A new Eldorado, or a ticket to the First World?

By: Nelly Lejter

[email protected]

Published online by Cybersociology Magazine: Issue Three


Ariadna's thread
The thread that links the speculations, reflections and analyses that the reader will find in this text is a question for which there is no answer in this "Venezuelan province" of cyberspace: can the Internet stimulate political participation among Venezuelans? Can this libertarian world, this anarchy, this infinite possibility of communication, become a means of conceiving new forms of becoming something we are not today but in an eventual, crowded and modular way? Will being citizens of the Internet mean we have finally become citizens of our own country? I call my readers to go across these questions. I do not intend to find answers and definitive truths, but to learn together, thinking collectively, to ask the correct questions. Let this hypertext be infinite and become a starting point for Venezuela and for the society we want and deserve.

From another planet

Among the magazines I know, there is one that is the most distant, literally at light years from the reality we live day to day in Venezuela and Latin America. It is a magazine that writes about worlds unknown to us and that we can touch only obliquely. Paradoxically, this is a magazine that speaks about a subject that looks like the most universal and global of all: the Internet. It is
Wired magazine. In its printed issue of September 1997, for instance, it says, in an article by Kevin Kelly: "The only factor becoming scarce in a world of abundance is human attention". A world of abundance? This does not look like anything similar to what we live in Venezuela, especially if we think in global terms. Kelly goes on: "We are connecting all to all. [·] In a Network Economy, value is derived from plentitude, just as a fax machine's value increases in ubiquity". It is obviously quite possible that computers will eventually become as common in our households as telephones and TV sets. But we cannot ignore that in Venezuela and Latin American countries we are far from that goal and that we are in fact lagging behind in it, as we do in almost everything else.

The access to the Internet and its benefits is largely a consequence of our access to other resources of what are generally considered signs of development. It is not surprising that countries with the biggest number of connections to the Internet, of WWW pages, of telephone lines for every 1000 inhabitants, are obviously those with a higher standard of living and higher indices of human development.

The reader will surely tell me that the number of Internet users also increases in Venezuela and Latin America, and that in fact its growth is impressive. I suggest, for the sake of argument, to accept the premise that the access to information is not or will eventually cease to be a problem. Let us imagine that the problems of infrastructure are solved at least for an acceptable portion of the people of the country or the continent. Let us, for a moment, leave aside the question of whether this will be the "simple" result of the invisible hand of the market, that is, that it is enough to sit down and wait until it eventually happens. According to the principle of ceteris paribus, let us return to Kelly and his plentitude versus human attention, in regard to the content carried by the Internet. Kelly implies that in the light of the abundance of, for instance, of WWW pages, the user's attention becomes scarce. Hence, suppliers of information who want to capture attention must make a special effort, to make the content and presentation of their WWW sites as attractive as possible. A related idea is that every page or site added to the Web, for example, adds an exponential value to the Internet in general and to my Internet tools in particular. The ubiquity of material resources (infrastructure of communications) and the abundance of information (WWW pages) are sources of collective and individual wealth.

In principle, the idea of the ubiquity of the Internet looks convincing. Take books, for example: before Gutenberg they were confined to an elite of elites. Once the massive production of the quiet signs becomes possible, the information acquires an unimaginable power of circulation. But the biggest expression of accessibility to information comes not from the printed word but from the digital word. Thanks to the Internet we must not print one single page to read the entire Don Quixote. But a question arises immediately: is the availability of information a sufficient condition for it to be read, digested, assimilated by its likely receivers and creators? Does the existence of, say, 100 million WWW pages, with endless texts, means that on-line human beings are actually reading more than when they had to go to the book store or the library?

There is no automatic relationship between access to the information and reading ability, much less analytical ability. Those who read over the Internet do not read because of the Internet. In contrast, the Internet does not eliminate or necessarily diminish the propensity to read. Nor does Internet automatically nourish it. If that were the case people would be reading much more today than years ago, given the accessibility to printed books. When books could be easily bought in Venezuela, how many books were sold? How much did Venezuelans read? It is not a problem of availability: after all books from Argentine, Mexican or Spanish publishers were found at ridiculous prices. Whether people did or did not read, it was because of factors other than accessibility. Of course, it is possible that the revolutionary power of the Internet in this field is still nascent. Hopefully this text I write today will soon cease to be valid; hopefully the Internet will stimulate not only reading, but rigorous and deep analysis and critical thinking as well.

