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  Participant: Kunda Dixit (NP)

Why Leap the Digital Divide?

It is a bit of an irony isn't it that those of us who are most sceptical about the potential for new information technologies to somehow leapfrog development are the ones making a living out of our scepticism. Here I am, talking to you in Europe about why a computer attached to a phone line is not the panacea it is made out to be to solve global problems of poverty. But I would not have been here if the Internet had not made my views on this subject available to the organizers of this conference! It is even more ironical that we who have strong misgivings about the hype surrounding the Internet are the most intensive users of this brave new medium.

The first thing to understand is that not all cyberskeptics are Luddites. They are not making a call to go back to the pre-steam age when Man lived in harmony with Nature, and all was presumably hunky- dory. The questions we have about information technology also apply to previous technological breakthroughs which we were told would save the earth. I guess we are so desperate to find a clean, quick solution to the problems of global poverty, the ecological crisis, growing gap between rich and poor between and within countries, war and social injustice that we will jump at anything that offers a glimmer of hope. We are also conditioned into looking for technological fixes. Technology is easy, it is something you can lay your hands on, you buy it and the problem is fixed. But many of the world's problems are political, economic, socio-cultural. They demand complicated and sequenced interventions, the outcome is often unforeseen and messy, and the process of change will be slow.

After a decade of bonanza, the massive power of dot com starts up to generate cash and the hype we now seem to be settling down to a more sober assessment of the limitations of information technology. Even the Economist carried a cover earlier this year with the strapline: 'What the Internet Cannot Do' - and they were not even talking about the Third World.

In developing countries we have not escaped the hype of how this new god will be a shortcut to progress. India's Minister of Information Technology, Pramod Mahajan is a man who has given up his homespun cotton shirt for a smart suit and a slick tie. He says India missed the bus on the industrial revolution, it can no longer afford to do the same with the information revolution. Another one of his colleagues once said that India needed to make microchips, not potato chips. But how can a country in which only 0.5 percent of the population has a PC and less than three percent have phones and where six hour power cuts are commonplace leapfrog? The joke is that 95 percent of Indians are waiting for phones, the other five percent are waiting for dial tones. India is trying to solve these infrastructure bottlenecks, but it is a question of priorities. What is more important a high-speed data trunk line or a network of safe drinking water supply for villages?

India is a land of contrasts: despite these infrastructure problems, most of the software engineers and programmers in Silicon Valley are Indian, and the country's low-cost English-speaking young people with good education have firmly hitched their wagons to the information revolution. They are the ones who get written about, they are interviewed for television programmes and magazine articles. The 400 million Indians who live below the poverty line, the 53 percent of children who are malnourished, do not make the headlines. And yet the question we must ask is: how are the few thousand well-educated cyber savvy South Asians going to make a difference to the billion compatriots who are not so fortunate?

The Internet is supposed to level the playing field and make information freely available to everyone. There is a basic fallacy here: the Internet cannot do that simply because it is priced way beyond the reach of even the middle class. A computer costs one fourth of the monthly household income of an average Finn, whereas it costs ten year's salary for an average Nepali. The cost of unlimited access to the Internet in Finland is USD 120 a year, and in many cases it comes free, in Nepal the cost of unlimited access is USD 600 a year, an average annual phone bill is USD 550. It is not surprising therefore that one in every three Americans uses the Internet, and only one in every 10,000 people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh do. Only 13 percent of Nepal's population has access to electricity, for the rest a battery-operated radio is the only information medium. No doubt, there is a need to level the playing field. But with a digital divide like that, information technology is not going to do it for us. There is now a whole industry that is growing around the self- perpetuating world of development aid, which puts information technology forward as the panacea where all else has failed. The argument goes: the global gap between those with access to information technology and those without is growing, therefore the only way to catch up is to buy people computers and hook them up to the Internet. The latest issue of the United Nations's magazine, Choices, has a special issue on "Information Technology for Development". Among the articles are those with titles like: Estonia's Tiger Leap to Technology, Peru's Government Goes High Tech, Malaysia's Internet on Wheels, Jamaica: An Island Caught up in the Web, Cameroon: Information Empowers Women, Egypt's Cyber Cafes for the Poor, and Tackles Extreme Poverty. The UN says there is an urgent need to bridge the digital divide. We agree. But let's not hoodwink everyone by putting the Internet forth as the knight in shining armour that will solve our poverty crisis. The other problem with presenting the Internet as the answer to all our ills is the belief that information will set us free. All the gigabytes of information whizzing around the world in nanoseconds is not necessarily spreading knowledge. Even if the Internet was distributing information widely and cheaply, what results is not necessarily greater wisdom. For information to be useful, it has to get to where it is needed as cheaply as possible, it needs to be relevant to the daily needs of the people it is meant for, and the information must be packaged so that it is easily understood. Information must help people communicate and participate, and allow them and their rulers to make informed choices. It must be affordable, it must make sense, and it must be useful. Otherwise it is just junk mail and a background radiation of inane digital trivia whizzing about at the speed of light. The other question to ask about information is whether there are any filters: who produces it, who controls it, who benefits? Technology is never value-free and these questions are important.

The other problem with getting all worked up about information technology is that we are dazzled by the latest gadgets, gizmos and its most glamorous manifestations. But a good, old-fashioned short- wave radio is also information technology. Developing countries that have completely wasted the power of radio to spread information and to communicate have no right to go on about "leapfrogging" into the internet age. The Third World's born-again digirati may snobbishly wave away AM radio but no other medium today comes close to matching the reach, the accessibility and affordability of shortwave radio. If there is one radio that will do all the things we want the Internet to do (spread knowledge to the disadvantaged and improve their living conditions), then radio is it.

And yet, what have we done with radio? We have used it shamelessly as a public address system for government propaganda, we have insulted hundreds of millions of radio listeners throughout the Subcontinent by making shortwave and medium wave broadcasts violently boring. Radio, in fact, has become a symbol of official neglect and proof of an unspoken strategy to deny the weak a voice. Our high-flying ministers will say we are anti-development, and accuse us of keeping our people in the age of ox carts. To begin with, what's wrong with ox carts? It is the most ecologically sustainable system of transport ever devised. Secondly, if the information superhighway is full of potholes, we may be better off travelling in ox carts.

Then, 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, staff it with competent teachers who are not absent half the year, ensure there are more girls in the classrooms, make sure the children are adequately nourished and not physically and mentally stunted because they don't have enough to eat. Why not first provide text books for every child, bring in electricity and a phone line?

The corporate-political structures that govern the information revolution are the same ones that drove the industrial revolution and messed up the earth's ecosystem in the process. The mechanisms by which important political and economic decisions are made have not changed, decision-making is in the same hands, value-systems have not changed. Those are the changes that are required to improve the living standards of the world's two billion desperately poor people.

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