Established in 1967 by the Slovene PEN Centre, the International PEN Writers’ Meeting was first set at Piran, then at the lakeside resort of BLED, making it the oldest annual regional conference within the framework of the International PEN. More than 60 participants from 30 different countries and PEN centers gathered at last few Bled Writers’ Meetings.
There are many activities at each meeting like roundtables of the PEN International Writers for PeaceCommittee, and Women’s Committee, poets and writers appear on various literary stages across Slovenia and they occasionally host exhibitions.
Due to Covid-19, this year’s Bled Conference is postponed from April to September 22-25. Even though many writers could not participate the conference because of the strict Covid regulations. The Peace Committee planned to have reports of their members on the conference:
Hate speech (Emmanuel Pierrot)
Social protests (Elizabeth)
New technology and surveillance (Tienchi Martin-Liao)
Migrants (Simon Mundy)
Protection of cultural sites (Sergej Roic)
New Technologies and Surveillance
The technological revolution in modern time has generated an immense change of our world. In his book, The third Industrial Revolution; How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy and the world (2011 publ. by Palgrave MacMillan), the American social theorist Jeremy Rifkin described how the new communication technologies together with renewable energy have a strong impact on our behavior and daily life. People witnessed the analogue-to-digital conversion in the second half of last century. Home computer, digital camera, digital TV, CD-ROM
enter into our life, and finally cell phone and internet have overcome the world. Today, there are 4.78 billion (62% of world population) cell phone users and 4.54 billion (59% of world population) internet users (Wikipedia). Not to mention that the world of business, education, science and military is in the tight grips of digitalization.
The application of the new technology during the COVID-19-time
The sudden outbreak of pandemic of coronavirus in the beginning of 2020 has put the digitalization on a new test bench. Horror news has reached us daily about the escalating infected cases (26,192,041) and deaths (867,542) (Stand September 03, 2020) in over 230 countries worldwide, the tendency is still going up. The vaccine may possibly be created by the researchers in this year, till then hundred thousands of lives will be taken away by the pandemic. Most of the countries have closed and reopened the borders, schools and factories, government and public offices were shut down in the spring time, during the summer and autumn all were opened again, yet a second wave of the COVID is threatening all the countries again. International and domestic transport were reduced to minimum, in the summer vacation time, it operated half-way normal, but it will take a long time, maybe years, to return to the previous status. Most of the countries are still facing shortage of medical equipment, and a worldwide recession is destined.
In order to trace the COVID-19, many countries have applied the electronic surveillance technique, especially in Asia, and it proved to be effective. In Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, the authorities are deploying digital surveillance apps, smartphone locators and even credit card usage to trace the travel or movements records of infected patients to follow the virus chains. In northern Italy, Lombardy, the authorities are analyzing the mobile phones movement to find out whether people follow the lockdown rules of the city government. The same happens in Israel, a country constantly troubled by terrorism, knows how to use the electronic devices to check the potential danger.
China, the first COVID outbreak country, has set up electronic surveillance combined with the “social credit system” for many years. Since January, the whole country has been in a state of emergency. The government required each cell-phone owner and Alipay user (Chinese zhifubao is a mobile and online payment platform, the founder Jack Ma induced it in China in 2004, now it is used by 1,2 billion Chinese, so over 90 % of the population ) to install a COVID-software, which classifies the people into red, yellow and green colors, the so-called health code. Green is free from viruses, yellow and red need to do the self-quarantine for 7 or 14 days. The authorities also use the drone, to check the cars’ and drivers’ accessibility, it also detects the offenders of the quarantine rules as well as those who do not wear face masks. In Jiangxi province the drone could even check people’s temperature. Big data and artificial intelligence fulfill the mission at cyber speed. The robots also fill up the shortage of manpower by controlling people. According to the Chinese official information, the COVID is under control, thanks to the new tech, no new infection case in Wuhan after the city was closed down for 2 months.
New technology is a double-edged sword
The Chinese experience has impressed the western countries. In Australia, South Korea, Italy, Germany and many other countries, the smartphone apps and other digital technology have been widely applied to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. In these countries, it is a voluntary act, not mandatory as in China. It is only for anti-coronavirus purpose, after the epidemic is over, all the personal information will be deleted. A large part of the population agrees with this means.
The rapid spread of the pandemic, is allowing governments to place a series of digital surveillance measures in the name of fighting the disease and protecting the public health. Yet, some measures change the scope of the civil rights, the privacy of each individual could be overridden. The balance between public safety and personal privacy is threatened. In the democratic countries, there is rule of law and media watch, normally the government cannot afford to cross the borderline to invade the private sphere. But in totalitarian countries like China, North Korea or semi- authoritarian lands, such as Iran, Turkey, Russia, Brazil and many more, digital technique is a prevalent instrument to control the media, to suppress the opposition, to spread fear and silence dissension.
What is PEN International’s position to the issue
We cannot and do not want to prevent the further development of the new technology, it is indeed a double-edged sword. To use it reasonably, it can save life, improve our working condition, enrich and lift the living standard. To fall it to the hand of dictatorship, it becomes the weapon of suppression.
What is the position of PEN International to this issue? Here are some suggestions:
• We acknowledge that new technology is a part of the progress of our civilization. It brings prosperity and improves our living standard. • High tech in the digital era needs to go hand in hand with an independent ethics watchdog. • New technology shall never become governments’ instrument to suppress human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of press. • Citizens’ rights of information to digitalization needs to be guaranteed. Personal data can only be collected knowingly and voluntarily. The person has the right to know what’s the use of the data. • The related person has the right to retrieve back the personal data, which has been collected by certain organization or government. • PEN International demands the government of all countries in the world not to abuse the usage of electronic technology to monitor the dissidents, and to silence their voice.