Scientists on the Margins

Scientists on the Margins

2005-01-30

David Nobes on the World Summit on the Information Society and the failure of some of its visionaries to see beyond tame and regimented applications of the Internet.

INTRODUCTION

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was convened in Geneva in December of 2003. When the World Summit was announced, many in the scientific community questioned why there was no clear or central role for science and scientists. Scientists at CERN, in particular, expressed their concerns because CERN, one of the premier international collaborative scientific institutions, is regarded by many as the “birthplace” of the Internet.

As a result of the interventions of scientists, the UN and WSIS Secretariat proposed to hold an additional, but separate meeting ahead of the World Summit - the Role of Science in the Information Society (RSIS). The Role of Science meeting was also held in Geneva, at CERN, immediately before the World Summit. Many who attended RSIS also attended the WSIS. (The RSIS website is still active, as of January 2005).

The RSIS was intended to provide a forum whereby scientists and science administrators could contribute to the ongoing discussions on the Information Society. The discussions focussed on information sharing - the mechanisms for such sharing, and the impact on society that information sharing could have, because it became quickly apparent that information sharing is one of the primary elements in what we have come to call the Information Society, which I will abbreviate here as IS. Information technology is abbreviated as IT.

At this point, it should be noted that many of the participants, this author included, wondered what influence we scientists might have on the larger World Summit. Because of its separateness, many attendees doubted, sometimes publicly, that we would have much impact on the main WSIS “event” (the term used on the website and in the printed material). Many felt that the meeting was nonetheless useful, but more for the informal networks and contacts that we made, rather than for the formal proceedings. This reflects the nature of the Internet and modern electronic communications, which was nicely and concisely described by Tim Berners-Lee, who developed the browser-based interface, the “World Wide Web,” now concomitant with the popular conception of the Internet. He portrayed the “essence” of the Web as “decentralized” and “fractal.” It was originally designed to fill a need to share information (“data”) that was different in nature, format, and style.

[ For a much different conception of a global informational network, albeit one that has yet to be put into popular practice, see the Home Page of Ted Nelson, eds. ]

At the end of the RSIS was a “Visionary Panel Discussion: Science and Governance.” Most of the panel members who discussed the future of the Internet used outdated and outmoded terminology and paradigms, and I think they missed some of the inherent anarchic and democratic aspects of the Internet. Many of us felt that the panel, with the exception of Berners-Lee, showed a lack of understanding of the Internet and the Web. Indeed, the character of the Internet and the Web in many ways reflect how human progress is made, whether we are discussing science or broader societal aspects. We take steps that wander up many blind alleys and false trails before hitting upon solutions to previously unsolved problems. The solutions are almost always imperfect and almost always later superseded by some better approach. It is necessarily unstructured and chaotic, as any creative activity will be. However, those involved directly, such as scientists, are often excluded from the decision-making processes, which tend to be dominated by politicians and bureaucrats who are in general sadly ignorant of science and its methods. I hope to expand on this theme in the report that follows. The issues raised are no less relevant and important a year on from the meeting. The most exciting and innovative projects described during the meeting emphasised the lack of centralized control over the Internet and the Web, and that such control is nearly impossible. We cannot control what people do with the Internet; instead the main issue should be about showing people how to use the Internet effectively and sceptically.

The structure of this report is simple. It follows the structure of the meeting, which was built around the central RSIS “themes”: education; economic development; environment; health; and enabling technologies. I summarise some of the main points and observations from each session, highlighting those talks, presentations and sessions that seem to have best captured the atmosphere of the RSIS and future of the Information Society.

OPENING PLENARY SESSION - “SETTING THE SCENE”

The opening plenary session comprised a series of presentations that ranged widely across the IS spectrum. Adolf Ogi, Special Advisor on WSIS to the Swiss Federal Council, officially welcomed the RSIS participants on behalf of Switzerland, the host country, and challenged the participants to promote “science for all, without boundaries.” He touched on the issues of control of technology and the role of infrastructure, and the costs associated with both. When we say “costs”, we mean both the cost to society as a whole and the cost to the individual. This becomes, then, a major concern in developing countries where personal monetary wealth is limited, and thus access to modern computing tools is limited.

Two speakers put the Role of Science in the context of the World Summit on the Information Society. Adama Samassékou, President of the WSIS Preparation Committee, addressed the gulf between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” using the now common phrase “the digital divide.” However, Samassékou went beyond these almost clichéd terms and viewpoints to discuss the traditional forms of knowledge, and how in the IS world oral traditions, and the information they transmit, are being lost, largely because we have not had a means to incorporate them into the technology of the IS. He emphasised the goal of a lack of boundaries for the sharing of information, and the need to promote the IS within an ethical framework. In this framework, he included environmental ethics. This theme arose again in the special session on the Environment in the IS.

