Shahidul Alam (BD)
Knowledge, Power and the Digital Divide
Two basic tools have engineered and enforced Bangladesh's history of oppression and atrocities: technology and language. Our war was based on language, and it was technology that provided the military the muscle. With technology and language both being owned by the wealthy, class divides are intrinsically linked to this hegemony.
How then do we see the most dominant of modern cultures, the Internet? The ownership of the Net is almost entirely Northern globally, and exclusively urban and elite locally. The hype surrounding the Internet and the top down approach with which it is meant to provide deliverance, hides the politics of corporate ownership, the way in which this media is controlled, and the simple fact that for the majority of the world the Internet doesn't exist. For many others in the South, it is barely effective.
Language forms the biggest barrier to computer literacy in Bangladesh, and when less than 15% of the population has access to electricity, and a far smaller fraction owns computers, it is clear that only the wealthy will have access to this technology. Here, a modem costs more than a cow. But the Internet can be a subversive tool and it is the Net that we must use, to fight its own dominance.
Cultures dominate by creating norms that are not questioned by creating 'accepted practices' that become tools of oppression and by defusing the need for critical analysis. Consumer forces convince us of the need for bigger RAM, faster processors and software that gives us greater choice. Wildly disproportionate pay scales, between locals and expatriates and between English speaking and non-English speaking co-workers teach us the importance of fluency in English. Indecent consultancy fees that siphon back most of what is provided as aid, make us believe that western values and skills are what one must strive to attain.
The dissenting voice that questions the goodness of donor efforts quickly discovers the reach of donor funds. One must not stand in the way of progress, particularly when individuals whose personal wealth is greater than that of entire nations they are trying to civilise back that progress. A major cause of the high connectivity costs in our region is the monopoly of the telecom sectors in all our countries. This is not merely a national issue, but is linked to the unequal trade terms between nations of the South and the North. Alliances between global telecom players and local governments have resulted in local consumers getting short-changed. Vested interests have often required entire nations to follow technological solutions totally unsuited to local requirements.
An area that has to be addressed, particularly where the international donor community is involved relates to the mind set that 'appropriate technology' is necessarily 'low technology'. When we talk of Internet or IT there is the feeling that it is inappropriate for poor people and cannot have a role in 'poverty alleviation'.
It is important to recognize that poverty cannot be addressed unless one addresses exploitation and distribution modes within society. This applies not only to regional power relationships but also to global imbalances. Where information is power, denying information to marginalized communities actively prevents the rural poor from overcoming the unequal power structures that they are trapped within. While it is in the interest of the powerful in society to restrict such access, it is also in the interest of the powerful nations to deny access and maintain domination. The unrestricted flow of general information is an essential pre-requisite for an egalitarian society.