phoenix project


by

Ingo GŁnther

i-gun@Maestro.COM



War destroys the cultural fabric of a nation. Not only do the victims suffer the deprivation of material and personal loss, they are torn loose from their own social persona. The insidious horror of Sarajevo and Bosnia is that the Serbs have launched a systematic campaign aimed at the total destruction of the Bosnian Muslim sense of being in the world.
Their goal is nothing less than the complete and irrevocable eradication of even the faintest trace of a Bosnian heritage in the Balkans. For all intent and purposes, they were never there. To date, Serb propaganda and their re-writing of history are complementary tactics employed with great effect. What will it matter to Bosnian children if the stories they hear from their elders are only tales from the Atrocity Exhibition? With no other resources to draw from, no remnants of the legacy of poets, novelists, playwrights and musicians, no sense of a culture which speaks to a time of vigor and renewal, how can they be expected to build again, to think and grow beyond the bonds of this great tragedy which has so overwhelmed them?

What is needed now is the regeneration of the cultural genome, that part of the Bosnian heritage which has not yet been eliminated and can serve as the seed of their renewal.
We call for the creation of a new cultural resource center in Sarajevo. A "library" perhaps, but in a larger sense the ritual gathering of the broken pieces of a city and its population and their quiet restoration.
The focus for this undertaking is not the "traditional" foreign aid paradigm. We do not feel that internal connections to outside entities, no matter how well intentioned, are appropriate to this project. We feel that too often victims of a catastrophe such as this are made to feel more powerless through the helping hand-out approach. What value is there for a Bosnian teenager to be connected to the San Francisco Library if all he can access is the collected works of Shakespeare? In English? We see groups of people searching through their own possessions, the remnants of lives shattered and lost forever, finding old volumes of native writers, recordings of music they hold close and ... remembering. They will take these volumes in their own hands and transport them somehow to this center not because they have been promised a free copy of Peter Gabriel's Save Sarajevo CD, but because they are driven to keep a memory alive, to contribute their own piece of the collective psyche of a people belonging to a place. Forget the outside world and its affectations. The people of Sarajevo need a safe haven where their lives can begin to grow again.

Practical steps to be taken:
Set up centers all over the world (wherever there are concentrations of Bosnians, Croats etc.) such as in Zagreb, Vienna, Frankfurt, Paris, NY and all those refugee camps in Austria, Germany etc. Ask these people to bring their most favorite books and start archiving them: Scan them - keep an electronic facsimile, then OCR them to be stored as ASCII on a single floppy disc.
The digital facsimile will not lend itself to distribution over the net but will be important to be kept as a reference: The historical original. The same should also happened inside Sarajevo once it is possible to bring in the necessary equipment.
The ASCII version will be the one to become part of an on-line library which can be accessible from anywhere and which can be build remotely from outside Sarajevo. The ASCII version is compatible with all kinds of electronic search, archiving and structuring functions. The inherent economy of the Internet favors ASCII text based information exchange as opposed to graphics or so called multimedia communication. Whereas an entire book may fit well on one floppy disk as pure text (ASCII) - a single page as a graphic document would take up that much space by itself.
The organisation of such a library is special task and probably can be done well in conjunction with professionals at the S.F. Library, Brown University, The New York Public Library and other institutions. The NY Public Library has a well sized Slavic department (and an eager departmental chief). It can be safely assumed that they would be actively interested to have all their books turned into electronic data.
All this can happen while the war is either going on or the cease-fire regulations prevent anything to happen in Sarajevo. But while one must wait with any activity in Sarajevo itself, the electronic Library can be built from those small centers (which can be equipped for $ 2000. - with off-the-shelve hard- and software to scan in books of sizes up to 8 x 14). Not more than 10 of those "centers" would be needed at first. It can be expected that HP or other scanner makers would be willing to donate equipment. The same may be true for the software.
As this electronic archive is being built from de-centralized locations the Internet will provide the necessary conduit for sharing, updating and coordinating the effort. Needless to say - the compilation and organization however, will have to be done in one central location - either as an international academic project headed by Brown University (they do the best stuff with hypertext etc.) or/and in conjunction with professional librarians.
The archived ASCII texts will be centrally stored in at least one US and another (mirrored) European location. The Internet will be used to feed the texts as they become available to the Sarajevo library. All main locations update each other automatically on a daily basis.

Meanwhile as the digital library is being built the interface/s for Sarajevo's burned-out library building can be planned and brought in whenever there is a chance to get a piece of equiment in.
In the cellar of that building a space has to be secured and perhaps fortified to house a UNIX computer system and massive digital storage arrays. (NeXT could be the software and HP the hardware sponsor). That system needs not to take up a lot of space but has to have electric backup and a reliable power source - possibly at all times. At least one high speed modem should be connected and a telephone line - perhaps via satellite.
That room has to be very safe. "Upstairs" a few computer terminals (either Laptop PCs or Macs) are encased in metal housings almost randomly distributed in the space but fixed in position and unremovable. They are all wired to the central computer in the basement. People sit either individually or in groups in front of the screens - only ten of them will be there at the beginning. More are added with time as the military/logistic situation allows.
Library cards will not be available but all people of Sarajevo will have their individual login and password. That in turn will become part of their Internet address. Indeed in a city where telephones have not worked for a long time and are likely not to work in the near future, e-mail among the users of that library will be an automatic, integral feature and an important messaging system for the city. Much like Mao's wall newspapers this will be an electronic bulletin board - fixed at one location and individually accessible.
In fact - whenever the Internet connection of the main computer in the basement is operational - the users will have international e-mail. A daily UUCP feed may only require several minutes every couple of hours - all with only one telephone line.

The Phoenix-Project will create a novel situation in manx respects:
A entire city on the Internet, but with no individuals computers and without tlephone service, a soley electronic library, with no books to complete with. The no-choice condition almost forces practical success on this project but will equally allow to reevaluate the features and benefits of the elevtronic civitas in the testbed situation unmitigated by existing structures of communication.

It will have to be considered what the social and political implications of such a project are - beyond our "good intentions". It will be necessary to anticipate how this will be seen and perceived from the potential user# s point of view. An information invasion?

It will be equally important to have an idea if this will provoke an urge to control such a system - even if it really cannot very well be controlled.