GCN2001, Buenos Aires, Plenary Session Panel,
December 5, 3:30 to 5:50 p.m.

The Global Community Networks Congress is the most visible manifestation of an informal network of national community networking organizations that now operates under the name of the Global Community Networks Partnership. The issue of strategies for relating the experience of grassroots community networks to the interests of International organizations is a critical issue for the future evolution of GCNP.


Garth Graham, Moderator

C. Cesar Yammal, World Bank, Country Gateway Coordinator for Latin America

Sally Burch, executive Director, Agencia Latinoamericana de Información (ALAI)

Karen Lynch, Markle Foundation

Raul Zambrano, UNDP Sustainable Development Networks

Veronique Kleck, Secretariat D'Etat A L'Economie Solidaire, France

Ben Petrazzini, Coordinador de la Unión Internacional de Telecomunicaciones

The purpose of the Strategic Options Panel is to begin a dialogue that can lead to action.

1. To increase awareness of the significance of community networking experience among supranational agencies addressing the issue of the digital divide.

2. To find common ground for action on what may or may not be different visions of the future with global organizations addressing the uses of information and communications technologies (ICTs) for development

3. To identify an action agenda for the Global CN Partnership that can support the interaction of community networks and national community networking associations with those supranational agencies
4. To support the growth of the global community of online community developers

Issues and/or questions that the panel can explore:

How does living daily life in a learning society affect the nature of the social contract?

1. What will it require to create the trust needed for effective tri-level partnerships of civil society, business and government?

2. As they seek to influence national plans for the uses of ICTs in development, how do we get supranational agencies to take the experience of community networks into account?

3. In the interdependencies of a networked society, the primary functions that serve both human and economic development are not related linearly. They are widely distributed. The use of the word "scalable" by development planners is evidence of a failure to appreciate the implications of non-linearity in complex networks. How do we change their minds?

4. What can we do to link grassroots developed country experience of adapting to high levels of connectivity and creating community online to grassroots needs in developing countries? Can what the practitioners are learning be focused toward significant development interventions related to diminishing the digital divide that connect community to community directly?

5. The significant lessons for national strategies will emerge from local experiments in using connectivity to alter the patterns of daily living in specific communities. How can we flow those lessons outwards - towards national programs - without distorting the meaning beyond all recognition?

6. Once we all know we are linked and interdependent, the problem becomes sustaining capacity for dialogue, not an absence of information. Rather than "capture" indigenous knowledge, how do we seek common vocabularies so that essential differences and commonalties in our separate worldviews can be discussed?

Background to the issues

"Any community that shares a "world" is necessarily bound into a network of responsibility. Without the continuing support of a community, any world (that is, any space of being) will begin to fall apart. If cyberspace teaches us anything, it is that the worlds we conceive (the spaces we "inhabit") are communal projects requiring ongoing communal responsibility."
Margaret Wertheim. The pearly gates of cyberspace. New York, Norton, 1999, 304.

Everywhere that community networks are participating actively in forming alliances of civil society, business and local government, they are speeding up development, not slowing it down. Why is this still an unknown story?

"Community" is a key organizing principle shaping online socio-economic networks. Because the practices of creating and sustaining community networks require knowledge of online community development, the practitioners of that art represent a significant body of experience in understanding the impacts of using the Internet to change the patterns of daily life. If the goal of governments and business is really to "unite" with "civil society" then community networks, and the agencies that serve to understand and advance their role in community development, are a critical and absent element in brokering that union.

The people who are learning how to use community networking to defend the electronic commons and to support radical practice in social change at the grassroots level know as much about the consequences of living with the impact of transition to networked economies and learning societies as anyone. But what they know has yet to be contributed effectively to either national or supranational strategic planning.

When corporations and governments focus on electronic commerce as the driving force in adapting to social transformation, they turn a blind eye to the need to understand how community is realized online. A community's health is coming to depend on controlling the means to capture the experience of realizing community online and turning it into practice. Unless there's a conscious community networking process in place at the local level, the community lacks the means of capturing what's going on and applying it to its own interests. Community networks give enormous power to individuals who engage in realizing the benefits of community based action through electronic means. That experience of engagement provides for balance in the relationship between technological change and social change.

The idea of a "global economy" is, of course, an ideological abstraction. In getting to "Yes" in the negotiation of a new social contract, such a strongly held belief on one side makes it difficult for those who subject it to critical examination to find the zone of mutual interest. This is especially true if the alliances of governments and businesses continue to treat citizens (or as they say to blur the rising tide of voices into a mass, "civil society") as consumers of "services." It is becoming increasingly clear that, even considered as consumers, the communities of interest that inhabit and shape markets are steadily enhancing their power to negotiate. One rule - the negotiation process is going to continue increasing in complexity. Denying self-organization to homogeneous determined communities is going to get harder and harder.

The "union" of governments, businesses and civil societies should not be an attempt to perpetuate the forms of the old global society - to seek at best a society of nations united. The imagined model of how supranational agencies should work is often the notion of nation state writ large. Call "world government" the "meta-state"? But the problem is that networked infrastructure really does reintermediate the sovereign power of nation states. And the protocols that govern the formation of nations and relations among them aren't IP (Internet Protocol). Community networks already inhabit the new global society. Their unity is in diversity, not through the order of states. Why should they participate in supporting agendas that seek to perpetuate what they are not?

It is people who connect in networks, digitally enabled or not. The bottom line for civil society must be that access to IP is not about access to "architecture." IP expresses a philosophy of relationship that structures the institutions of the culture of the Net. The key objective in development must remain "informing" the autonomy of local choice, not applying technology to access "information" as a commodity.

In fact, IP based networks (i.e. understood as social networks) do inform local choices quite differently. But there is a huge potential for global networks with a purely technology focus, and acting in the name of security, property and control, to eventually pervert the impact of IP on the distribution and re-distribution of socio-cultural and political power. In a corrupt world, advancing large amounts of money to address the digital divide for the wrong reasons has as tremendous potential for sustaining inequality rather than reducing it.

Those who work in community networks believe in the value of full and open participation in the choices about the structure of institutional arrangements that address social, economic and political needs. When any can connect to any, and all voices can be heard, why not seek to maximize the benefits of completely new and different possibilities to be found in the re-intermediation of political and economic power that is under way?

The GCN Partnership's mandate is to increase interdependencies in the diverse and distributed community of those who act on the local level to understand and develop community online. The most appropriate experiences of community development online are local, uncentered and widely distributed by their very nature. The instinct to centralize something in finding a route for applying that experience to socio-economic development in general is diametrically opposed to its essence. How can we enhance the strength that emerges from local autonomy in self-organization without turning it into its opposite?

The practice of community development, whether online or off is simple. People want to talk. Let them. Therefore the purpose of a Global Community Networks Partnership isn't to organize community networks into a supranational agency or to focus their goals. It's to foster networks that share their experience of online community development and to increase their capacity to defend cyberspace as a commons.