IGF and crazy cabbies pull world together
The end is not nigh
Internet Governance Forum Having spent three days grumbling and moaning about the Internet Governance Forum 2010, I pre-decided it was time to highlight the good stuff, the reason why people from 107 different countries bothered to attend.
If you asked pretty much anyone at the event if the numbers were up or down this year, everyone would have said down. There just didn’t seem to be that many people about. But according to the (initial) official figures, 1,900 souls turned up, making it the biggest IGF so far.
This figure will drop, but last year, an initial figure of 1,800 was given on a final figure of 1,480, so unless there was a huge drop-out rate, Vilnius was a success in numbers. It compares to 1,280 in Hyderbad (2008); 1,291 in Rio De Janeiro (2007); and 1,350 in Athens (2006).
Why the sense of fewer people then? So far I have four theories:
- The venue – an exhibition hall – was too big so you lost people (I don’t actually buy this as the corridors and lunchrooms should still have been packed)
- More people went to workshops and fewer to the main sessions. There is some merit in this. In fact, the tension between workshops and main sessions was pretty apparent this time, despite a concerted effort to connect the two more.
- People didn’t get up and say as much. Undoubtedly true. I wonder whether that’s because the number of Americans were down (only US citizens seem to be naturally comfortable with talking into a mic in a big room).
- People only attended one or two days, so attendees were spread thinner. I’m not sure I buy this one either as once you’ve gone to the trouble of flying to Vilnius, you might as well stay for a day or two longer.
Anyway, enough of that, what about the crazy cab drivers?
I think I can… I think I can… 50 litas please
The absolute worst cab experience was in Athens at the first IGF where the taxi drivers were so bent that they would drive you the wrong way around town in order to get a bit more money.
I had one who pretended not to know where my hotel was, and drove around in a big circle, appearing back in front of the venue (I wasn’t paying attention, reading my Blackberry) and making a pretence of being lost. He then asked me for the full fare (he received three coins and some south-London advice).
The cabs in Vilnius were not quite so bald-faced but the seemingly accepted system of taxi drivers decided which rate to charge you based on how they are feeling that precise moment was not popular with attendees.
In broad terms, the cheaper the cab, the most likely it was to have wiring hanging down from the ceiling, upholstery from the Stalin era, and a gearbox with an identity crisis.
Here are my three favourite Vilnius cab moments:
- The most brazen: the meter says 25 litas as we stop outside the hotel. I’m in the back in conversation but make a mental note of it. The cabbie turns the car off, immediately turns the meter off, jumps out to helpfully open the door and informs us the fare is 50 litas.
- The most hilarious: I genuinely gave it a 50-50 chance that the cab wouldn’t make the 10-minute journey. At one point he gets out to check the exhaust – which was clearly dragging on the road and making a terrible noise – appeared to tie it up with something and then gets back in. The gearbox was entirely unpersuaded about going faster than 20 miles an hour. And the suspension and steering was eerily close to a bumper car. The driver, god bless him, was clearing no more certain of his car making the distance but he did his best to hide it with some blasting Lithuanian folk-pop. At one point, I involuntarily burst out laughing, but fortunately he didn’t hear it over the exhaust. Good price though.
- The most frightening: This actually came mid-range of all the cabs – 30 litas – but only because the car was going so fast that even on setting “6” (sucker in suit) there wasn’t enough time to get it into the forties. I haven’t seen such recklessness in years. In fact, not since I was a teenager and we all thought we were invisible in our new cars. At least three cars beeped their horns at us – all of which he seemed to take as a sign of appreciation or encouragement. I actually made a note of his face when I got out the cab so I could make sure I didn’t mistakenly get into his cab at any point later that week.
Vilnius is really rundown in a way that you just don’t see in Europe anymore. It looks exactly like Eastern European countries just after the collapse the Soviet Union – bleak, unmaintained, most commercial outlets closed, lines of people at bus stops.
