everyone on Earth
Danah Boyd, Anita Gurumurthy, Andreas Hirsch, Hong Feng, Joichi Ito, Jane Metcalfe
Historically, communities have formed for a variety of reasons ranging from geographical proximity to hobbies to political movements for collective action. The ability of communities to form was limited by the ability of the members to physically gather and communicate.
The Internet includes a number of “layers,” beginning with the open standards for connecting computers such as Ethernet, to the standards for creating networks such as TCP/IP, and protocols for sharing information, like http and html. These protocols were not designed by governments or intra-governmental agencies. The Internet was built by a community of innovators with the philosophy of “rough consensus and running code.” Although some of these innovators were funded by governments and companies, these innovators were not researchers in the major incumbent monopolies such as the telephone companies and proprietary software companies, where such innovation was traditionally expected to happen. The idea is that anyone should be allowed to innovate without permission, and if that person or group of people can show that the system—the “code”—works and they can gain a rough consensus from the community, that protocol or idea becomes widely adopted. This ability for anyone to innovate without permission, without a license and without a significant capital investment is what makes the Internet a bottom-up communication network, built by the people for the people. The basic nature of an open society and democracy are built into the basic nature of the Internet. The idea of rough consensus and running code translates into the good civic principles of inclusion and bottom-up consensus.
As the information society increases the speed, volume and importance of information, the ability for people to communicate freely becomes one of the essential human rights. The Internet threatens monopolies and tyranny in the same way that open society threatens many of those in power, and there will be those who will try to limit the growth of the Internet and open networks. Anonymous speech threatens the ability for law enforcement to identify perpetrators, but protects human rights workers and political dissidents in emerging democracies. Software patents are used by proprietary software companies to protect their market positions, but create risk and encumber free software and open source software development. Digital rights management technology and copyright legislation are being introduced to protect commercial content distribution, but this limits citizens’ ability to share and communicate with each other. The valid concerns of existing organizations must be heard, but overreactions to these concerns can critically damage the Internet and its ability to positively affect society.
The Internet is the cornerstone of democracy and open society in the 21st century, and the digital communities, with their bottom-up process of innovation, deliberation and sharing will be the developers and users of this new open network. The Internet is the essential tool in the goal of providing a voice to everyone on earth. Attempts to limit the bottom-up and open nature of the Internet must be avoided.
Since this is a nascent category within the Prix Ars Electronica, the jury has, for two years in a row, debated what should be the relative weighting of digital divide projects versus the software tools that enable the growth and development of digital communities versus e-democracy and activism sites, and what we came to refer to simply as “vibrant communities”, which includes blogs. Last year, which was the first for this category, the goal was to represent the breadth and depth of today’s online communities, and what we saw as the most significant tool for community development, which was the evolution of the Wiki phenomenon.
When posed the question “What has most advanced the cause of digital communities in the past year?”, the jury responded with a wide range of developments and challenges: blogging rose to the top of the list, followed closely by rapidly increasing access to the Internet, and the expanding opportunities for translation.
But what everyone on the jury understood to be the most significant principle for the future growth of digital communities was openness, and as a subset of that, free software. Thus, there are many projects represented among our honorees because of their commitment to openness.
In contrast to last year’s overview of digital communities, this year’s jury took a slightly different tack. We felt that honoring a site simply because it was “vibrant” was not enough. There had to be an overriding social or political objective; or it had to represent a technological leap forward for digital communities; or it had to represent a model for the future development of digital communities. We feel certain that the criteria for judging will continue to evolve in this category, and we look forward to contributing our thoughts to that process.
The Golden Nica
Akshaya—a word from a mythological reference
to an inexhaustible vessel of food, the “akshaya paathram”—is a pilot project in the South Indian state of Kerala, which successfully mobilized local institutions and individual entrepreneurship to set up networked multi-purpose community information centers providing connectivity within 2 kms of every household in the district. The project, now being upscaled to provide access for the entire population of the state, is an ambitious ICT initiative for development and a unique example of a community based telecentre initiative, with active community participation.
Akshaya is a model for how communities can harness digital opportunities to create a new social architecture. It signifies the involvement of the local community in the owning and shaping of their emerging information society, and the commitment of the government to create and sustain an information and communication infrastructure that enables both people to people initiatives (online and offline) as well as government to citizen interaction.
In the context of a developing country like India, Akshaya’s potential lies in how it can transform the effectiveness of development delivery (in health, education, agriculture), so that levels of transparency and accountability of government can be enhanced, and tangible economic and social gains can accrue to people.
There are many e-government projects that have sought to make service delivery more efficient. Most are top-down and most ignore the potential for citizen involvement in governance. Akshaya’s promise lies in how the community will be able to drive the process, and it is the jury’s hope that Akshaya will be able to make the conceptual shift from community access to community ownership. The project intends to generate over 50,000 direct employment opportunities in three years; lower communication costs through Internet telephony, e-mail, chat, etc.; enhance ICT demand in telemedicine / e-commerce / e-education; improve delivery of public services; and catalyze all sectors in the IT Industry.