Yoshia Utsumi, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union, emphasised accessibility of IS, but his emphasis was on scientific access. This was perhaps a reflection of the audience, but was then limited in its scope, especially when considered in the light of some of the presentations that came later in the day. He noted the lack of scientific funding in the developing world, and the “problems” in science policy. My opinion is that “gap” may have been a more appropriate word, because few countries, developing or otherwise, have clear policies for the sharing of information, scientific or otherwise. Many that do have such policies, such as the U.S.A., obstruct information sharing for reasons of “security,” even though open access to data and information is often the best defence. However, as Utsumi noted, this was a beginning of the process of discussion and policy formulation.

After the two RSIS context speakers, we listened to three “keynote” speakers, each of whom gave brief talks: Dr Nitin Desai, Special Advisor to Kofi Annan on WSIS; HRH Princess Maha Chakro Sirindhom of Thailand; and Walter Erdelen, Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences at UNESCO. These talks touched on issues of citizen-to-citizen communication and the “digital divide” (Desai), the lack of access to IT and concepts of sustainability in the IS (Sirindhom), and the environment (Erdelen).

Dr Esther Dyson, the Founding Chair of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), was listed as speaking on “the promise of the Information Society and the role that science and technology have played.” ICANN is the organisation responsible for mediating domain names. They do not assign names, per se, but monitor the process and the circumstances. They have little power, but unfortunately are often seen, incorrectly, as responsible for the current morass over domain names. Dyson did not speak on the listed topic, but instead talked about the role of scientists themselves, rather than some monolithic “science,” in the future of the IS. She also emphasised that we cannot solve the problems of the Internet in a question and answer session.

Finally, Ismail Serageldin, the Director-General of the Library of Alexandria, gave a PowerPoint presentation on the state of IT use at the Library. It is impossible to cover all of the material he (rapidly yet effectively) presented. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is making use of IT in many ways, and to a large extent (their website is www.bibalex.org). Some of the problems and issues Serageldin identified for the RSIS were, to name a few:

* effective and accessible publication and dissemination of information, specifically research and the results of research;
* peer-review (or lack thereof for online publications);
* copyright and “fair use” of online materials; and
* Internet library loans.

He discussed the rise of anti-science movements, particularly in the context of fundamentalist religious groups, and both here and in his talk he noted that these were not only Islamic but also Christian fundamentalist groups. Some approaches they used to try to counter such movements were:

* the establishment of a BA science “supercourse”;
* reaching children with “My Book”, which placed the child within the book designed and partly written by the child using online resources; and
* the “Hole in the Wall” computer.

This last approach was particularly interesting and revolutionary. The concept is to place a PC secured into a recess in a wall, using a transparent cover to allow visibility and access to the touch screen. Results showed that illiterate people, especially children and young adults, were learning to read by working their way through Internet connections. They would begin by using the symbols to guide their way, but would eventually learn to decipher at least in part the messages that accompanied those symbols.

One unfortunate omission from the programme was the presentation by Tim Berners-Lee, who was delayed by a snowstorm in Boston, and did not arrive until half way through the second day of the symposium.

“THE FUTURE: What the Scientific Information Society Can Offer”

The next session was a bit of a misnomer. It was a mix of topics, ranging from GIS to technological access for urban and rural poor people to sociological aspects. The sociological paper was simply a written paper read aloud, with a singular lack of the use of any of the technology we had been discussing. The sociological presentation simply served to emphasise the growing gap between scientists and some social scientists, and made me uncomfortably aware of why the Sokal hoax had worked so well amongst the social science journals; the presentation was unnecessarily rife with jargon that obscures rather than informs.

As an aside, for those unfamiliar with the Sokal hoax, Allan Sokal is a Professor of Physics at New York University who submitted a hoax article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to the journal Social Text. As the Skeptics Dictionary says (http://skepdic.com/sokal.html):

The article was a hoax submitted, according to Sokal, to see “would a leading journal of cultural studies publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?” It would. Needless to say, the editors of Social Text were not pleased.

What Sokal was attacking was the view amongst some social scientists that “physical reality” is a social construct, whereas the existence of an external “world” is an underlying premise in science. There is insufficient space to explore this issue adequately here, but the reader is referred to the many websites dealing with the Sokal “affair” (especially, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_Affair and http://www.drizzle.com/~jwalsh/sokal/), and Sokal’s own site ( http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/)

[ Amato writes at length of the Sokal Affair in sokal text: another funny thing happened on the way to the forum; and it is discussed in Kilgore’s review of Technoscience and Cyberculture, and Ciccoricco’s Contour of a Contour, eds. ]

In that session, nonetheless, were two presentations that stand out in my mind, those by Lida Brito, the Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Technology for Mozambique, and Onno Purbo, an engineer from Indonesia. Purbo talked about how to “Facilitate Fast and Self-Propelled Internet Access: Return to Society,” a presentation that was shifted from the second day into the first day’s programme. His presentation was, in many ways, a useful counterpoint to Serageldin’s, in particular the “Hole in the Wall” PC, noted above. Purbo obtains PC’s at low cost, usually sold cheaply or donated by large companies that are upgrading their computing systems. These PC’s are then made available in “classrooms” placed in poor urban and rural areas so that the local people can use the computers. They also learn to use the Internet. Purbo provides access by, as he put it, “stealing” open frequencies. He uses antennas ingeniously constructed from old tin cans; these are sufficient to provide the signal needed. He uses open source software, and emphasised that mass education is the key to providing a basic education to the broad populace.

