Friday, 3 August 2012

Reflections on the information superhighway - is it enough?

It is nearly twenty years since the information superhighway was mooted, and one might say without hyperbole that to all intents and purposes it is fully functional. I have, in those nearly twenty years, written a number of Social Studies textbooks for schoolchildren in Africa and the Caribbean, and the superhighway has revolutionized my ability to research suitable information and check it, without resorting to long journeys to London to read in the SOAS library or pleas for suitable secondary sources to be sent to me by the publisher who commissioned the work. If I want to check, as an academic copyeditor, the correct form of a title or author’s name for a reference, I can easily research this, in most cases, direct from the internet without troubling the author of the paper, chapter, or book that I am copyediting for the minutiae. The World Wide Web is truly a great resource.

There is a sense in which, however, the Web is not, or at least not only, a highway but a network. When the events of the Prague Spring were unfolding in 1968, we were dependent for news on secret correspondents or interpretations of the official news line coming out of the Russian hegemony. During the Arab Spring, those involved could communicate with friends and contacts in other countries directly, and send photographs of the events as they happened. Of course, one can never entirely remove bias, and the view of rebels on the ground in Libya, for example, might well be different from the view of government forces – and you believe whom you want. But the connection between people was much more immediate, and the sense of involvement and identification much greater. The question is, will this increase the likelihood of world peace or not? The evidence seems to be that war between nations may well become less, perhaps even cease altogether, bringing about the dream of the song that nations might “put an end to war”. But war within nations, war between ideologies, factions and ethnic or cultural groups seems as much of a problem as ever, and I must say I don’t see how the Web network will make much difference. Where war between nations is often brought about by the blind hatred of the foreign Other whose culture and lifeways we simply don’t understand, and whose antagonism towards us is the most obvious aspect of our relationship – a situation which certainly can be mitigated by the direct communication between people in different countries, just as it has always been mitigated by sporting and cultural connections – civil conflict is brought about as much by antagonism towards a known Other whose lifeways and culture are precisely the problem. Hatred of the unknown can be dissolved and tamed by more knowledge and experience, so that the unknown becomes known and understood or at least tolerated. Hatred of one’s neighbour because he or she is alien in some tangible way, whether racially, culturally or politically, is an altogether different ballgame. The civil conflicts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have shown us that they are deeply rooted and not easy to resolve. The traumas of Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and central and northeast Africa, among others, teach us this grim lesson. The Web network has not noticeably helped to ease these tensions.

Perhaps we should remember that networking at a distance, using virtual and digital means, even with webcams, digital photographs and long-distance satellite links, doesn’t bring people together in quite the same way as actual physical presence. Sport (I write as the London Olympics are in full swing) and music are two very important ways in which people from different countries or different groups within the same country or region can meet face to face and participate whether as rivals or in cooperation in the same event. Daniel Barenboim’s orchestra, linking Arab and Israeli and more widely Western culture, is a good example of a project that takes the long view: young people who play together in an orchestra are brought into a working relationship that forms a much deeper network than the virtual one. Over time, these young people will mature and will influence others, and the ripples from that network will have an effect on the societies of which they are a part. Such at least was Barenboim and Said’s hope when they formed the orchestra at the end of the twentieth century. Time will tell whether the hope is fulfilled.

Sport too opens our eyes to the reality of the Other, and helps us to escape from stereotypes. In ancient Greece a truce for a hundred days was declared, before, during and immediately after the Games, enough time for athletes to travel to the venue, whether Olympia or one of the other three Panhellenic sites where games where held, to take part, and to return home. There was a lot of fighting in Hellas in those days. A truce meant something, was a real event that gave breathing space.

And the Games themselves had a religious element, a consecration and celebration of the gods all Greeks had in common. Today’s secular West no longer finds much in common with the devout Islamic world, which denies us a level of communication. But there is a growing sense that secularism does not have to mean atheism. Recent moves by the more aggressive wing of the atheist movement have resulted in the alienation and revulsion of many ordinary folk, even those without much in the way of religious belief. Neither secularism not religious extremism can bring us together, the first because it has no spiritual wealth to offer, the latter because it demands that we all sing from the same hymn sheet, metaphorically speaking. We have to find ways to participate together in events that transcend belief systems, which is why sport and music are so important both internationally and intranationally. Just as Olympic athletes from every competing country live together in the Olympic Village – North Koreans rubbing shoulders with Westerners as well as Chinese (perhaps even a South Korean or two), British athletes eating with Argentinians, Russians with Americans – so members of the local sports club meet on a regular basis, whichever housing estate or district they come from. And we hope that in the end the truth will be recognized, that we are all the same under the skin, human in our hopes, fears, aspirations, and in our physical needs, too. Only then can there be peace and reconciliation, whether between countries or between groups and individuals. Only in embracing our common humanity is there hope for a peaceful future.