“We have to invent new forms of democracy,” said one university student, summarizing a discussion on Democratization and Digital Rights at the Hypertext Café, which took place during last week’s World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) Forum 2019 in Geneva, Switzerland.
Over a cup of coffee, 50 students were invited to voice their views on the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in their future according to five overarching themes, which ranged from Capacity Building and Training to Privacy and Security. At each table, one one more-experienced “professional” was invited to participate and enrich the conversations.
“We hope that you and your generation can help us create technologies and platforms that serve humanity and bring us together, rather than drive us apart,” said Jasmina Byrne, Chief of the Policy Lab at UNICEF. “We’d like to hear from you what we need to do to ensure the Internet is a public good that can benefit this and future generations.”
The Hypertext Café was part of the ‘Youth in ICTs’ Track implemented to engage young people and ensure a space in which they may contribute to the WSIS process by identifying pressing issues for them, keeping in mind that “youth” as a category encompasses people with vastly different worldviews, aspirations and access to resources.
Within these frameworks, I co-organized the Café, with fellow master students, Maria Oxamitnaia and Hanaé Taxis.
The concept of the Hypertext Café takes inspiration from its namesake, the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which standardizes requests and messages between computers and servers.
As with the digital protocol, the Hypertext Café aimed to serve as a participatory, multimedia space where students can meet and share their opinions, experiences and doubts about the digital age.
Participants could use the online tool Menti to share with the group memorable quotes and table outcomes, thus ensuring that students who hadn’t participated in all the discussions could still be aware of what had transpired.
The direction of the conversations could be nonlinear, jumping from one idea to another, like we do using hyperlinks when reading, for instance, a newspaper article online. In this sense, we wanted to encourage participants to make creative, unexpected uses of playing cards given at each table to keep the discussion flowing and to help participants make links between elements, ideas, actors and ICTs. For example, one discussion focused on how hacktivists, cryptocurrency and democracy are interlinked, if at all.
The roundtable dialogues did not veer toward so called techno-solutionism, which is the tendency to view technology alone as the solution to social problems. On the contrary, the participants were reflexive of the ways in which new technologies, especially Artificial Intelligence and 5G, could alter our freedom.
In particular, the question of privacy and data ownership was raised in multiple instances. The students at the Privacy and Big Data table noted that a lack of privacy should not be the price to pay to use the Internet and its services.
The boundaries between digital spaces, like social media, and physical ones was also explored as it related to effective strategies for climate action.
“It’s extremely important to enhance people’s participation through online platforms, but not to forget to also create physical and tangible places where people can meet and where people can innovate and where people can share ideas and organize for concrete action,” Maël Azokly, a student in attendance, estimates. The participant had taken as an example Greta Thurberg’s work for a global climate strike.
As the Hypertext Café was built on the success of last year’s first edition, I hope that it will be a part of the WSIS Forum’s future, may it be with a different name and concept all together, but with the same intention of creating a collaborative and horizontal space that centers young people’s many voices in order to ensure a sustainable use and design of ICTs.