Last night I watched an episode of Channel 4’s Live From Space programme, here in the UK. It features the British TV presenter Dermot O’Leary resting casually against a desk in Mission Control in Houston, Texas, talking with NASA astronauts and staff. There is stunningly beautiful HD video from the International Space Station, of astronauts going about their every day life circling more than 200 miles about the earth, cheering at the arrival of a stock of shrink-wrapped tortillas.
A few things struck me. First, that even Dermot isn’t getting a ride into space. Presumably he flew Club World on BA to Texas, but beyond that he’s very much terra firm. Second, was the fact that the ISS also had Russians on it – but they’re in the Russian section so they don’t hang out much. It struck me that this current pinnacle of technical engineering achievement is divided into a series of nation-state modules, where collaboration is somehow negotiated, presumably around financial economy. While all the crew stare down on one big beautiful earth.
Meanwhile, my job is to help make what my colleague Thomas Bjelkeman once termed a “tiny multi-national” work well, on a budget. The organisation, Akvo, is a non-profit. It’s a fusion of various cultural traits – drawn (as I write) from Dutch, Swedish, British, American, Kenyan, Spanish, French, Indian, Indonesian, Honduran and South African identity and upbringing.
It’s easy to do one of three things in this situation – you either invent and assert a homogenous institutional culture (United Nations, IBM, Shell), you pick a dominant national culture and build an institutional one around that, or you let each part of the organisation assert its own national character, and let everyone enjoy that.Finding another way?
Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the date when Tim Berners Lee proposed “a universal linked information system”, which became the World Wide Web. So I was minded of his comments in a CNET interview timed to coincide. First, he talks about the web’s “international spirit” – how the Web has “taken off as [a] non-national thing”.
“I don’t think of it as international, because that’s nations getting together. The Web took off without regard for borders at all. People have chipped in with all kinds of creativity, inventiveness, and hard work from all over the planet at the content level and the standards level. The diversity of stuff you see out there is amazing.”
But there’s a big warning too, of “the control thing”:
“We’ve got big companies and big governments. Now in some countries the corporations and the governments are very hard to tell apart. I’m concerned about that.”
“I’m impressed by Wikipedia — a nice repository of general knowledge — but what I want to see that I haven’t seen is the Web being used to bridge cultural divides. Every day we get people falling for the temptation to be xenophobic and to throw themselves against other cultures. The Web has gone up without national borders, but when you look at the people that other people support, it tends to be people very much of same culture.”
“We look at governing the Internet in a multi-stakeholder, non-national way, but the world is still very nation-based and people are still very culture-based. I’d like it if developers on the Web could tackle the question of how to make Web sites that actually make us more friendly to people we don’t know so well.”
I like the way that the definition of “countries” helps us map the world, and I love the way it helps us understand culture. But there is definitely more to be understood, about places, people and working together. Maybe this will all make more sense as time moves forward. I’m certainly glad we’ve now had 25 years of the World Wide Web.Mark Charmer is a co-founder and communications director at Akvo. Photo: NASA