His presentation also served to emphasise that education is crucial for informed and useful access to the Internet. Too many people, of whatever socio-economic level, “surf” the Net without any thought about the “information” they are obtaining. The websites they access are often a source of disinformation and misinformation. However, this also serves to reinforce the democratic nature of the Internet. We cannot control how people use the Web, and the fact that there are hundreds of sites devoted to Elvis may or may not be a sad commentary on our society, but it nonetheless also serves to show us how uncontrollable the Internet is.

I present the Elvis example, one noted at the meeting, not to denigrate the use of the Internet and the Web for such purposes. What it shows is that new technologies have become new instruments of entertainment, when the hope was that they would become self-directed teaching tools. My main point is that during many of the RSIS sessions, a number of our “elder statesmen” (and they were almost all male) talked about “control.” They seek to control access, information flow, and the development of the Internet. In this way, our “leaders” show their fundamental ignorance of this creature. I emphasise, again, Berners-Lee’s description of the Internet as a fractal and chaotic thing.

Brito’s presentation was, in contrast, a passionate “wish” list of what she would like to do and see happen, both in Mozambique and beyond. Her list was focussed around the themes of wider literacy and ” relevant ” knowledge.

The session ended with a panel discussion, ostensibly “Reflections on the Role of Science in the Information Society.” The participants each gave a short presentation, with a very brief period at the end for discussion. Most were much as expected, and a number were largely political in nature. One exception was Juergen Renn, of the Max Planck History of Science Institute and ECHO (European Cultural Heritage On-Line), who was concerned that the “core of cultural heritage is largely excluded from information technology” and noted how ECHO was formed to address this. He also briefly talked about the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities. (The full declaration can be found at: www.zim.mpg.de/openaccess-berlin/berlindeclaration.html). While the goals of the declaration are laudable, a number of participants were concerned about the lack of copyright protection, citing cases where work done by researchers in developing countries was plagiarised by researchers in developed countries.

So concluded the first day of the conference. A number of us noted a general lack of self-criticism in most of the presentations. There was a lot of vague language and abundant use of clichés, much “looking to the future” and long wish lists. The most exciting presentations, for me, were the ones that discussed concrete examples of taking IT to the broader populace, often in quite revolutionary ways, in all of the meanings of that phrase.

PARALLEL SESSIONS

I attended the session on “Contributions to Environment.” Other sessions were on Education, Economic Development, Health, and Enabling Technologies. All of these sessions had quite active online forums for discussion in the months leading up to the RSIS and WSIS symposiums, and the forums can be reviewed at the RSIS website. Most of us contributed to more than one online discussion group, but attended only one parallel session.

In the Environment session, most of the presentations focussed on technical and management issues. David Williams of EUMETSAT talked about the Global Earth Observation Systems and Strategies, focussing on data management and the move toward an Integrated Global Observation Strategy (IGOS), which seeks a comprehensive integrated effort. Such a move needs a “shared strategy,” and involves the participation of the UN, international scientific and research programmes, space agencies, etc. They seek to develop a common approach to surface and satellite observations. The international weather observation and forecasting network is one successful example where a common strategy and approach has been developed. Williams had many interesting and pithy quotes: “The world is full of data and short on information” is probably my favourite.

Patricio Bernal, of UNESCO and the IOC, talked about the Global Ocean Observation System (GOOS). There are regional GOOS “alliances.” New Zealand, where I am based, is a member of one such regional alliance. Bernal noted, however, that there needs to be an adaptation of international norms for data sharing to facilitate the further development of GOOS. This was a common theme that arose a number of times during the Environment parallel session, specifically, and the RSIS more generally. There are often conflicting protocols for sharing data and information and, as Williams’ quote illustrates, a set of data is not always usable information.

Josef Arbacher of the ESA talked about Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), a programme for monitoring of regional development, management of risk, and the guidance of crisis management and humanitarian aid. The ESA aims to have full capacity by 2012-2015. The EU will be spending 628 million euros in the 2004-2006 fiscal period, rising to 5005 million euros by the 2007-2015 period. Again, the issue of data sharing and accessibility arose, in addition to questions of data verification and transparency of the process.

