PLANETWORK: A Conference on
Global Ecology & Internet Technology

March 2000
Page Two of a Three Page Interview

ECOTECTURE: What inspired the PlaNetwork Conference?

ELIZABETH THOMPSON: The idea evolved from our founding group - Erik Davis, David Ulansey, myself and Jim. We had an interest in producing an event that looked at the philosophical / cultural / spiritual implications of the emergence of the World Wide Web at this moment in time. In discussingthis idea, the intuition was clear that if there was some significance to the timing of its emergence, it had to be connected to saving the planet. We recognized immediately the importance of creating a forum to communicate this intuition and hoped that in doing so we could function as a catalyst forconretizing the connection for others.

ECOTECTURE: When was that?

ET: 1998.

ECOTECTURE: So this has been in the works for a couple of years?

JIM FOURNIER: Yes: We held an event in the summer of 1999, where we invited about 50 people to the Presidio to discuss these ideas. We thought we would hold the Conference then, but we weren't ready and the idea wasn't ready. Y2K was still on the horizon, and a lot of internet people were distracted with that. During that first year, from 1998 to 1999, we would try to describe the idea to people both on the technology and ecology sides, and were more apt to get some blank stares (than we are now.) Now, almost everyone we describe it to at least sees that there should be an issue there, even if they don't fully understand.

ET: The impetus behind the July, 1999 gathering, in addition to rolling out some of our ideas and getting a sense for who might be interested in our work from the environmental community, was to discuss the possibility of creating a network of environmental and ecologically focused websites in a new way. The way in which they are organized right now is either on environmentally focussed portal sites or web rings. We gathered about 50 people for a large conversation about the possibilities for a different model that would take what already exists to another level.

It was an interesting gathering. Web masters from a lot of different, mostly local, environmental organizations were there. It was very valuable for us in terms of our current project because it allowed us to get an intimate look at the environmental activist community's concerns about the use of the web. We have seen a tremendous acceleration of the use of the web by the global activist community... The embracing of these digital technologies just in the last year has been incredible.

JF: This Conference will have even more of a grass-roots, activists tone to it because the 1999 gathering was before (the) Seattle and Washington (World Trade Organization Protests). The role of technology in those events was so important. I heard a program on the radio yesterday that said that the level of technology the Washington organizers had in their paint-peeling, old, dilapidated warehouse headquarters... that it was just packed with computers, satellite feeds and all of this stuff... very young people, very savvy with the technology. The police apparently said that this was the best organized demonstration they had ever seen, and D.C. is a town that has seen a lot of demonstrations.

The information technology is really allowing people to organize quickly. Some members of the press have been saying, "Why now? These (environmental issues) have been present for a long time." The Web is now serving as a vehicle for global, grass-roots communication which really brings a sense of the rest of the world to people which goes around the mainstream broadcast media.

Both the awareness of the global situation and tools for acting on it are being rapidly accelerated by information technology.

ET: Yesterday, I also heard an interview on the radio where someone was talking about the police reaction to the way in which the protest had been organized. The model that the activists use is a completely decentralized one. This is the same model as the World Wide Web. The networking model of the Web is finding explicit expression in these massive convergences of activists.

The fact that the police could not go to the one person in charge, the leading maverick figure around whom everyone was organizing, was really throwing them off. Everyone had a voice in the decision making process. It was a consensus oriented process. The way in which people are using these tools is informing the models for action. It's really pretty cool.

ECOTECTURE: Do you remember the Liberation News Service? In the 1960's it was the news service for the underground newspapers. When you mentioned getting around the mainstream media or having all the information filtered through some corporate sieve... the Liberation News Service was the antidote.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, for example, there were riots in virtually every city in the United States. For the most part, if you were watching television, you didn't know about what was going on in the other cities. You knew what was going on in your city because it looked like Vietnam. There was smoke coming up everywhere. But you didn't know what was going on in the other cities. The only way I knew was because I was working on an underground paper in D.C. at the time, and the Liberation News Service kept us informed.

What you are talking about is analogous to that, but, obviously, what you are talking about is much more wide-spread.

JF: It may also be a metaphor for what is going on within this country and globally. We are continually told by the centralized media that everybody in the culture thinks things are one way, and we may know that within our little circle of friends that we don't agree with that, but we feel like we are just out on the fringe and the rest of the mainstream world is over there.

So there are several levels of knowing. One is to know that you know, the next is to know that everybody else knows too, then there is a third level where you all know that you all know. When you get to that third level of knowing that the emperor has no clothes, the jig is up. But, until you get that point, even if you have a pretty good sense that everybody else knows, you can't really act, you don't really have that power.

I think these distributed information technologies are bringing (knowledge) at all three levels. The more the media is centralized in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations... it is as if they are raising the bar... and they can keep building the dam higher. At a certain point where it really can't be raised any more, there may be a tremendous tension to knock it over. I think that is what happened in Eastern Europe. They kept ratcheting up the level of control until finally it got to a level of absurdity where no one would participate. It seemed as if it collapsed and changed out of no where.

While I think that analogy is only good up to a point, I think that we have been seeing an acceleration of the (idea of) the market as God and efficiency and economics as the only things that count. Yet, increasingly (we are) being told that there isn't enough money do any of the ecological, social or humanistic things that everybody feels are critical to life. Yet the profit levels keep going up for the few.

I have no idea what this actually going to lead to. But I think what we are seeing now in D.C. and Seattle and the use of these new information technology tools and the connections (being made) between peasants in the third world and the labor unions in this country and environmentalists... these factions that, in the past, we have been told are each other's enemies... joining forces... it is very exciting.

