The Information Society and the Digital Divide: Some North-South Comparisons

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ABSTRACT

The concepts of the Information Society and the Digital Divide are reviewed in the context of national and international policies, many of which are techno-economic in nature and lacking a genuine social dimension. This criticism applies to programs in both the emerging and developed worlds. This social dimension must include attention to regulatory and access issues and critically, address core issues of poverty and living standards, including information poverty. The role and significance of information and knowledge need to be better understood in a world where intangible value is increasingly dominant and where metrics for knowledge are at best rudimentary.

Keywords: Information Society; Digital Divide; World summit (WSIS);

THE INFORMATION SOCIETY

Although interest in the concept of society as information society dates back to the 1960s (Bell 1969) it virtually exploded during the 1990s. Initially much of the impetus for this widespread manifestation of national Information Society initiatives was explicitly economic or industrial (Brazil, Ministry of Science and Technology 2001). However, in Europe, the first wave of Information Society policy, that focused heavily on the liberalisation of telecommunications and the development of information and communication technologies (ICTs) was followed by a second phase, more concerned with the wider social aspects including issues of social cohesion and the digital divide (Henten et al 1996, Henten and Kristensen 2000, Anttiroiko 2001). Despite recognition of these major social issues and repeated endorsements by governments and international agencies of their continued significance, much of the impetus in these programs continues to stem from techno-economic rather than social drivers (Martin 2005).

From its inception in the 1960s, the concept of society as Information Society has continued to engage the attention of researchers, commentators and governments. In a general sense, this presents a view of a society where social as well as economic change is driven through interactions with information embodied and represented in products, services, in media and in the structures and governance of society (Martin 1995). A recent United Nations document referred to the emergence of an Information Society that was transforming public and private spheres and was creating new social, political, economic and cultural opportunities throughout the world (UNDSF 2005) However, consensus on the nature and meaning of the concept has been hard to find. There remain differences between those who would view it as representing epochal-type change (ITU 2002) and perceive the emergence of different types of networked informational societies (Castells 2000), and those who maintain that there is no novel, post-industrial society, and that changes in occupational and industrial structures simply reflect continuity with the past (Webster 1995).

Moreover, for all those who proclaim the Information Society as providing the answer to social inequality, poverty and unemployment, there are others who would regard it as likely to widen the gap between information haves and have-nots and to maintain existing socio-economic disparities (Sarker 2001). This divergence in perspective has led to calls for a unitary theory of the Information Society, one that balances the manifold elements of informatisation (Duff 2001). One's own view is that a single allembracing theory is neither practicable nor desirable and that pluralism, for example in the emergence of different models of Information Society development is to be welcomed, These different models apply both at an urban level (Van der Meer and Van Winden 2003), and within regions and between them, including for example, models for East Asia, the United States and the European Union (Venturelli 2002).

Looking beyond Information Society programmes per se to include the broad range of initiatives in fields such as e-Government, e-business and e-Learning reflects the essential continuity in aims and content that exists between these programmes. …