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Daniel Pimienta, pimienta@funredes.org
Foundation Networks and Development (FUNREDES) - http://funredes.org
April 2000

Within the framework of a project named "MISTICA", more than 200 researchers and activists of 30 countries share and organize, in the Internet, their reflections about how the Internet can have a positive social impact in Latin America and the Caribbean. They try to perform distance collaboration and to transform themselves into a group acting on their community, local, national or regional environments. They design and experiment collectively new democratic paths to bring original and creative proposals of what should be the Information Society in their region. What is that about? Why and how are they doing it? What relevance has this experience for the future of other citizens?

For several millions of people, for most of their users indeed, the Internet is a very new (maybe be 5 years old!) telephone a little more complicated (because a PC is needed) but so graphic and powerful. They have fun browsing images coming from any part of the world, mainly from the USA. With this modern toy they buy with a finger tip, without leaving their home, and they chat with known men and unknown women (or reciprocally). With the pride of the powerful one, they understand that they have in their hand the definitive weapon of the globalization of the society of consuming and entertaining. They are not surprised that the Internet was born and grown in the United States and then they find completely natural that this new media carries the culture, the language and the values of such an advanced country.

However, for other thousands of people, the Internet is, more than a technology, a change of paradigm of our societies which should transform positively the relationships between the men and the women in the education, at work, in politics, in the health area or with the environment. These people know that the net is not so young (it started more than 30 years ago), neither so exclusive of the USA. They sometimes remember their militancy to bring "biterracy" to their colleagues of the research and non for profit worlds. They sometimes wonder if the result of their enthusiastic struggle has not served interests different from those that motivated their desires to build a more equitable society or to lift the barriers to the scientific research. They are still convinced that a mature, appropriate and innovative use of this technology could facilitate the emergence of one new social utopia.

However, this group has lost its assurance while transforming from pioneer to minority, and has begun to doubt (TV also had its naïve ones, is not it?): "It's different, it's interactive and the production is at reach of any one!". In the industrial countries, they belong to community networks and coordinate at distance for social protests (as in Seattle). In the developing word, they are intellectual or activists who fight to make the Internet a tool for development in their countries (like in "MISTICA") or, in more extreme situation, a weapon for social fight (like in Chiapas).

How will those minorities be able to oppose, via the Internet, the implacable logic of an economic globalization which transforms all human beings into English-speaking persons with the sole culture of consuming when the same Internet is the weapon of a global (electronic) commerce which replicates and amplifies the cruel differences among "has" (access to goods) and "has not" (access to basic services)? How will they orient socially the technological progresses? How will they create new ways of participative democracy inside a media which is the ballroom of huge investments made by the powerful companies that install the tolls, the parking, the restaurants, the shopping malls, and the other "boutiques" of the Information Highway? Will they be able to find alternative proposals for the use of the Internet and answers to so many pending matters that the humanity has gotten with itself?

The MISTICA project (Methodology and Social Impact of the Technologies of the Information and Communication in America) is an original example of the experiences that give answers to this challenge. Beyond the social topic, MISTICA experiments with the building of new communication methods for communities. How to put in communication at distance people with different languages, cultures and access levels to technology? How to belong to several virtual communities without being drowned under the information overload? How to integrate the radio with the Internet to serve communities without telephone?

After a period when the whole group worked at distance, a subset met in Samaná, Dominican Republic, to capture the collective thinking. The smaller group tried to maintain the rest of the community tied to their discussions, using the ICT with original methods of articulation between interactive oral with asynchronous written expressions. Once, they left their meeting room and they invited the casual citizen of Samaná to share their reflections so to discover that the so-called "experts" has discussion topics totally compatible with their daily concerns on health or education. That drive them to face the challenge of speaking of the promises of distance education on the net to several tenth of persons of which only very few had had "virtual experiences"…

The "MISTICA virtual community" was endowed a panoply of instruments to get strengthened individually and collectively from that experience in order to become empowered to impact their social reality. They call themselves "virtual community" because, starting from shared interests, they maintain an email based conference where it is possible to read the contributions in Spanish, French, English or Portuguese.

All that is said or made, from the discussions about the role of the Internet in the strike of the Autonomous University of Mexico, to the call to collect articles for a first Journal on the Digital City, or to considerations on the appropriate way of avoiding sexism in email, is kept in the web, with full transparency, to maintain public the knowledge of the progresses as well as the difficulties of the process.

A new concept of "active transparency" has been quoted: it's about voluntarism in the attitude to give access to all the generated information. This lifts complex requirements on information structuring and access to prevent that finally the abundance would not turn opaque the transparency! As a result the shared documents are organized in a public library in the Internet that keep growing and is prone to become a reference center, with data base access, on the thematic of the social impact of the Internet in this region.

This community selected, with collectively agreed procedures, some concrete proposals for experiment, being based on the ideas arisen, which could serve as model of possible use of the Internet. Two indigenous groups are getting ready to use the Internet to defend their rights. Poor youths of the city of Valera, in Venezuela, have their Internet access organized in community centers where, besides an affordable access, they receive the required training. In Nicaragua, a system is developed on the Internet to inform and to give capacity to the citizens about the public services, with the purpose of channeling their voices toward the responsible institutions. In Argentina, the movement that acts regionally in the defense and promotion of the children's rights is strengthened. In Brazil, Health's professionals organized themselves collectively with the Internet. All those efforts focus the social impact of the Internet and work collaboration. All of them replicate a vision that unites research and action within a frame of participative democracy where the Internet is an instrument of social progress.

Each progress of the MISTICA experiment is object of a detailed evaluation from the participants. This allows the coordination team to increment the design of the communication within a community supposed to think and act in an original and novel way. This is, without doubts, an experience without precedent and for that reason it is subject to a continuous evaluation. The same as for the transparency, this desire of repeated evaluations lifts new requirements so that the learned lessons are gathered in a synthetic, clear and pedagogic way…

How will this "Mystic of collective work" be able to change a world so determined by economic factors and more especially a space where those factors are so powerful?

As long as that the women and the men that constitute this community learn how to work together, with respect to their differences and with a firm conviction around the basic ideas that unite them. Each one will have built his/her own world where the communication, and the Internet in particular, is the seed for the empowerment of the group where the respect of the diversity of people and ideas is a meaningful concept. Not only a weapon for the expansion of the mercantilism…

In short, in the information highway the route is built walking!
MISTICA is a novel experimental road
that democratically reflects
the adventures of many people open minded and willing to share.
What will be the reach of such a virtual road?
If you are curious to know, check the web: http://funredes.org/mistica.

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Latest modification: 08/05/2000