Electronic Darfur

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This impoverished province on the Chadian border is a near-perfect example of an information colony, one where natives are the subjects of information provision but have no autonomous capacity to provide information concerning their own lives.

Joe Lockard

Tuesday, July 13 2004, 6:36 PM

The fundamental maldistribution of Internet information has been highlighted by genocide in Sudan's Darfur province, one that has extended through the past year, continues into the present, and threatens to get worse. Using 'Darfur' as a search term in Google or Yahoo will result in over a million reference citations, but none of it originates directly from the people of Darfur. This impoverished province on the Chadian border is a near-perfect example of an information colony, one where natives are the subjects of information provision but have no autonomous capacity to provide information concerning their own lives.

Where the Internet exists in Darfur, it lives through satellite uplinks to serve international agencies and news organizations; otherwise it is as barren a territorial stretch as exists on the global Internet map. There is literally more available connectivity in Antarctica than in Darfur, an area the size of France. Information geography and the Internet closely correlate with local, regional and national capitalization rates. Darfur is a non-presence on global capital maps.

There is a liberal predisposition to view the Internet as a means of providing accessible information that can raise public alarms that will serve the cause of human rights protection. It is a belief that is in many cases true, provided that social context can translate electronic information into usability. However, unless one views the Internet as a fundamental change in democratic process or even human consciousness -- and there are too many writers who mistakenly indulge these technological conceits -- then increased information availability should not alter either its reception or exploitation. More likely social outcomes of increased information flow about mass violence are 'information frustration' (e.g. what can we do about it?) or non-action (e.g. it's awful, but there is nothing we can do). Or there is the delusory outcome inherent in a belief that on-the-ground facts of violence change as the result of Internet humanitarianism and communication between non-participant parties. The Internet information economy, the global metropolis, functions under the illusion that its collective opinions are universally meaningful.

That ideological assumption of communicative self-importance comes to the fore in the current relationship between Darfur and the Internet. Darfur villagers have been suffering the brunt of an ethnic clearance, rapes and massacres, and the destruction of hundreds of villages. That this is raw genocide is unquestionable, except to the Embassy of Sudan. According to UN estimates, the death toll in coming months could exceed 300,000 people. However, Darfur's people have remained virtually voiceless, except through the translated voice of rare, heavily-capitalized journalists like the New York Times' Nicolas Kristoff. Hilary Andersson's extraordinarily powerful writing for the BBC describing children painfully starving to death in a refugee camp can move readers through graphic description, yet it cannot express the pain of surviving family. Recognizing her own expressive limitations, Andersson writes 'Starvation is a horror. It is a slow and painful way of dying. Mothers have to watch their children suffering terribly in the process. It makes you want to scream to see it. Except you cannot because it is not your trauma, it is someone else's and they do the screaming.'

To say that Darfur villagers have remained voiceless is not the same as to say that they have remained unvoiced. Instead of native voices, an economy of electronic re-narration has arisen. Human rights NGOs and the United Nations have become the principal non-state narrators that re-vocalize the stories of genocide, now told in a different language and to different purposes. Human Rights Watch operates an online Darfur information campaign, as does Amnesty International. In the crowd of online humanitarian concern and fund-raising solicitors, Medicins sans Frontieres is one of the few actually providing service to the people of Darfur, and aid worker Marcus Prior has managed to blog his own experiences. Only two identifiable sites, the Darfur Information Center (US) and the Darfur Relief and Development Association (UK), have any specific focus on the province. The United Nations, for years vastly unsuccessful with conflict prevention in Sudan or effective protection of its animist and Christian citizens, keeps itself occupied running the Sudan Information Gateway.

So African narratives emerge through institutional servers far from Africa and serve institutional agendas. As humane and commendable as those agendas may be, they represent neither the purposes nor voices of those in Darfur telling their extraordinarily difficult stories. This conversion of personal voice into political information involves a discarded subjectivity, one where a narrative reductivism frames the story into an abbreviated format; the original narrator becomes an intuited cipher and momentary focus of sympathy. A collection of such stories within an institutional report represents the basis for a policy recommendation or budgetary appeals.

