Last year, the Norwegian Nobel Committee caused quite a stir when it pegged President Obama as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Well I am sure the blogosphere and editorial pages will be abuzz if they award the prestigious prize to the Internet this year.
That's right, according to the Associated Press, that inanimate global network of computers that brought you stupid pet trick videos, time-wasting video games and spam e-mail has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
While the nominees for the Nobel Prize each year - a long list of mostly worthy individuals submitted by parliamentarians from around the world, previous award winners and academics - are kept secret, nominators sometimes spread the word about their candidate.
The Italian edition of the digital culture magazine Wired launched a campaign to nominate the Internet for the Peace Prize last year, including a web site, www.internetforpeace.org. Celebrities like fashion designer Giorgio Armani and technology luminaries like Joi Ito of Creative Commons and Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab signed on as ambassadors of the cause. But it was not until they won the support of Iranian human rights activist and Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi that the nomination was clinched.
In her declaration about the nomination, Ebadi recognizes the power of the Internet to unite people in the cause of peace. But she notes that "[the] Internet can also be used for propaganda of war and terrorism's attacks, as Taliban and some other terrorist groups have used the Internet to attract many fans ... Therefore, it should be considered that the Internet is a device. If it will be used for the peace then it can create friendships and if it will be used in a way that teaches making bombs, then it may be a means of communication for people who are demanding war."
Thus the controversy. What exactly is the Nobel Peace Prize recognizing? Is the prize for the grassroots peacemakers, pragmatic diplomats or contemplative visionaries?
Ironically perhaps, Alfred Nobel's wealth came from his invention of dynamite and the resulting increase in the killing potential of war-making. Nobel basically got rich from bombs. He then left the vast majority of that wealth in a trust to fund the awards that bear his name, including the Peace Prize, which was first awarded in 1901.
The prize has always been controversial and political. Mohandas Gandhi, the recognized father of 20th century nonviolence and leader of the Indian independence movement, never received the prize. Henry Kissinger did. Go figure. Nelson Mandela received the prize, but he had to share the honor with apartheid leader Frederik Willem de Klerk (maybe because he didn't engage in genocide when faced with the dissolution of his racist regime).
It's not likely that the Internet will be announced the winner this October (it's not clear if inanimate objects are even eligible), but perhaps it is just as reasonable a choice as any other.
The Nobel Peace Prize is meant to honor "the person 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." But the prize has gone to environmental activists, human rights workers, grassroots activists and others who seem not to fit the description ... at least not narrowly defined.
The naming of Obama for the award last year resurfaced long-standing controversies over the award. Had the newly elected U.S. president earned the accolade? Obama, who said he was surprised and humbled by the honor, also admitted that the award was more "a call to action" than an award for accomplishments.
Maybe the same could be said for the Internet.
For most of us, the Internet is just a tool for communications, a source of distraction or entertainment. But the potential is there for the Internet to truly transform the world.
In fact, it is already happening. Nearly 2 billion people are online, representing every continent, language, religion, race and belief. For the first time in history, the people of the world are just a mouse-click away from one another. And activists have taken to the Internet as the tool and terrain for new progressive political movements.
The Internet is, in the words of the Internet for Peace manifesto,
"much more than a network of computers. It is an endless web of people. Men and women from every corner of the globe are connecting to one another, thanks to the biggest social interface ever known to humanity. Digital culture has laid the foundations for a new kind of society. And this society is advancing dialogue, debate and consensus through communication.
Because democracy has always flourished where there is openness, acceptance, discussion and participation. And contact with others has always been the most effective antidote against hatred and conflict.
That's why the Internet is a tool for peace. That's why anyone who uses it can sow the seeds of non-violence."
Now that is a call to action.