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Exiled to cyberia

The latest development buzzword is 'knowledge', hailed as the solution to world poverty. But whose knowledge are we talking about and is it accessible to all?

A new buzzword has entered the development lexicon: 'Knowledge Society' – the Information Age is the Age of Knowledge, we are told.

There is a danger that the wisdom of the ages is now going to be another piece of jargon. And like all the extinct buzzwords that preceded it, 'knowledge' will end up in that dusty shelf where all past development clichés are stored.

Blaming underdevelopment on lack of knowledge has two other dangers. It may make us overlook the fundamental economic factors that keep the poor poor, widening disparities between and within nations.

Second, the knowledge hype may tempt us to regard only formal modern knowledge systems as worthy of attention. Mainstream economics tends to regard knowledge of the seasons, the different uses of roots and fruits, and evolved traditional wisdom as dispensable. Ironical, isn't it, that the so-called 'information poor' may be sitting on a gold mine of information stored in the DNA of the plants they use daily.

Knowledge is not new – we have known it for millennia. We have also known that wisdom only comes about when knowledge is assimilated, internalised, when it changes existing behaviour patterns and makes things better. The wisdom of a monk meditating on a mountaintop is not much use because no one knows what is in his head. The knowledge to build a nuclear warhead is not wisdom, because atomic bombs fail an important test: they do not make the world a better place.

There is a similar lesson for the Information Age: the internet does not necessarily spread knowledge. And even if it does distribute information widely and cheaply, what results is not necessarily greater wisdom.

The latest scientific information on tuberculosis is all over the internet: how to prevent it, which therapies work, the antibiotics that bacilli have become resistant to. But this information needs to get where it is needed as cheaply as possible, it needs to be relevant to the needs of the people it is meant for, and it must be packaged so that it is easily understood.

To be useful, information must help people communicate, participate and allow them and their rulers to make informed choices.

Recognition of the power of knowledge may be as old as civilisation, but what is different now is the speed and capacity to move that information. At present, this speed and capacity are concentrated in the same countries in which wealth and power are concentrated. And the gap between them and the rest shows signs of widening.

One in every three Americans uses the internet, only one in every 10,000 people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh do. India's 'teledensity' is 1.5 in every 100 people and narrow bandwidth in most places does not allow internet use; only 13 percent of Nepal's population has access to electricity; and Sri Lanka has 3.3 personal computers for every 1000 people compared to 400 per 1000 in Switzerland.

Alongside knowledge, another buzzword is "leapfrogging": bypassing obsolete and expensive copper cable for digital wireless signals, and using the Internet for distance learning and e-commerce.

But developing countries that have squandered the potential of radio for knowledge dissemination have no right to go on about leapfrogging into the Knowledge Society. South Asia's born-again digerati may scoff at unglamorous AM radio, but the fact remains that no other medium today comes close to matching its reach, accessibility and affordability.

And yet, what have we done with radio? By using it shamelessly as a public address system for government propaganda, we have insulted hundreds of millions of radio listeners and wasted this medium.

It is possible that the digital elite will argue that by talking about AM radio we are trying to keep our people in the age of bullock carts. To begin with, what is wrong with bullock carts? Second, if your information superhighway is full of potholes, you are probably better off in a bullock cart.

Why is it that officialdom in developing countries only deregulates the newest information and communication technologies? Murdoch's television channels are not under government control, private cable operators have a free-for-all, there is competition among cell phone operators, there is a choice of Internet service providers, FM radio has been privatised, and some governments are even letting go of that cash cow: state telecom monopolies.

But not AM radio. Here, in the one medium which can be the carrier of information and knowledge to the people, the iron hand of government is as strong as ever.

Knowledge, like technology, is not value-free. This era may well herald 'the end of geography', but for whom? Useful questions to ask about the Knowledge Revolution: Whose knowledge? Who produces, controls and owns the information content of knowledge? Who benefits? Will the knowledge improve people's lives?

Take education. How is the internet going to help us leapfrog in education if we have made such a mess of our existing school systems? Before sticking a computer into a school, how about building a roof over it? Why aren't there girls in the classrooms? Why are the children dropping out after one year? Where is the electricity, the telephone line, the text books?

The hype surrounding the internet and the merging of computing with communications leads many to believe that this is a real revolution in the way human beings think and live. But the corporate political structures that govern the Knowledge Revolution are the same ones that governed the Industrial Revolution. And the main impact of e-commerce is felt in good old-fashioned consumerism, allowing access to digital mail-order catalogues with online payment and global home delivery.

The global free market is under no one's control, and it is seriously widening not only the economic but also the knowledge gap between and within nations. New technologies rarely invest in the social capital that is needed to enable those who are lagging behind to catch up. It is supposed to happen automatically, but it never ever does.

Fidel Castro boiled it down to the bottom line when he asked delegates at a UNESCO conference in Havana in July last year: "If only two percent of Latin America has the Net, we must invent something else… If peasants can't read or write, how can we reach them?"

Try radio, Fidel.

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Panos London

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