Dealing with fundamentalism and development, without military occupations

11/27/2010 05:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • James Love Director, Knowledge Ecology International

The U.S. efforts to transform Afghanistan through military occupation occupation face well known shortcoming -- abuses of power by the occupying forces and the puppet governments, resentment and longstanding resistance by the occupying population, plus in some cases, far reaching negative shifts in public opinion globally.

The putative rationales for various types of occupations, going back centuries, have included claims that the occupation would enhance development and shape (in a positive way) the religious, moral, ethical and political views of the occupied populations. But the power of force to convert and shape values, while having some undeniable success over the longer course of history, is not something that seems promising or appropriate in the 21st century.

Art, in its various forms, including as entertainment, and access to knowledge and culture, are perhaps the more promising avenue for exploring development and overcoming prejudices, and a world sometimes torn apart by material, racial, ethical, religious and moral differences.

Sometimes the instrument of change is an information technology -- such as the invention of the printing press, telegraph, telephone, radio, photography, television, the Internet and cell phone technologies. Sometimes the instrument of change is the development of a new form of art, such as the rise of the novel, or each generation's new form of mulitimedia, including most recently the flood of Internet hosted user generated content.

The Taliban's well known hostility to television is certainly an effort to stem the tide of cultural change, such as that induced by watching India soap operas. The explosive growth of cell phones and the Internet in developing countries have both stimulated development and posed great challenges for repressive regimes all over the world. While not always the silver bullet for short term revolutionary action, access to knowledge and culture must be seen as having a longer term positive impact on development and the liberalization of society.

The challenge for society, everywhere, is to support creative communities in ways that themselves are not corrupted by the political and economic power held by the few. The printing press was revolutionary not only because it lowered the cost of copying text and illustrations, but also because it created decentralized and popular markets for works, freeing creative communities from patronage by the State, the church or super wealthy individuals.

Many of the subsequent shortcoming in the cultural industries were a consequence of centralized ownership of the publishing industry. The Internet has torn down many entry barriers for cultural creation, and undermined many of the older monopolies, but society has yet to find sustainable ways to reward creative communities in a world where the unauthorized copying of works both common and socially desirable.

In terms of public policy, the Obama Administration is conflicted, and often unimaginative or captured by industry lobby groups. There are few areas where the Obama Administration is reaching out to support ideas that lack the support of established corporate lobbies. The anti-piracy campaigns for copyright include attacks on privacy and the freedom to share information, not necessarily helpful in the context of a repressive government. Some of the most important information technology "openness" advocates of the Obama Administration have left or were pushed out. Funding culture through the CIA and other military organizations is not a good idea for all sorts of reasons.

As the Obama Administration continues to reassess the limits of military force and the deeper problems of under development, persistent ethic, racial and religious prejudices and backward looking and divisive fundamentalism, it might focus more on the importance of access to knowledge and culture, and the sustainable systems to support creative communities.

In doing so, the Obama Administration should not rely entirely on the views of the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Software Alliance, the MPAA, the RIIA, and other corporate funded lobby groups that are mostly devoted to defending older publishing monopolies and cartels, often through intrusive monitoring of communications.

What would an access to knowledge strategy look like? How best to support creative communities in a world with the freedom to share knowledge, and without unwanted state control of culture? How to overcome private monopoly power? These are the types of questions we expected the Obama Administration to explore.