Stuart Marsh, of the British Geological Survey Remote Sensing Group, talked about Geohazards and the IS. He noted that citizens are the ultimate beneficiaries, and suggested that there are three main user groups of geohazards information: “responsible authorities”, scientists in monitoring and government agencies, and research scientists. They have different needs, e.g., baseline inventory of hazards, monitoring, rapid dissemination of information during a crisis, etc. He noted, as did the others in the session, the need for an integrated approach from surface to space, and the need for but difficulty in bringing together the different types of data. Again, this raised the issue of data management. Marsh’s presentation also highlighted, however, the gap in our knowledge about the scientific literacy of our public “authorities.” Those responsible may well be local or regional officials who are far removed from those who gather and use the data/information. These officials may have no understanding of the processes involved, and their concerns may in fact run counter to the actions that should be taken to avert a crisis. The current crisis in South Asia in the wake of the tsunami illustrates many of these concerns. An early warning system was not in place because of the cost (both for the infrastructure development and for ongoing support) and because of the lack of technical expertise to staff such an enterprise.

This illustrates a major gap in the entire RSIS - there was little or no consideration of how we get technical information to the public officials and to the wider population. The entire issue of scientific literacy was glossed over, and instead most presenters focussed on those who were trained to use the data, when, as I noted earlier, most people are using the Internet in an undirected and uninformed way, so that they are unable or unwilling to distinguish “good” reliable information from poor quality “information” or even from reports that were consciously devised to misinform the “public.”

After Marsh, Stuart Salter, who leads the Species Information Service (SIS) of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), gave probably the most thoughtful of the Environmental presentations. He discussed “appropriate technologies.” As an example to start off his talk, he mentioned an emergency in Belize where large volumes of vaccine were required, but which went bad because of a lack of refrigeration. Those providing the vaccine were unaware of such a lack; it never occurred to them that large parts of the world still lack refrigeration. He used this to highlight the problem when a network of scientists (who he described as “free spirited individuals”), give “information” that needs to be organised in a common format and then propagated up and out into the community. His premise was that complex ICT systems could allow a simple “front end” and often can be configured by users to suit their purposes. He noted the need to change the “paradigm” whereby scientists visit a country, do their research, then leave and publish the results, leaving no net results in the visited country. He emphasised the need for using scientists in regional networks, working in existing well-functioning scientific and conservation networks. Then the data are vertically integrated in a relational database, using a GIS format. This is the mode of operation used successfully by the SIS for decades. The data are controlled by the scientific community, and the quality of the data is overseen by Specialist Groups, of which there are 128 in the SIS. The data are continuously updated. The SIS has thus grown from existing networks, rather than imposed from outside, which explains why it has worked so well.

Finally, Luigi Fusco of the ESA talked about “Emerging Technologies for Earth Observation and Environmental Applications.” He used as his example the wreck of the tanker “Prestige” off the northwest coast of Portugal and Spain. He noted that the satellite data were insufficient to be used alone, and that a wide range of technologies and their associated data, from surface through to satellite observations, needed to be integrated in a complex information management system. This theme of the need for integration of different types of data and information from a range of technologies and scales of observation arose again and again throughout the session.

CLOSING SESSIONS

The closing sessions were in two parts: a series of summaries of the thematic parallel sessions were presented, followed by a “panel discussion,” closing remarks from the Secretary-General of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and then the “Key Message” from the RSIS, presented by the Director-General of CERN. Given that the “Key Message” did not differ at all from the text circulated before the RSIS meeting, many of us wondered why we had spent two days talking about the various issues. We concluded that the greatest benefit may well arise from the creation of a network of individuals interested in the issues raised by the RSIS symposium.

The session summaries raised some common themes and issues. One of the primary issues is the integration and sharing of data within complex structures, and the desire to get IT into rural and poor urban communities. The goal to fight illiteracy, generally, and scientific illiteracy, more specifically, is a major obstacle in the building of an Information Society, which requires the wider availability and use of IT, from tertiary institutions everywhere, not just in developing countries, to remote communities.

Finally, the panel discussion amounted to little more than prepared statements from “elder statesmen” (men without exception, all elderly except for Tim Berners-Lee), and was perhaps symbolic of much of the meeting. Berners-Lee spoke for two minutes and encapsulated the essence of the Internet and the Information Society better and more succinctly than any other speaker. It is decentralized and “fractal” in its nature, and inherently uncontrollable and ungovernable. Yet so many of the politicians on the panel, for most were politicians, used outmoded and outdated paradigms and language in their politically motivated speeches. They kept talking about “governance” of the Internet and IT. I can only conclude that our political “leaders” have little or no idea about the Internet tiger they have by the tail. It is fundamentally an anarchic, often revolutionary creature, one that will refuse to be confined and controlled.