by Jim Fisher-Thompson (Dr. Gary Selnow speaks at NetDiplomacy Conference)
Washington—The system of computers linked to each other through the Internet provides a nearly unlimited free flow of information, but it also offers a "high-tech answer to basic human needs" like freedom and democracy, says media expert Gary Selnow.
Selnow, the author of several books on the media, told a State Department conference October 3 that "we are seeing evidence that the Internet can play a significant role in preparing people for the transition to democracy."
Selnow spoke on the second day of the October 2-4 conference on the Internet and Diplomacy called "NetDiplomacy 2000." The conference is exploring how information technology (IT) can be used to bolster public/private sector partnerships to further U.S. policy initiatives and promote international understanding. It was organized by the department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP).
Over 500 people from 50 nations attended plenary sessions and participated in panel discussions on topics ranging from security issues and public Web sites to the private sectors role in the new information age. Selnow participated on an "Internet Initiatives" panel moderated by Howard Cincotta, chief of IIP's electronic media unit.
Selnow, a former Fulbright Scholarship fellow in Croatia and now a department consultant on Internet projects in the Balkans, said that "for too many years, the people in the Balkans have been the pawns of government. Now, they must prepare to run the game themselves...a game that demands they know the virtues of self-rule, the benefits of personal choice, the opportunities available to people free to run their own lives."
The Internet can help them in that task, he said, because "unlike the other media, it does the job simultaneously in print, audio and video."
Selnow said that "the real promise of the Net for democracy building is how people use it. Unlike the traditional one-way flow of information...the Internet gives users an active role. It provides a sense of control and its user-driven choices reinforce this medium as a metaphor for self-determination," which he said is "the soul of democracy."
As an example of how the Internet "cultivates" that soul, Selnow pointed to IIP's Kosovo Internet Access Initiative. The initiative is the outgrowth of a system of Internet centers set up in seven European locations during the last Kosovo crisis; it was designed to help Albanian refugees communicate with each other.
Selnow said that he helped a group of doctors at the IIP center in Pristina do searches for medical information. According to Selnow, one doctor said that "he and his colleagues were stunned. They had no idea that this was possible—that so much information could be delivered here to Pristina at the touch of a few keys."
He said that "apart from the immediate value of the information, can you imagine the impact of this experience on the doctor's perceptions of other [democratic] societies where so much information is open to anyone, simply for the taking?"
Citing another example where young people in Kosovo used the IIP Internet center to help locate lost loved ones, as well as to pursue research educational opportunities, he asked rhetorically: "What do you think the Internet says (means) to teens in Kosovo who spend hours examining the Web sites of universities in the West? What do you think it says about an open society to students who download newspaper articles, to pregnant women who obtain guidance about prenatal care, to disabled people who receive information about their disability and who communicate with others, thousands of miles away, who share their affliction."
Continuing, he said "the cumulative effects of these experiences, I think, go a long way to preparing the soul for democracy."
David Wolfe, a panelist and consultant with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), presented an overview of another U.S. government-funded Internet program called the Leland Initiative. Named for former Congressman Mickey Leland, who was killed during a humanitarian fact-finding mission to Africa, the program was established in 1986 to help expand Internet access to 20 African nations.
Since then, Wolfe said, the initiative has helped train 1,500 Africans in 16 countries in how to access databases on the Web—who in turn have trained thousands of others.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: www.state.gov/r/iip/)
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