Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Will New Technologies Widen Global Inequality?

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Will New Technologies Widen Global Inequality?

Article excerpt

A CONFERENCE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND EXPLORES SETTING A NEW SOCIAL AGENDA FOR THE INTERNET

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Are new information technologies helping to widen the social and economic gap between the world's poor and wealthy? Participants at a two-day meeting at the University of Maryland explored that question and others during the New Information Technology (IT) and Social Inequality Conference last month.

More than 100 people from colleges and universities, major corporations, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations from as far away as Mauritius, Mozambique, and Malaysia attended the conference. The Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland convened and hosted the conference.

"Is the Internet becoming a new engine for global inequality?" conference organizer Dr. Ernest J. Wilson III asked participants in his opening remarks. Wilson is director of the Center for International Development and Conflict Management and a professor of government at the University of Maryland.

The first day of the conference examined, the theme "Resetting the Research and Policy Agendas." Topics covered in panel discussions included Internet connectivity in countries lacking advanced telecommunication systems, the lack of basic education in developing nations, and their scarcity of information technology resources. The second day was devoted to consideration of Africa and the information technology needs of its countries.

During the conference's opening session, Wilson noted that one of the challenges for policymakers, in particular, is that the current research on IT and inequality is virtually nonexistent. He added that there is considerable attention paid to "electronic commerce" but very little to "electronic equity."

"We don't know enough of the impact of IT on inequality," Wilson told conference participants. He urged participants to consider that new ITs are being introduced into a world where there's already substantial inequality between rich and poor nations, and between the rich and poor within individual nations. A number of participants agreed that IT has the potential to help accelerate the growing gaps between haves and have-nots, and others concurred that research on IT and inequality needs boosting.

"We have to get inequality on the core research agenda," advised Dr. Sean O. Siochru, research director at NEXUS Europe, a nonprofit research institution based in Ireland.

Resetting the Agenda

The task of resetting research and policy agendas has fallen on organizations and government agencies that are often burdened with complex agendas and multiple goals. Making IT a priority is difficult when a nation's food production, providing basic education, medical care, and shelter remain far from being resolved, according to conference participants.

Vivian Lowery Derryck, the assistant administrator for Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development, told conferees that Vice President Albert Gore deserves considerable credit for getting the U.S. to aid developing countries in their efforts to develop information technology resources and infrastructure.

"Vice President Gore has been a leading advocate of the place of equitable IT in the new century," Derryck says.

She cited the Clinton administration's Leland Initiative as a U.S. program designed to aid developing African countries in acquiring the telecommunications infrastructure necessary to facilitate Internet connections. USAID, which is a branch of the U. …

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