Thus, rather than confronting the immensity of human pain, violation and loss that these African stories embody, readers encounter them as part of a global voyeurism. Similar stories emerge continually from similarly dis-empowered subjects in information colonies in the midst of traumatic conflict. Information colonies are interchangeable sites of globalized philanthropic concern, sites that can be visited through an electronic literacy unavailable to the periphery subjects who live in a word-of-mouth communicative economy. The violence that conditions life in information colonies is physical and intensely destructive; narratives of that violence have an immediacy that appeals in a virtual narrative economy thriving on experiential voyeurism. Information colonization is not limited to territories, such as Darfur or Chechnya, but extends through classes defined by income, labor status, race, gender, sexuality, disability, and other social characteristics of subordination. One of the surest indicators of subaltern status lies in appropriation of narratives from those who have no means to tell their stories on their own terms. Darfur is only one information colony among many, one blank space in an infosphere defined as much by absence as by presence.

Electronic Darfur is a very different geography from Darfur. It is an electronic empty space, whereas Darfur is a heavily populated space. There is no underground blogging as there was while US bombs were falling on Baghdad; there is no Subcommandante Marcos hidden away with a keyboard. Without an Internet infrastructure, electronic Darfur exists entirely outside its territorial origin. Inside Sudan, a very few Internet service providers - such as Sudanet - provide limited service to several thousand subscribers in Khartoum, Port Sudan, and the Medani areas but not to the impoverished western border province of Darfur. High-end clients in Khartoum employ satellite and cell phone connections, while down-market service Mobinet provides pre-paid Internet access cards. The Sudanese government makes its own opinion statement of its Internet services market by organizing its websites out of the Georgia-based Sudan.net. Even with this limited connectivity, Sudan still has a higher Internet bit rate per capita than much of central Africa. The bit rate map shade describes an '.sd' domain within international boundary contours. But that map does not describe an internal domestic electronic geography, one where the Internet is non-existent in everyday life. Yet this distant provincial space is where genocide is occurring.

From within the electronic infosphere, poor logic makes an external information colony like Darfur appear amenable to communicative action. According to this logic, if the flow of information within the Internet can obtain first public, then journalistic, and finally political attention, then re-direction of that information flow can result in political pressure that will end violence or ameliorate suffering within a distant society outside the electronic infosphere. Causality fails twice: once on the hypothesis that communicative action inside the infosphere can open a direct line towards policy-makers and ensure international intervention, and once on the credulous hypothesis that outside the infosphere Janjaweed militias and their Sudanese government sponsors care what Internet blogs say. This is in the same class of confident social self-estimation that once asserted drawing-room conversation at Bath and Parisian salons decided the course of history. The Internet can and does broaden discourse within the grand drawing-room of contemporary elites, but it remains a massive set of electronic fora where conversational topics rise and die away rapidly. Darfur is a humanitarian spectacle that will disappear behind tomorrow's emergency and fast-ebbing traffic, a spectacle that will be archived in data banks and most likely without its Franz Werfel.

Organized efforts to foster and channel public conversation concerning Darfur have been readily visible. In April of this year Jim Moore, at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, proposed such information-channeling as a strategy to gain public attention:

"Please consider putting the word 'Sudan' in your web site, and then linking to http://passionofthepresent.org Think of this as googlebombing to stop a genocide... Why might this be helpful? Because the government of Sudan appears to be sensitive to public perception. The more links there are to http://passionofthepresent.org the higher this website will appear on 'Sudan' searches. Up until a few days ago the first sites returned by a search were maintained by the Sudan government. Now this is changing -- with the CIA factbook first, and several more independent news sites high up -- including the excellent http://allafrica.com ... But there are no high up sites that are covering the Sudan genocide on a daily basis."

