Cultural Exchange via Internet - Opportunities and Strategies
Net-forum, House of World Cultures, Berlin

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  Statement:   Armin Medosch: Internet hot and cold
   Of all the pronounced hopes, myths and social utopias from the early days of the Internet, the one which most persistently sticks in societyās imagination is »empowerment«. The mediumās structure, in which the old sender-receiver communication is broken down in favor of everyone communicating with everyone, offers groups previously at a disadvantage a powerful instrument for self-organization and formulation of their concerns.
   That is both true and false. False is the widely spread view that the Internet per se has this or that effect. The Internet itself has neither good nor bad effects automatically but rather these first come about through peopleās use of it. Too many conditions must be met: the people must be able to read and write (and then preferably in English), they must own computer equipment or have access to it, and they must have a relatively reliable and affordable telephone connection. These conditions, self-evident to us here in the West, are not found everywhere in the world. A short article from the Financial Times from about a year ago - actually only a marginal note - speaks volumes. It was reported that the newly privatized Telecom in South Africa had only installed 150,000 new telephone lines since 1994. This affects the black population most of all. While 64 telephone lines are designated for every 100 whites, only 3 are available to every 100 blacks. This would be one of the worst legacies of Apartheid, wrote the FT.
   So if the total of Internet users in South Africa is increasing, then it stands to reason in which part of the population: mostly young whites from the educated middle class in highly populated urban areas. If existing inequalities have taken on such extreme forms as in the Apartheid system, then the Internet will do all else but contribute to the ironing out of these inequalities. More likely, it will underscore them. After all, the Internet is not ideology-free. A large part of the »empowerment« and liberation myths have been developed on the West Coast. That is why the Internet often appears as an ideology package made up of organized dissidence (underground rock and pop culture), individualism - supported by nerd and hacker fantasies - and a kind of transnationalism which mainly addresses metropolitan youth and which is saturated in elements of American popular culture (apropos MTV). While such elements determine the Internet's hip image, the big multinational technology and telecommunication groups have the green light with their expansion plans. As a result, the Internet could become a pipeline for the kind of globalization that can bring harm to previously protected local economies and cultures. Being »connected« not only means having access to the entire global network but also the opposite - that it also has access to you.
   What should we do? Leave it alone? Certainly not. Because at the same time it is also true that the Internet offers the possibility to organize and lead successful campaigns against an apparently overpowering opposition. The Internet presence of the Chiapas Zapatistas is one example of this, Shellās PR damages (also known as the »Brent Spar Syndrome«) another. With worldwide satelite telephone networks it will soon be possible to retire to remote places and yet remain fully »connected«. The advantages for local business people, civil rights groups and artists are obvious. However, these »advantages« are still only of a relative nature compared to a given disadvantage. To come to the false conclusion would mean to be taken in by the neo-liberal agenda which emphasizes self-help and communitarianism, the Internetās chief selling points. In order to correct the existing fundamental inequalities, another level must be set up, a level on which international economic relations are regulated, such as the WTO, IMF, World Bank, GATT, etc.. These institutions' politics are defined by the West to their own advantage. The »developing markets« attempts to catch up and the construction of a pluralistic and democratic population in these countries, which in turn depends on the availability of a vast middle class with access to education and resources, can only make headway when more fairness finally enters at this international level. Up until now, the West - under the leadership of the US - has been sure to prevent this and instead prefers to sell the Third World a few network connections, to those who can afford them.

(Translation: Rebeccah Blum)

Armin Medosch: born in 1962 in Graz, 1983 - 1991 free-lance writer and media artist (group Radio Subcom). 1992 - 1994 Project Stubnitz Kunst-Raum-Schiff, artistic direction. 1995 Telepolis Luxemburg, project manager. Since 1996 he writes for the online magazin Telepolis
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Forum of the House of World Cultures, Berlin, on the use of Internet in the cultural exchange with and between Africa, Asia/Pacific and Latin America. 1998/1999