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Last Updated: Friday, 12 December, 2003, 11:28 GMT
Looking for ripples in the pond
Technology analyst Bill Thompson was optimistic about the UN's World Summit on the Information Society. And then he got to Geneva.

Malaysian men check their e-mail at the UN summit, AP
The Geneva conference shows how international the net has become
When my daughter was about five she used to love parties, and would ask me constantly if we could invite some of her friends over for a small celebration: some cake, some crisps and a selection of party games.

I occasionally gave in, because it was easier to host a party than to put up with her constant requests - she was very persistent, and was capable of putting a lot of energy into her campaign to persuade me.

Once I'd said 'yes' I made sure that the number of guests was limited, that the party snacks were few, and that the post-event cleanup was not going to be too much work, but she was happy and never complained.

It's clear that when the United Nations responded to pressure from the developing world to do something about the digital divide, it decided to do the same thing.

Zero gain

It got the ITU to throw an event that would not demand too much of the industrialised nations, one which could safely be disregarded by heads of state too busy with EU summits or domestic politics to turn up in Geneva.

And having given them their party, it has clamped down on the cleanup effort required by shunting the only two issues that really matter - the funding available for digital development, and the future governance of the Internet - to the second phase in Tunis, two years hence.

Outraged press releases and public statements from the representatives of civil society notwithstanding, the failure of WSIS to deal with any of the substantive issues it was originally set up to address seems to be passing unremarked.

The UK press has largely ignored it, and apart from a report on BBC World I have seen no substantial coverage on radio or TV.

Looking online, there is a lot of coverage in the developing world, a moderate degree of interest from the technical press, and almost none otherwise.

The signing of the declaration today is unlikely to generate more than the odd paragraph here and there.

Bill Thompson
It is perhaps somewhat ironic that the real benefits of WSIS should come almost entirely from the fact that it has enabled thousands of people to meet face to face without email.
There are the blogs, of course, particularly the excellent, witty and well-informed Daily Summit, set up by the British Council to cover the summit.

But even the best-read blog reaches relatively few, and the Daily Summit is speaking to those who already have an interest and can be bothered to go looking for it.

Talking shop

Part of the problem is that it is going to be very hard to track the outcome of the summit, or to monitor what happens between now and the second big meeting in Tunis in 2005.

It is therefore easy to write off the Geneva summit as simply not newsworthy.

Certainly everyone who attends WSIS is overwhelmed by the scale of the event, by the number of meetings, the throng of delegates, the vast array of stands and stalls and presentations.

Also by the sheer audacity of organising a three day plenary session in which dozens of heads of state and government representatives get a few short minutes in which to make their case for a world of equality of e-access.

Activists and the policy fanatics may track progress in the various committees and organisations, but the declaration and action plan are not going to seize the public imagination.

There is no equivalent of the attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emission levels which came out of the Kyoto conference to provide a focal point for attention or action.

Positive spin

Things may not be as desperate as they seem, however.

Up the road from Palexpo the particle physicists at CERN have perfected their techniques for indirect observation of the sub-nuclear world.

They look for tracks and traces, for the effect that charged particles have in cloud chambers, and the products of the decay of mysterious and short-lived accumulations of quarks and gluons.

To see the real impact of WSIS you need to look elsewhere, just like the particle physicists do.

The event itself is too complex, and the things happening at it are too numerous and short-lived to be directly observed.

We need to look at it from another perspective if we are to understand what is happening.

If we want to appreciate WSIS, I think we need to look at the interactions between people, and the traces the events of these three days in Geneva will leave in the organisations and individuals that are attending.

And here, at last, there is hope for optimism.

The main event has provided an excuse for thousands of people who care passionately about these issues to come to Geneva.

Many of the people who are doing most in their work and campaigning to address the real issues of the digital divide - not the bland pronouncements of the final declaration - are meeting each other, talking about what they do, and building bridges.

Drop of water and ripples, Eyewire
The summit will have an effect far beyond Geneva
Whenever I meet someone face to face, the quality of my future online communications with them is changed for the better.

Something happens to extend the scope of our relationship, and there is almost always more trust, more openness - and more potential for working together.

This is happening all around me as I write.

Activists, campaigners, civil servants, politicians, geeks and aid workers are meeting up, sharing drinks, meals and ideas, and building bridges.

And over the coming weeks or months they will start to work together in new ways, ways that would never have happened but for this summit.

It is perhaps somewhat ironic that the real benefits of WSIS should come almost entirely from the fact that it has enabled thousands of people to meet face to face without email.

Its importance over the next two years is not going to be in terms of government agendas and increased spending - the politics of the summit have effectively ruled that out - but in new projects, new collaborations and new ideas on the ground.

It might even be enough to make the whole thing worthwhile.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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