How many Web pages are there about Venezuela? We have quite a few things on the Internet. We have the country's main newspapers on-line, and some not so important as well. We have sites of entertainment, opinion, analysis, culture, health and nutrition, tourism, economics. The universities are there too. With little glory -- their sites have much to be improved. Very few schools have their own WWW pages , and it would be interesting to find out to what extent the Internet is being used as a resource in our schools, as a search engine, for example. La BitBlioteca ( http://www.analitica.com/bitblio/bitblio.htm ), for instance, has a section of texts intended for high school use. It can be helpful to thousands of Venezuelan students -- provided they have access to the Internet at home or at their educational institutions.

The reader might ask: Well, why must we focus on the Venezuelan pages if I can go almost to any corner in the World (the world having WWW pages, that is? After all we are in full globalization process, in the global village, interconnecting everybody to everybody. Furthermore, regions and nations are losing their validity and importance as long as the possibility of communicating with other cultures, other societies, other worlds become practically boundless. What is the sense of speaking in regional terms about the content of the Internet if it is universal by definition?

But is it that universal? Are its social and cultural implications universal? Are not we turning globalization into a fetish? After all, Wired magazine is an example of how the effect of the Internet in a society can be very local and not universal at all -- not to mention that the culture of the Internet is in fact elitist in the United States themselves. Considering interaction, and not only hitting different pages, globality can paradoxically give more relevance to the regional and local.
Of course I can exchange messages about any imaginable subject in the cyberspace. Thi s miracle notwithstanding, and in spite of the marvelous world of oceanic information, there is an area of our individual and collective lives where regions keep their relevance, no matter how many hours we spend navigating through European and North American sites. It is a complex space in our lives where public and private spheres are interdependent and where the problem of content, together with the infrastructure, is essential. It is a space where no matter how we dream it, we cannot yet be "world citizens," nor can we be just "netizens": the political sphere.

Postpoliticos, antipoliticos, indifferent?
During my years in the United States to prepare a Ph.D. degree, I found a tool that completely changed my life. It is Atarraya (
http://www.mit/edu/listas/atarraya ), a mailing list that connected Venezuelans and friends everywhere in the world: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Japan, Peru, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the United States, etc. Most of its participants, at the time, were graduate students, with a few undergrads participating in the Galileo program of Fundayacucho, a state-funded organization for the support of students abroad. There were many others who had migrated to other countries and resided permanently outside Venezuela.

Those who participated in that network, and those who had a certain affinity with Venezuela (it has never been restricted to Venezuelan-born persons), enjoyed and suffered all the liberties of cyberspace. It is a horizontal world, totally unrestrained because it is an unmoderated mailing list where freedom of speech is passionately and ferociously defended. People of all ages, sexual orientations, political postures, religious beliefs, professions, speak, argue and share their writings. Those who have pretended to exert some authority in Atarraya have met the challenge of its users, who have never feared authority, at least in the exchanges that occur within it. It is a world that sometimes resembles the one described by Jon Katz in his article "The Birth of a Digital Nation," ( http://www.wired.com/wired/5.04/netizen/ff_netizen.html ) published by Wired magazine in April 1997.

According to Katz, "[t]he Digital Nation constitutes a new social class. Its citizens are young, educated, affluent. (·)The members of the Digital Nation are not representative of the population as a whole: they are richer, better educated, and dispropor tionately white. They have disposable income and available time. Their educations are often unconventional and continuous, and they have almost unhindered access to much of the world's information." Are these netizens similar to the netizens who log on from Venezuela? We must assume that that is the case, including the whiteness, in spite of our multiracial culture. I am afraid, though, that the similarities to Katz's revolutionary world stop here, as I will show below.

Further in his text, Katz claims that "Like it or not, however, this Digital Nation possesses all the traits of groups that, throughout history, have eventually taken power. It has the education, the affluence, and the privilege that will create a political force that ultimately must be reckoned with." Katz comments the emergence, in this new Digital Nation, of postpolitics, considered as a new form of doing politics which transcends the traditional references of right/left, conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat. According to Katz we are looking at the emergence of a new paradigm that takes the best of all the present ideopolitic paradigms. It is no less than a new rationality that sooner than later will eradicate today's social and political institutions.

