They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Infodiversity, utopia and a trip to Mexico

Infodiversity, utopia and a trip to Mexico

Y andarse con pies de plomo...

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

While you are reading these lines, I am on my way to Guadalajara, Jalisco capital city, Mexico... lands and towns that, even without being known by many of us, sound familiar thanks to popular songs coming from this region (among many other things, of course). Guadalajara is a big city placed in Atemajac Valley; and is the second place most populated of Mexico, with more than 1.5 million people. As it is said, it is well known for its traditions, gastronomy and cultural and recreational attractions; among the last ones, the International Fair Book of Guadalajara (FIL) is a very good example. It is the biggest in Hispano-America –according to the number of publishers and visitors attending to it–, and the second worldwide, after Frankfurt Fair Book. At the same time the Fair takes place, the XIV International Librarians Symposium ('Info diversity: library as multicultural center') will be celebrate. I have been invited to participate in it with a workshop on 'Infodiversity and libraries role' from the 26th to the 28th of November.

If you already have noticed that 'infodiversity' (translated from Spanish 'infodiversidad') means 'information diversity' or better 'information in a plural world, culturally speaking', congratulations on your shrewdness, which is admirable. It was not so clear to me, thus, before giving an affirmative answer to my Mexican colleagues, I made the decision of studying the term in detail to be certain that the subject I was supposed to deal with, was within my knowledge field and, therefore, if I was going to be able to give a workshop –or any other similar activity– with the seriousness that it deserves.

While studying, I came across some valuable documents written by the Mexican Estela Morales Campos that allowed me to find out that –considering my working experience– I would be able to give a workshop on the subject. Basically, the term –and the concept behind– recovers the importance of diversity and human plurality, perfectly embodied in all the information produced by the many different cultures around the world (understanding 'culture' in its widest sense). The workshop that I will give in Guadalajara will focus on showing the role that libraries may (and/or should) play in a world where 'info diversity' is threatened all the time.

Threats? Yes, definitely so many. On the one hand, the enormous pressure of dominant languages and cultures, which leads to 96% of the planet speaking only 4% of the existing idioms and 90% of the world languages underrepresented on the Internet. In these circumstances, 'digital revolution' and 'knowledge society' (and its great influence on the contemporary world) are a potential threat to local minority cultures survival. 'Global' culture –that is to say, dominant nation's culture– is literally smashing regional cultures. If you do not believe me, make the attempt to find out, for example, how many different web pages there are in Quechua language (spoken by hundreds of thousands people in South America) on the Internet... or how many songs, tales, customs, and traditional stories of Castile (the Old)... or how much music played with 'gaita' and 'chicote' from Colombia you can download... or how many recipes from the Chiloé Island (Chile) or from northern Paraguay you can find... You only have to compare these findings with the examples representing the dominant culture on the Internet

Of course, these means and technologies can be used in favor of less represented groups (since they are the ones that endow our culture with its wide diversity; without them we will be a world quite homogeneous and grey). On how to use such instruments –this is the question– there is nothing resolved yet, and will be necessary to design plans and strategies in advance.

On the other hand, digital divides continue to grow and widen. It does not have only to do with the fact that still there are regions in our planet where a computer cannot work because there is not electricity supply, or there is not telephone line, or simply there is no money to buy the computer. Mainly it has to do with information illiteracy, with how inappropriate it seems to make use of these elements by a great part of our planet. Other barriers also turn into threats: copyright is a good example.

Once again, these walls can be slowly pulled down. They do not have necessarily to be threats. Maybe they can become opportunities. Nevertheless, up to the present moment, the progress done in such 'erasing' has been slow.

More threats? Urban cultures (and information) measuring their strength against the rural ones, and many other 'cultural battles': 'politically correct' against 'alternative', the 'stronger sex' against the 'weaker', working age people against children and elders, 'official' history against 'non-official'... All these fragments under pressure belong to our identity, they make us be what we are. If they disappeared, one part of us will go with them.

What can a library do? It can offer its space to let all voices sound; to recover, organize and disseminate them. For urban punks and peasants to be equally present; for anarchist and official leaflets to have the same informative value; for indigenous and western knowledge to be accessed in identical conditions, for different languages from the official to not be a part of 'special collections'...

My workshop will deal with these issues and I hope that, with the proposed activities, we be able to recover experiences, opinions and ideas that develop participants' awareness of the power they have in their hands.

I find too many colleagues –and no colleagues– who think that facing up to dominant streams –those that have been presented above as 'threats' to diversity and plurality– is nothing less than a 'utopia'. I really love that word, but I feel tired of listening that anything attempted against the establishment is a sort of delusion. If we make the decision of throwing in the towel and chose to stand there doing nothing with a challenge, and if we believe that it is not worthy to swing against the tide because it is useless or tiring... then, we will live in a world of destruction and forgetfulness. A world where USA administration and his allies will continue to lay waste with everything that lie in their path, devastating countries, killing civilians with impunity (because, who will oppose them?); where we will end up speaking a language that is not the language we learnt at home (because 'everybody speaks it, and it is the best way of communicating with each other'); where we will read, learn and do whatever someone else tell us to do (because 'that is what is correct'); where to be different from the standard will be as if someone had put a course on us; where to be a woman, a child, an elder, a poor, a black, a Latino, an Arab, a peasant, an indigenous or many more things, will sentence us to survive behind the line (the very same line that separates so many things and so many people)...

If we keep on considering that facing those things is 'impossible', then, let's put our arms down and start to run like lambs of a flock, waiting for the time when we had to present our neck to the slaughter man's knife. The time will come as it happened to many unlucky people before us. Or perhaps we decide to adapt to such 'non-existence' that means to become something that we did not chose to be and do not like to be.

On my part, I prefer to believe that a plural world is possible and defend it with what I do. I prefer to stop thinking of 'utopias' as dreams and turn them into 'possibilities': chances that are worth fighting for, at least if we want them to have the opportunity to come true.

With these ideas in my mind I set out for Mexico. A huge hug from Argentina...