If the Sudanese government has not responded to fifteen years of international concern and repeated UN resolutions over its human rights record, why should its political will collapse under the severity of pressure from Google search rankings? Moore's moralistic approach owes substantially more to The Passion of Christ for its energy than to the tactical media movement from which he borrows. The vocabulary of sacrifice for a moral cause, in favor under the Bush administration, characterizes his URL name choice. And yet the site echoes Geert Lovink's extension of Soren Kierkegaard's 1847 statement 'A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens, but there is immediate publicity everywhere. Lovink responded that 'the dichotomy between 'real' action and mere publicity can no longer be made. The call to action is in itself a mediated statement. Moore's website seeks to incorporate this same ethos that merges virtual and real as indistinguishable fields of action, but its goal ends up as an exercise to move US policy rather than question or change the terms of policy-making that failed to take early and collaborative international action to prevent genocide in Darfur. This is state-affirmative media action defined by a belief in the efficacy of petition, not the confrontational tactical media that Radio B92 in Belgrade represented at its best.

Ethan Zuckerman, another Berkman Center fellow, supported Moore's googlebombing campaign, arguing:

'...if we found a way to over-represent the developing world in the blogosphere, we'd likely change its portrayal in offline media as well...Blogs serve as consumer preference data for offline journalism. It's hard for newspapers and TV news shows to know specifically what their readers are interested in...Blogs let us tell offline media what we want ... What would happen if we started sending an unambiguous message that we wanted to hear lots more about Africa, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America? What sort of effort would it take to choose an important issue - say the Sudanese government's involvement in Darfur - and get enough momentum in the blogosphere that CNN was forced to bring a camera crew to the region?

If CNN were to make its editorial decisions based on the Google feed of most popular searches, then it would become a triple-X-rated channel. Leaving aside the question of whether that change would constitute an improvement, it is unquestionable that CNN's coverage of Darfur is vastly higher proportional to its Google or Yahoo search rating. Zuckerman's idealistic enthusiasms for Third World representation are not what moves Internet traffic. Darfur could be entirely de-populated and still it would not break the top 100 search topics. As a defense against genocidal pogroms, Google searches are a distinctly unpromising strategy; they are more diversion than solution.

One of the bloggers who heeded Moore's googlebombing call was Ingrid Jones, a blogger who made a concerted effort to raise the Google rating of the Passion of the Present site. At the end of that effort, she wrote an exhausted blog post expressing --

"...how grateful I am to my warm hearted readers for linking on the Sudan. Hope I didn't come across too pushy, time was of the essence because the rainy season peaks in July, after which it'd all be too late. The response was amazing. Huge thanks to everyone. Sorry I have been too over tired to post original commentary or finish draft posts, comments and emails. Which is why I've had to resort to linking to reports these past weeks. Now that brilliant help is on its way for the people of Darfur, I need to take a blogging break for a few days. God bless the USA, UN aid, Dr James Moore and all the thousands of others helping the people of Sudan. With love to you all. Bye for now..."

Jones makes a linear connection between blogging, googlebombing, and the supposedly improved prospects of the people of Darfur, all without indication of the nature or operation of that causality. Rather, for this save-Darfur blogger a mass communicative act via manipulation of Google search results has a necessarily beneficial effect for distant African lives in need of succor. Writing a letter to the newspaper has been replaced by punching up web search results as a form of electronic editorializing. In her recounting, blogs moved the United States to exercise its magnanimous humanitarianism and the United Nations to ship aid: the Google search has become a heroic device. Since at the present date Darfur's people remain under clear threat of starvation and approximately one million have been displaced en masse, with all consequent morbidity and mortality, Jones' statement represents a widely-shared but misplaced act of faith in Internet information as a prime mover in political events. As Jim Moore acknowledged realistically at the end of June, however, 'Blogging has not, alas, stopped the genocide in Sudan.

Blogging-for-starving-Africans is an act of conscience that views state power as essentially beneficent, one where political action is vested in an appeal to the sovereign for justice for the suffering. It fails entirely to recognize histories that have made Western powers largely responsible for the emaciated economies of Africa, with all the attendant misery reflected in its bottom-tier health, education and social indices. A historical consciousness of colonialism in Africa would recognize the events in Darfur as symptomatic of global systemic inequalities that have produced the economic privilege upon which the electronic infosphere is constituted. Blogging for the blog-less reproduces an older colonial discourse of speaking for the speech-less, only now on a global scale.

Colonialism and neo-colonialism have transformed into info-colonialism. Under the print literacy of colonialism and early post-colonialism, those who showed up wrote history. Under electronic info-colonialism, you don't even have to show up if you control the bit stream.

Copyright © 2004 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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