Well! Here we are again, light years from what happens in what I dare to call , inversely paraphrasing Roberto Hernandez Montoya in his hypertext A Brief Theory of the Internet ( http://www.analitica.com/bitblio/rhernand/theory.htm#Province ), the "Venezuelan province" of the Internet. The mailing lists of Venezuelans in which I have participated accommodate very little of those paradigms of doing (or not doing) politics. I perceive no new political tendencies, no new paradigms. There is no postpolitics, even incipient. There is in any case a simulacrum of the antipolitics that characterizes a good portion of the "illustrated" public opinion in Venezuela: an almost total lack of trust, not only in the present politicians, but in the democratic system and even in democracy as a concept. I am of course talking about the participation of, so to speak, the average "netizen," whose contributions seem to constitute a sample of antipolitics rather than a new phenomenon or paradigm.

The problem is that antipolitical discourse and practice bear the risk, even by default, of carrying with them the seed of totalitarianism, or at least indifference to it. And from indifference to acquiescence there is a small step; it would be sad to follow that path by mere inertia.
It is of course true that Atarraya or the other electronic mailing lists have never been the only alternative for a direct interaction between netizens that have in common their links with Venezuela. There are BBSs too, which had their boom between 1993 and 1994. They are now facing the challenge if surviving in the WWW world (for more information on the history of BBSs in Venezuela, see
http://www.ssebbs.com/queesunbbs.html ). There are moreover some WWW pages that stimulate interaction with their visitors, as for instance, the Ruedo pol'tico ( http://www.analitica.com/ruedo.htm ) in Venezuela Anal'tica ( http://www. analitica.com ), the forum on public services at the site of the Electricidad de Caracas ( http://www.edc-ven.com/foro/index.html ), and the political surveys of Webmedia Forum ( http://www.webmediaven.com/forum ). There are some even that could be called "non-conventional sites," or "alternative sites," where appear contents that are not "fit to print," as The New York Times says, for political reasons or for reasons of another nature (see examples of these sites in Tierra Buena ( http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/Lobby/1786/ ), Alcarav_n ( http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/Lobby/1786/a-index.htm ), Compromiso Pro Espacios Libres ( http://www.cpel.org.ve/ ), which incidentally show the long way we still have to go).

Moreover, all those who have interacted in the virtual world have realized a fact: in most cases the exchanges reinforce one's points of view; at the end of the exchange, everyone is more convinced than before that his or her position is still correct beyond doubt. I see no "new rationality," as Katz suggests, even though he admits that this new rationality does not exist yet in the Internet: "[t]oday, the idea that the Net offers a new sort of rationalism is a stretch. Newsgroups, Web sites, and online public discussions are disorganized. And along with online freedom comes its ugly offspring: the confrontation, misinformation, and insult that characterize many public forums on the Internet. The only exceptions are sometimes the moderated forums, where the freedom of expression (an absolute and non-negotiable value for many netizens) can be restricted."

At this point the reader might say: Does this mean, then, that the Internet offers no hope as a tool for information, for the serious discussion of subjects of general interest, to influence the decisions of public affairs? Of course it does. The Internet offers tools that might in fact revolutionize much of what we know, somewhat derisively, as "politics." We understand though that for the time being it is only a possibility, a promise; perhaps even an utopia.

The promise




All this must be get feedback from the many similar experiences that take place everywhere in the world. We can compare the social platform of Clinton with those of Argentine's Carlos Menem or Irene S_ez in the Caracas neighborhood of Chacao. We can add ideas, elements, projects, criticisms, doubts. We can build a country tailored according to our needs and realities.

The Internet as a new technology permits the anticipation of some changes in the way politics is exercised. It is still a relatively insignificant force, but its exponential growth, much faster than that of other technologies like television, suggests that in a historically immediate time a new and very different political context might emerge. The present political systems demand the centralization of decision making, postponing sine die the democratic promise of the citizens' responsible participation, forced to delegate (and abdicate) their right to concur in the affairs affecting th em. With the Internet what Pierre Levy calls "immanence" might happen: a new paradigm of regulation of human groups, thanks to this new era of technological (r)evolution.

Regulation of human groups*
Organicity Transcendence Immanence
The members of a group organize after the mutual knowledge of their identities and their acts. The members of a traditional group are organized by category, unified by leaders and institutions generated by a bureaucracy or fused by enthusiasm. A big self-organized community is a molecular group. Using all the resources of fine technology, it assesses human richness quality by quality.
Taken from Pierre Levy, l'Intelligence collective: pour une anthropologie du cyberspace, París: La Découverte, 1997, p. 64 (my translation).

