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November 2000

Netizens and the Information Society at a Crossroad: Facing the Emergence of "Cyber-Activism"

Presentation at GLOCOM Forum, November 2, 2000

Shumpei KUMON (Executive Director, GLOCOM)

Ambivalent Feelings about Information Society

Prof. KumonWhen I visited the United States and Europe this fall, I found some ambivalent feelings among many people regarding the IT revolution and information society. On one hand, there still appears to be very strong positive expectations about the Internet and the new economy, at least on the surface. Everyone says that broadband Internet access and mobile Internet are the way to go. The network should be unbundled for a more open system and auctions should be used to allocate the scarce spectrum, etc.

On the other hand, there are some signs of skepticism emerging in the U.S. and Europe. An increasing number of people are saying that the new economy may not last long and that the coming information society could have serious digital divides rather than digital opportunities or digital continuity. In U.S. and European cities there seemed to be quite a large number of unemployed and homeless people not needed by the IT industry. One might point out that in the IT area remarkable progress has recently been made in South Korea regarding broadband connections and even in Japan regarding mobile Internet services. But these phenomena in Asia may be just another example of the "developmentalist" state policy to catch up with informationally advanced countries rather than an outcome of free market competition.

Shortcomings of Existing Models of Informatization

In a sense we might be witnessing a restraining, at least temporarily, of the two models of informatization?the "mass consumerism" (B2C) model and the "business use" (B2B) model?which have been promoted in connection with the IT revolution in the past. First, the mass consumerism model seems to be failing as the bursting of the dot.coms bubble turned them into dot.bombs. Although there has been significant success in Japan in the areas of information appliances such as karaoke-sets, game-machines, car navigators and i-mode, these consumer-oriented products will not be sufficient to lead Japan into a next generation information society. In the United States, confusion in these areas seems to have been even more overwhelming. During the first half of the 1990s the United States went astray in its attempts to develop interactive TV and VOD. Then the U.S. business world discovered the Internet around 1995, giving rise to the Internet B2C bubble and its eventual bursting during the latter half of the 1990s. The main reasons for this confusion seems to be (1) hasty promotion of broadband communications despite insufficient infrastructure, and (2) failure in recognizing changes in consumer consciousness and behavior in the information society.

Second, the "business use" model does not seem to be working as expected, since many large telecommunication companies have recently been declining in business and profits. A symbolic move is the recent division of AT&T into four separate business entities, implying the end of the once highly promoted business model: facility-based, global, end-to-end, bundled, and one-stop shopping services for telecommunications. Now there also appear to be global reactions to globalization trends of the new economy. The main reasons for the trouble with the business use model may be due to the failure to transform old industries and management systems to cope with the process of the new (third) industrial revolution led by the rise of the new info-communications industry. Actually, we still see vertically integrated oligopolistic incumbent telephone and broadcasting companies leading the way. To achieve a true information revolution we need a network of small collaborating enterprises specialized in each layer of telecommunication, with the whole telecommunication structure fully optimized for the Internet.

Emergence of New Power in Non-Business Fields

In the meantime we may be witnessing the emergence of new power in areas other than businesses or states, as the information revolution is strengthening individual brainpower and fundamentally changing the way we think and act. Those intellectually empowered are the so-called "netizens" led by computer "geeks." In this context, John Katz talks about the "geek ascension," where the word "geek" has changed meaning from referring to those who are socially despised to those who are socially respected. Geeks are so indispensable that business enterprises and governments cannot fire them regardless of how they behave or how they dress.

By the same token, Andrew Shapiro, a "techno-realist," talks about the "control revolution" in various aspects of daily life. The power to control society that once was in the hands of governments, big businesses, and mass media is now held by netizens. They can disseminate messages without being censored by the government. Musicians can upload original songs on the web for their fans to download freely and directly by bypassing record companies. Day traders can disrupt the stock market. Now they cannot only earn money their own way, but they also possess new political power themselves.

Some NPO activists are expressing hope that this new process may be able to correct excessive economic globalization and eventually lead to a kind of civil accountability with new ways of redressing the balance by checking the power of multi-national corporations as well as governments and by expressing and enforcing what they think are social values. In short, they are hoping that they can create a new form of governance, i.e., civil governance.

Main Characteristics of True Informatization

This kind of "informatization" has several distinct characteristics.

(1) The source of new power is intellectual empowerment, as opposed to past military and economic power. In future politics, persuasion and intellectual influence will become the main means for mutual control. The process of this informatization is facilitated both by digitization of all kinds of information and knowledge and by disseminating them freely as "sharables," namely, information and knowledge produced not for selling but for sharing.

(2) New actors are appearing on the stage?NGO-NPOs as well as netizens.

(3) The new social game that begins to prevail in the era of informatization is the game of wisdom, in which the goal is to acquire and exercise wisdom or intellectual influence by disseminating and sharing information and knowledge. Some people call this the game of "reputation." This contrasts with old games of wealth and prestige.

(4) "Information rights" are newly regarded as fundamental, together with existing sovereignty rights and property rights. If sovereignty rights belong to the realm of public rights and property rights to that of private rights, information rights can be regarded as rights belonging to the realm of group rights, standing between public and private rights. The rights for information security, priority, and privacy will fall into this category.

We currently are breaking into this true informatization era and witnessing the rise of cyber-activism as a symbol of this transition phase. Cyber-activism refers to the emergence of new global power, i.e., cyber-activists, who can engage on a global scale and at very low costs in various legal as well as illegal activities such as hacking, criticism of multi-national corporations, or cyber-crimes. These activists include a large number of volunteers who are working to preserve rain forests, clear dangerous mines, and pursue other constructive objectives. As cyber-activists are gaining social power they need self-restraint, i.e., civil accountability. Eventually this could lead to civil governance, as mentioned above.

New Challenges for Us All

Now we are clearly at a crossroad on the way to a new information civilization in the sense that we could follow either a path towards mutual distrust and conflict or a path towards mutual trust and collaboration in the information era. The question is not only whether we can close the vertical or absolute digital divide between those who are intellectually empowered and those who are not, but also whether we can overcome the horizontal or relative digital divide among those who are intellectually empowered in some aspects but not quite so in other aspects?for example, conflicts between dot-com companies and netizens. This is a new challenge to each individual and each organization as well as a serious challenge to the nation or the global human community as a whole.

The challenge to business enterprises is how to survive and how to develop new business models most suitable to the information era. To survive the new reality, enterprises must address the failure of existing business models. They also must deal with various attacks and criticisms by cyber-activists on the Internet. For the development of new business they should find new business models with new forms of management based on a network of mutual understandings and trust. It also will be important for business enterprises to find new partners such as community members, local governments, and netizens of various kinds.

The challenge to the state is to protect itself against new kinds of crimes and warfare such as cyber-terrorism and cyber-war, and also to work with new power, i.e., NGOs, NPOs and netizens in general, on international and global issues. Even the national framework should be reconsidered by reviewing existing laws and regulations and by constructing a new legal system for the coming information society, which will require a new governance system for the nation as a whole.

The challenge to netizens and cyber-activists is to recognize their newly acquired power in pursuing their cause and to exercise self-restraint for orderly self-governance. Individual rights are to be reviewed and coordinated by individuals who exercise those rights. They should more fully communicate with each other and should expand their horizons to cooperate with other actors and organizations in the process of informatization. In fact, we are encouraged to learn that various new ideas and proposals have been expressed by netizens and cyber-activists to overcome the challenges that they themselves are facing.


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