Bits and Bytes and Brussels – The Internet deserves the Nobel Prize

The European Union has received the Nobel Peace Prize. But the most deserving recipient wasn’t even on the list.

Barack Obama had been in office less than a year when he was announced as the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. Sure, the president had given a nice speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, and he had proclaimed to resolve the stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians, but the prize came too early. Obama himself was visibly uncomfortable with the honor: others “may be more deserving,” he said, and stoically accepted the Nobel medal. There’s not much he could have done anyway: you’re a Nobel prize recipient regardless of whether you attend the prize-giving ceremony or not.

But as much as the decision of the selection committee is set in stone, the critics will never be silenced. Reactions to the selection of the European Union as the 2012 recipient were as vocal as they were predictable.

Indeed, the choice of honorees of the peace prize is often controversial: sometimes, the honor seems long overdue. At other times, it appears premature or overly idealistic. To be fair, Alfred Nobel didn’t exactly set an easy task. His will specified that the prize ought to be awarded to those people who “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” The challenge for the committee is every year to find the person “who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” Wow.

Alfred Nobel died 115 years ago, so the language he used might seem a bit antiquated today. But is it wrong to wish that the Nobel Committee could have displayed some audacity in its selection? It wouldn’t have been the first time: the committee has already begun to deviate from Mr. Nobel’s will by honoring institutions as well as individuals: in 1910, the prize was awarded to the Permanent International Peace Bureau. In 1917, the International Committee of the Red Cross was recognized. Today, it’s the European Union.

But audacity also means we have to re-think our conception of peace, and how we can contribute to it. In 2010, the Italian edition of “Wired Magazine” did exactly that and nominated the internet for the Nobel peace prize.

It’s not as absurd as it might seem. Selecting the internet as the 2012 recipient would have solved several problems at once: it would have provided a counterweight to the series of old white men. Last year’s female recipients were an anomaly to the Nobel tradition: 71.1 percent of recipients have been male. The internet, by contrast, is genderless, omnipresent, and polyglot. It would also have been such a politically correct decisions that we would have surely enjoyed several days of media frenzy and criticism.

Additionally, it’s worth remembering that the internet fulfills all criteria established by Alfred Nobel as benchmarks for the prize. Not only has the internet helped to flatten the world in recent years, it has also emerged as a powerful force behind the spread of ideas and movements. Arguably, easy trans-border communication has contributed more to peace (and will continue to contribute to it) than high-level political negotiations. Politics doesn’t need the internet, but digital technologies can fuel political expression. The Arab Spring, Occupy, Ai Weiwei, and the global outburst of solidarity with Pussy Riot would all have unfolded differently without the internet.

Over the last twelve months, we have seen how new technologies can break with old paradigms that only serve to perpetuate secrecy, ignorance and intolerance. Think of WikiLeaks what you want, but at least recognize that the debate that resulted from the publication of large caches of government documents has contributed to democratic governance and peace. If we compare these observations with Alred Nobel’s standard of “the greatest benefit to mankind,” selecting the internet as a recipient surely would have sufficed.

The only remaining hurdle would have been the obligatory press conference in December. You would have to find someone to take the stage and speak for the internet. While several candidates come to mind, it seems oddly inadequate to force a sense of personhood on a global network. But, again, not having a representative seems more novel than it is: several years ago, the ceremony in Oslo featured an empty chair, as the recipient Liu Xiaobo was still imprisoned in China. The empty chair is now back in fashion, albeit in a more upbeat context: think Clint Eastwood, and imagine what he could have done on the Nobel stage!

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