It is collective intelligence, as Levy describes elsewhere in the same book:

Collective intelligence has nothing to do with crowd idiocy. Panics, collective enthusiasm, etc., are the effect of the epidemic propagation of affects and representations among masses of isolated individuals. People in a panicked or enthusiastic crowd do not think together. They communicate, of course, but in the minimal sense of the passive and immediate transmission of simple messages, of violent feelings and automatic behavior. The global effect of individual actions is out of the control of the individuals who integrate the crowd. Perhaps we might be constrained to think that the passage through a transcendence (hierarchy, authority, representatives, tradition, etc.) is the only means of making the collective less erratic than an atomized crowd. But it is not true. The technical and organizational elements may become visible for all the collective dynamics, allowing everyone find their place in it, modify it and evaluate it in full knowledge. Intelligent communities are radically opposed to the incoherence and brutal immediacy of crowd movements, without coercing the community into a rigid structure" (ibid., p.87).

Can you imagine something like this in Venezuela? But not so fast: we are not yet there. We are not even near; not even on the way. After the initial enthusiasm inspired by these ideas (or projections?), we cannot ignore the little detail of how we will go from the present situation to that scenario of full participation and direct democracy. I want to emphasize that access to infrastructure is not enough. As in the examples mentioned above, the access or the concrete possibility of participation are not sufficient in themselves for effective participation to take place. According to Mark S. Bonchek (From Broadcast to Netcast: the Internet and the Flow of Political Participation, at
http://institute.strategosnet.com/msb/ ) the Internet can in fact contribute to increase participation... of those, that is, who already participate or have the propensity to do so.

Another detail that must not be ignored is how those in power in the present political and economic structures will react. According to Lorenzo Lara Carrero ( mailto:[email protected] ; Technology of Information and Social and Organizational Democratization, presented at the International Forum of Communal Communication in July 1994), a bigger spread of technology brings an enrichment of information and communication. This process causes decision making and communication to become more horizontal and as a consequence more democratic. The main obstacle is, according to Lara, "the disposition of sharing power among those who have it, with new employees and associates." Lara's analysis, that can be applied to particular organizations as much as to society in general, touches a sensitive point in the eventual qualitative and quantitative increment of political participation of Venezuelans thanks to the Internet. Lara is not too optimistic in the foreseeable future, when he observes that the variable "disposition to share power among those who have it" is an enormous loop of negative feedback that "limits the tendency to open are make organizations more horizontal." Obviously, though, it is not a static or rigid variable. As long as those in power find themselves in a highly competitive market, as in the "polls market," it is possible that they will support new methods of participation that allow them to seek the support of potential voters.

The doubt

This leads us to an even more complex question: can the Internet attract to discussion and political decision those who are today indifferent or alienated citizens? The only answer is: We do not know. Bonchek finishes his work (his doctoral dissertation at Harvard) with an idea that I subscribe with both preoccupation and enthusiasm: "[t]he answer, I predict, has far more to do with educating people than networking computers."
I must emphasize that Bonchek limits his observations to the United States, where, by the way, the problem of apathy is also present. In Venezuela there is not only apathy but apparently democracy as a concept is losing the sympathy and identification of citizens. Hence the preoccupation: If we did not participate before the Internet, will we do it now? If we did not feel and still do not feel real participants in politics and society, if we only participate incoherently in culture, will we identify with the digital world? Will we use the Internet as an infinite possibility of communication and participation? Or will we transform it in a new Eldorado, that is, a vain, illusory, unattainable, even ridiculous goal, notwithstanding how much faith we put in it at the begin ning? Will turning on the computer be the same as turning on the TV set? Will it become a repository of local Kitsch or will we transform it in a real forum for creation, imagination, freedom and responsibility?

We do not know. It is a question with no answer as yet in the more advanced countries with more access to the Internet and the production of WWW sites and exchange forums. In our case, the problem is more complex because in Venezuela there are problems of access and content, context, indifference and antipolitics, on the one hand, and on the other, the urgent need of participation and full citizenship. It does not entirely depend on us, but those who are reading this page, those who have the illustration and the access that allows them at least to arrive here, must go further still. We all have a role to play in the dilemma of transforming our Venezuelan province of the Internet in a new Eldorado or in a ticket to the "first world". A first world that is still being invented (even though we have the resources to do it), and that has not yet arrived even to what we have come to know as the First World.

Nelly Lejter (
[email protected] is author, with Roberto Hernendez Montoya, of Latin America: An Impractical Handbook ..He lives and works in Venezuela.

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