Awards of Distinction
Free Software Foundation
www.fsf.org / www.gnu.org
The Free Software Foundation’s mission is to preserve, protect and promote the freedom to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs, and to defend the rights of Free Software users. They fight for freedom of speech, press, and association on the Internet, the right to use encryption software for private communications and the right to write software unimpeded by private monopolies. The jury wholeheartedly embraces these principles and applauds the tireless dedication the FSF has demonstrated over the years to building a free and open Internet. Its commitment advances the cause of global digital communities.
NewGlobalVision / Telestreet
NewGlobalVision is the first Italian free access video archive. In a country where more than 60 per cent of its citizens get their news exclusively from one of two broadcasting networks, and reading rates for newspapers and books are among the lowest in Europe, this archive provides the possibility for alternative perspectives on the news. It uses P2P, ftp servers and Creative Commons licenses to help citizen producers generate and distribute original programming. Telestreet provides one of the most interesting alternative delivery systems for NGV content. Street or neighborhood televisions using air transmissions via antenna showcase the work of these independent producers, providing community access both in the neighborhood and over the web.
This GIS mapping initiative teaches indigenous peoples in Borneo to map their ancestral lands, to document and defend their territories from logging and deforestation by government and private corporations, and to preserve traditional forest use and natural resource conservation practices. Their efforts are protecting some of earth’s oldest and most diverse rainforests; preserving native cultural heritage in the face of modernization and development; and encouraging indigenous peoples’ active participation in the democratic process of law. It is a model for narrowing the vast digital divide that exists in Malaysia, and a model for cultural sensitivity and sustainable development.
Digital communities are a perfect way for people working on digital inclusion projects to share knowledge and experiences. What the jury particularly liked about this Brazilian one is that it connects community organizers in South America and beyond in ways that are multilingual (Portuguese / Spanish / English), non-hierarchical, unmoderated and vibrant. It also connects people both online and in physical space, which we found to be a compelling necessity in the developing world.
The CouchSurfing Project
The CouchSurfing Project allows wanderers to know where couches are available around the world, enabling travelers and locals to build connections and find common ground while helping each other out.
E-Democracy.Org, established as Minnesota E-Democracy in 1994, created the world’s first election-oriented website. After the election, citizens kept talking in their forum and a few years later they developed their non-partisan, non-profit model for agenda-setting, online citizen discussions of local public issues. With a new “how to” guidebook and open source GroupServer technology, they have expanded from Minneapolis, St. Paul and Winona, Minnesota, to Brighton & Hove and Newham with support from the UK Local E-democracy National Project.
Huaral (“Sistema de Información Agraria vía Internet para Agricultores del Valle de Huaral, Perú”) is a successful model for how a digital community can enable local and traditional cultures to survive and thrive in the face of modernization and globalization. This group of Peruvian farmers, using open systems and free software, has come together to share market information, compare pricing and distribution opportunities, and as a result has been able to increase their collective bargaining power, and thereby counter threats from cheaper agri-business competitors.
Kubatana is an online space for Zimbabwean activists that seeks to provide information resources and perspectives on the current social and political situation in the country. The website is an NGO Network Alliance project which aims to improve the accessibility of human rights and civic information in Zimbabwe at a time of great political unrest. It has an e-activism page for electronic lobbying and action.
MicroRevolt is an interesting example of how online organizing complemented with events like exhibition of art and knitting make a statement against the caprice of global capital. The idea is to use the net for resistance and subversion to decry sweatshops that undermine labor rights. MicroRevolt has developed a web application knitPro, which the organization calls a protest tool that generates knitted patterns of the logos of sweatshop offenders.
South Eastern Asian Earthquake/Tsunami Blog
The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog stands both as a token for the power of blogging culture to transform the Internet as well as for the “real-time” aspect of online media—surpassing the reaction times of mass media, national governments and foreign embassies—and its importance in collective learning processes on a global scale.
Taking advantage of the flash mob paradigm, TxtMobs is a service that allows people to use mobile technologies to text each other and congregate for political expression and fun.
Originally developed by Stefan Magdalinski, UpMyStreet provides citizens of the United Kingdom the ability to participate in conversations and find information based on their zip codes and location. Conversations and individuals are organized and tracked by location, which provides a wonderful context to the discussions.
Wikimedia Commons can serve as a model for creating a common public good with truly global usability. Making its repository of free multimedia content available across different licensing models conjoins with a highly effective answer to the immanent translation problem by collectively creating multilingual captions.
Special Prize of the Jury
Technologically, BitTorrent is an optimized peerto-peer networking system that allows people to share and access media and information through non-hierarchical structures. With the ability to easily produce digital video and distribute it widely, the BitTorrent phenomenon has enabled people to break through media and nation-state borders, sharing suppressed footage of political activity, personal artistic expression, and other material of cultural value. Peer-to-peer traffic significantly outweighs web traffic, and BitTorrent’s share of that traffic is growing—53 per cent of all P2P traffic was based on the BitTorrent protocol in the first six months of 2004. The widespread use of this file sharing network has led to an explosion of unobstructed traffic — some 35 per cent of all Internet traffic, and 50 per cent of all traffic from China. BitTorrent offers a new way of distributing information, circumventing rigid infrastructures which seek to limit the way that information should flow, and is particularly important in regions where freedom of speech and freedom of media production / distribution is very controlled. For this reason, we would like to honor those involved in the P2P phenomenon — meant to take back control over media distribution — by honoring BitTorrent, a technological freedom fighter in this space.