FW: [bytesforall] Does IT really promote knowledge?

From "Grugnog" <grugnog@tao.ca>
Date Fri, 29 Oct 1999 18:31:06 +0100
Importance Normal

[: hacktivism :]

IMO Some interesting insights into the value of communications networks and
knowledge to people in less developed countries.
- Grug

-----Original Message-----
From: partha [mailto:partha@drik.net]
Sent: 29 October 1999 17:33
To: bytesforall@onelist.com
Subject: [bytesforall] article from bytes for all- 1

From: partha <partha@drik.net>

Dear Friends,

We've decided to post interesting articles and
features which have been published in the
previous issues of Bytes for All
(http://www.bytesforall.org) into this mailing
list. Following article was published in the
August Issue of Bytes for All. Please forward
all comments into our online discussion board
at http://www.sutra.org/wwwboard/wwwboard.html

Regards and happy reading!

Frederick Noronha Partha Pratim Sarker Editors,
Bytes for All


While new technologies make it possible to move
more information faster than ever before, we
should ask questions about the quality of the
information: what is it that we are
communicating? Is it relevant? Will it make the
world a better place? And does all this
information add up to knowledge?

By Kunda Dixit Third World Network Features

As new technologies make it possible to move
more information faster than ever before, we
are dazzled by the millions of gigabytes that
move across the world in nanoseconds. We are
infatuated by bandwidth, digital television, by
gadgets and gizmos. Yet we hardly ask questions
about the quality of the information: what is
it that we are communicating? Is it relevant?
Will it make the world a better place? And does
all this information add up to knowledge?

The challenge is to get the information to
where it is needed through the most cost-
effective method possible. Only when
information helps people communciate and
participate and allows them and their rulers to
make informed choices does that information
become knowledge.

The growing gap between the world's haves and
have-nots is today reflected in the gap between
the knows and the not-knows. If we want to turn
information into knowledge, and give the
developing world a chance to take a short-cut
to prosperity, the knowledge gap needs to be
bridged urgently.

Here we are not talking about the top-of-the-
line computers in each classroom in India, we
are talking about a teacher who is trained and
motivated, a classroom that has a roof, school
children who have enough to eat so that their
brains are not stunted by low-calorie intake.

The scriptures are right: 'Knowledge is a
sword, and wisdom is a shield.' Perhaps nowhere
is the raw power of knowledge as relevant today
as it is for the two-thirds of the world's
people who live in the countries of the South.
And yet in the developing countries of the
South, the holy trinity of the Information Age
(television, telephone and computer) is
present, if at all, only in its cable and
satellite television incarnation.

South Asia, where one-fifth of the world's
population lives, is today within the footprint
of at least 50 broadcast satellites. In India,
Pakistan and Bangladesh alone there are more
than 70 million households with television
sets, giving a viewership of 300 million.

By the year 2007, there will be 550 million
television viewers in these countries, and half
of them will be hooked up to cable and able to
watch 350 channels that will be available by

Advances in information technology are supposed
to shrink distances, but they don't necessarily
bring people together. Better communications
through satellite may give people a wider array
of programming to choose from, but it does not
guarantee that they will be more tolerant of

In fact, more information seems to mean more
ignorance, and better communications initially
at least tends to highlight the differences
between peoples.

Knowledge may be a sword, but it is double-
edged. The delivery mechanisms for knowledge
are today in the hands of fewer and fewer

Globally, media ownership reflects the
supranational ownership patterns and mega-
mergers with other worldwide businesses. More
and more of the message therefore propagates a
global consumer monoculture that is wasteful,
unjust and environmentally unsound. It is when
this culture is put forward as the only one to
aspire for that it helps perpetuate economic
disparities and unsustainable lifestyles.

It also leaves more and more people out of the
knowledge loop. They have lost the knowledge
they had, and what has replaced it is no longer
relevant or useful. Ultimately, this provokes
an extremist backlash against an uncaring elite
and a soulless global culture.

In a lot of ways, it is just like the loss of
genetic diversity. High-yield hybrid seeds have
replaced a rich variety of local cereals,
improving harvests but also making the crops
more susceptible to disease, and needing
expensive inputs of agrochemicals to make them
work. Globalisation of the media subliminally
spreads information that eats into traditional
knowledge bases and indigenous processes best
adapted to deal with local conditions.

The Internet may offer a chance for South Asian
countries to leapfrog technology, to level the
playing field, to democratise information by
giving a voice to diverse groups so that a new
age when better communications will spread
useful knowledge will be ushered in. But going
by past examples, the chances of this happening
are not good.

Before its 1 November launch, Iridium has
launched a media blitz. The latest commercial
beamed via satellite television to millions of
homes across the world shows the Himalayas and
Kathmandu, while the voice-over talks of how
you can now wait for the dial tone at the ends
of the earth.

But who really grabs satellite phones first? It
is the war correspondents, the Osma bin Ladens,
the businessmen or dying mountaineers on the
summit of Mt Everest making their last call
home. The poor will be the last to use them, or
benefit from them.

How do we ensure that Information Technology
will succeed where all earlier previous
panaceas have failed? First, by knowing its
limitations. Let us not recklessly promise that
this will 'level the playing field' or
'democratise information' but do little doable
things with it which will add up to change.

A lot of this is already happening. It takes
more than an hour to log on to the government-
owned ISP in New Delhi because of dirty phone
lines and although only India's information
elite have private phone connections or can
afford a computer and the ISP fees, the
Internet in India has become a vigorous
parallel information universe. Activists and
the media have found this to be an efficient
and fast way to counter the mainstream agenda,
especially in the dangerous age of nukes and
religious jingoism.

In places where official information is
controlled like in Indonesia, Malaysia and
China, the Internet has brought the only
available means of spearheading the truth.
Across the world, non- governmental
organisations, human rights activists, trampled
minorities and suppressed democracy supporters
are bonding via email. The Internet's inherent
anarchy, its decentralised nature and freedom
from official control has ironically made a
globalised Internet the most ideal medium to
take on the ravages of a globalised economy.

If history has taught us anything, it is that
technology by itself is never the answer. The
corporate values that drive the Information Age
are the same ones that drove the Industrial
Age, and things will be no different with the
Internet or Iridium. It still depends on who
gets to control it, who gets to use it and how
they use it. Unlike the computer's binary
codes, it is not going to be either/or,
plus/minus. The outcome of the Information Age
is going to be a messy analog mishmash.

Parts of the world will be enslaved by
information transnationals, others will be
liberated. Some will cash in on a
commercialised Internet, others will do just as
well without it. Some will be smothered in an
avalanche of information overload, others who
yearn for freedom will use it to bypass
tyranny. The degree to which South Asia can
benefit from the Internet's potential for
democracy, bring about true decentralisation,
or spread knowledge will depend on how much
support the information- poor get to log on.

In the final analysis, Information Technology
is like a tiger. You can either ride it or be
eaten up by it. You may be eaten up anyway, but
at least you get to ride it for a while. -
Third World Network Features

About the writer: Kunda Dixit is Director of
Panos South Asia and co-publisher of Himal
magazine. He is also author of the book,
Dateline Earth: Journalism As If The Planet

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