Apparently this has come as a bit of a shock to people that were here five years ago – then Lithuania was rocketing, a part of the new Europe, big billboards everyone, energized people – the capitalist dream. Who knows what happened in the meantime, although you suspect the global economic crisis hit Lithuania hard and fast.
But it does cause me to reflect on the prime minister’s speech earlier in the week, which comprised of two things: an effort to build national pride in the national basketball team’s recent victory, and an almost desperate plea for investment in the country from the big Western countries present. I wish now I had gone and shaken this man’s hand. He was bigger than all of us in the room.
Looking for nuggets
The IGF has always faced the criticism of being little more than a “talking shop”. To some extent this is true, but a little like panhandling you need to sift out golden nuggets of wisdom from the stream of thoughts. It can be tiring, time-consuming work but when you find see the glimmer, it somehow makes the rest of it worthwhile.
Usually it falls to IGF chairman Nitin Desai – a wise, old UN hand from India – to lift the occasion. But this time I think the honour fell to Henrikas Juškevicius – a man who immediately pointed out when he opened the “Taking Stock” session that “there are five spellings of my name, and three other spellings so there’s no full database on the Internet but if you want you can call me Henrikas Jush.”
The chairman role at the main sessions is a slightly daft but brilliant compromise drawn up by IGF top-man Markus Kummer. Someone – usually a government rep from the host country – at all times sits on stage and officially “chairs” the meeting. This comprises of a few minutes of opening remarks, and a few minutes of closing remarks and otherwise the only qualification is the ability to sit still without looking bored.
Well, Mr Jush, who, it turns out, is adviser to the Director General of UNESCO on Communication and Information, and Vice President of Eurasian Academy of Television and Radio, was a welcome surprise.
As the session wound up, he began his closing comments by saying he had listened carefully to all the interventions from the floor – which is what everyone says but he appeared to actually mean it. He then proceeded to give the best speech of the conference.
Here’s an excerpt (read with a relatively thick Russian-like accent for the full effect): “Living with part of my life under totalitarian regimes I lacked dissident voices. Everybody was so positive. Everybody was so unanimous. There was very little critics. Only then we talk about youth there were some, you know.
“But I must tell you, on 15th of September, I wanted to participate in Room 7, ‘Legal aspects of Internet Governance, international cooperation and cybersecurity’. But when I came, the hall was full, and people were taking chairs from the Room 6, so I decided to stay in the Room 6 and in the Room 6 was only young people so I decided to sit in the Room 6 and maybe on computer to listen what’s on 7.
“So two young ladies came to me, and told, you know, we now have the young organisations of youth and there will be random choice of speakers. You will be the first choice. What is your name?”
There followed an insightful rundown of the impact of the Internet in the broader sense. How power is emigrating outside the institutions which have existed for centuries. “You know, I don’t have anything against Governments, but they have vertical structures. And vertical structures today are becoming already a bit old fashioned.”
He then outlined the useful role of the United Nations in creating the IGF but that, in his personal opinion, it was probably not the best manager of the annual forum. As so on, in this vein, telling some wise home truths without ideology.
It’s a strange thing we someone starts making broader, public sense and pulls things together coherently. Suddenly, the chaos and the worthless, the pontificating and ego-mania shrinks into the background and your brain start recalling all the little gems you’ve heard that week. Thoughts about how legislation needs to change to fit in with a new era; about how we are both in a new world but still reflecting the old world; how we can continue to make progress without having to force revolutions on people; how the world is gradually being pulled together by meetings like the IGF, and what has changed since the whole thing started five years ago.
And with that, with the dross and the ego-insights forgotten, you feel that having travelled halfway across the world to sit in an exhibition hall listening to hours of people talking with only occasional focus was suddenly worth it. And that the IGF, for its all many faults, is the testbed for something much, much bigger.
This was a big five years. Here’s hoping for five more. ®
This article originally appeared on kierenmccarthy.com.