Magazine article UN Chronicle

The Digital Advance

Magazine article UN Chronicle

The Digital Advance

Article excerpt

More than half the world's people have never made a phone call. Will ICTs assure us change?

Digital Information-Communication Technologies (ICTs) promise the world a "new civilization", an "information revolution", or a "knowledge society". Once ICTs have realized worldwide access for all to information, new social values will evolve, new social relations will develop, the "zero sum society" comes to a definite end. According to the digital utopists, ICTs will create more productivity and improved chances for employment. They will upgrade the quality of work in many occupations and offer myriad opportunities for small-scale, independent and decentralized forms of production. Poor countries that are still in the agricultural age can now leap-frog into a post-industrial society, bypassing all the trouble of the industrial revolution.

The utopists also predict that ICTs will strongly reinforce current processes of democratization in many countries. The increased access to information flows will undermine official censorship and empower movements in civil society. And they disagree with those who worry about scenarios of worldwide cultural homogenization; they see the emergence of new and creative lifestyles, vastly extended opportunities for different cultures to meet and understand each other.

They foresee the creation of new virtual communities that easily cross all the traditional borderlines of age, gender, race and religion. And it is obviously true that ICTs can perform tasks that are indeed essential to democratic and sustainable social development. They can provide low-cost, high-speed, worldwide interactive communications among large numbers of people, unprecedented access to information sources, alternative channels for information provision that counter the commercial news channels, and can support networking, lobbying and mobilizing.

Educational facilities can be improved, using ICTs to facilitate distance learning and on-line library access. Electronic networking has also been used in the improvement of the quality of health services, since ICTs permit remote access to the best diagnostic and healing practices and, in the process, cut costs. Digital technologies for remote sensing can provide early warning to sites vulnerable to seismic disturbances and can identify suitable land for crop cultivation. In addition, computer technology can assist in the development of flexible, decentralized, small-scale industrial production, thus improving the competitive position of local manufacturing and service industries. In a number of countries - Singapore, Brazil, Hong Kong - the introduction of computer-aided manufacturing technologies in small-scale industries has been very successful.

There is also an environmental advantage in such developments. As the World Commission on Environment and Development noted in its report, Our Common Future, decentralization of industry reduces levels of pollution and other negative impacts on the local environment. Another important digital advantage is the relative ease with which new public spaces can be created in cyberspace. Through digital networks, new global communities are being established. Increasingly, organizations in developing countries are integrated into these webs of horizontal, non-hierarchical exchange that have already proved themselves able to counter censorship and disinformation. Members of ecological movements and women's organizations, human rights activists, senior citizens and many other groups have made impressive use of digital technology.

The growing ICT demand in developing countries finds expression in long waiting-lists for telephone connections, growing use of cellular systems and expanding numbers of Internet users. To meet this demand, consideration of ICTs is increasingly becoming an integral part of national development agendas. In fact, there is currently a phone frenzy in the developing world. …

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