ECOTECTURE: What would you like to see come out of the Conference, specifically?

ET: There are a lot of different answers (to that). We have talked a lot about activism and the Web, but that is just one piece of our programming pie. We have people coming who are working in the hard core sciences, high tech industry, architecture and design, social theory - artists are a major presense - there is a panel called "surfing the global brain."

Our challenge, and what has been of most interest for me, is to see what happens when we gather all of these people in the same place - we can't predict the outcomes. Our intention has been to create a dynamic forum where people from distinctly different backgrounds, who, we can assume, are very concerned with the state of the planet, can meet and inspire each other. I am approached all the time by people who look at our program and ask, "What is this? Is it a professional conference, an activist conference, a high tech conference, what is it?" I find this amazing, no alarming - it is as if we have forgotten that true cultural community arises from the mixing of disparate hearts and minds.

It is my hope that planetwork will foster some interesting, accidental collisions of different perspectives. This is how interesting ideas are born. I suppose, in effect, we are creating a kind of temporary town square. I am always most interested in creating these kinds of living cultural organisms

The web, for all the hype about it's facilitation ofcommunity, actually encourages people to further specialize and therefore control the kind of interaction with others they choose to participate in. The control aspect of this is alarming to me as one can choose to communicate only with narrowly focused groups of people who are exactly like themselves in a certain way. Planetwork gathers people who might not normally find themselves in the same place. The outcome cannot be predicted, but I find the challenge very exciting.

JF: I have the same sense that the most important thing we are doing is to create a forum for a very eclectic mix of people that wouldn't normally meet each other to interact, and we really can't know what will come out of that. It is really important not to know, but to just put a lot of energy into trying to create the conditions for that unknown synthesis and, possibly, magic, to happen.

Personally I have thoughts and ideas about what could come out of that. As an organizer I try to put those in the background. But I think it is worth mentioning them.

One thing that could come out of the kind of mix of people with very different backgrounds and skills would be collaborative syntheses (of) putting together different skill sets to make some of the things that I think need to happen. I get the sense that the people doing scientific work are often frustrated because it is so hard to get the ear of politicians who just have their fingers up to see which way the wind is blowing and aren't paying attention to the reality on the ground and the public (that) is just being fed the mass media pabulum. In order to take this information that, in many cases, is coming off large computers (systems) and modeling systems that are pretty esoteric and removed from even the Web, and bring that out to the public in a form that could be easily grasped and digested requires the skills of people who are artists, graphic designers, web people, or in some cases even people with entrepreneurial and business skills. So, one of my personal hopes is that by bringing together this very heterogeneous group of people there may be contacts that are formed, or even collaborative projects that don't exist now.

I also have in mind a consortium proposal that friends of mine and I developed for a pair of web sites called Planet Monitor and Earth Model. The idea is that they would have a doctor-patient relationship between them where Earth Model looks like a globe sitting in an operating room equipped with readouts so if you are from the press you can go there and immediately get information about critical conditions. If you wanted to click on the earth you could zoom in and get all kinds of different data sets that you could view on a standard format. If we could get the format standardized, people would probably start writing to it. The idea would be to try to get the ball rolling on a consortium that many different scientific, political and NGO groups could pull information from and put information back into. All the members of the consortium would equally participate.

I have no idea if something like that would come out of this conference. But I suspect that there are all kinds of people coming who have similar ideas up their sleeves. We may find when they start bumping into one another that a lot of people have thought of more or less the same thing at the same time. This has happened throughout history. I think it is happening even more now. These flows may converge and real synergy may happen when they get together.

ECOTECTURE: When I think of a Conference like this, I think of a bunch of speakers speaking to a bunch of people. You have a bunch or presenters that you have specifically picked out of the six billion people or so on the planet and said, "OK., we think that it would be neat if these people got together in the same room because of the synergy that they have in there." Is there space and time set aside so that sort of interaction can happen, or is it a little bit more chaotic than that? In what way have you provided for that interaction?

ET: We have had lot of discussion about how to create a form that reflects in some ways the content besides the model of chaos (laughs). To facilitate an interactive experience for people who are attending the conference - and I want to emphasize the fact that the people who register to attend these types of events are just as interesting, if not more so, that the presenters - we will have a room designated for people to present their own web sites so others can learn about the work they are doing, the digital tools they are using, as well as create a space for further, and more intitmate interaction between speakers and attendees.

Then there is the "Online Conference."

JF: We are just announcing the Online Conference this week, as so much work has gone into creating the face to face to Conference. But in parallel with that we have been working on a web site where we will be putting up all of the sessions, if not in perfectly real time, then very close to it. Then everything can be available not just at the Conference, but on an ongoing basis. We will be partnering with other web sites that are hosting events that are somehow parallel to this. For instance, the Utne Cafe is hosting a discussion forum for us, and they will be part of the Online Conference, as will be some of the other discussion forums. ecoTECTURE magazine will put up parallel information.

Right now the Online Conference is a page within the site but it will soon be whole new, separate site, called We are encouraging people from around the world who can't be there live to put up content, so it is really a two way street where we are using a face to face conference to try to catalyze as much activity (as possible) on the web around the issue of ecology in May, 2000. The real objective of the event is to bring the issues of the environment to the Web.

To that end, for the people who are registered face to face, we also have a data base where they can go in and put up information about themselves and share with other people who attend and that will also be extended to people who won't be able to attend. People will be able to search the database with key work searches, depending on their interests.

ET: We hope to begin discussions around certain topics prior to the conference.


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