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"There are tremendous empowerment possibilities, provided that the technology is in the right hands."
An interview with Shahidul Alam

Shahidul Alam is a media activist and journalist from Bangla Desh. He has lead campaigns against the digital divide and against the reconstruction of colonialism in the digital arena. Shahidul Alam also works as a photographer and is director of Drik, a photo agency based in Dhaka. Wolfgang Sützl spoke to him during the World-InfoCon in Brussels, in July 2000.

Q: You have been talking about the digital divide in your own society in society in Bangladesh, societal problems that occur in connection with informatization. Do you see a future for the project of development as such?

A: Well, I think the first thing we have to relate to is terminology. Development, if you see how the word is defined is not in itself an evil word. It is just that it has been appropriated by a certain organization, which has in a way controlled the flow of aid to the majority world countries. If one would analyze the rhetoric, one could go behind what is actually happening and talk about the general principles of building an egalitarian society with less asymmetry. Yet that in itself is not the problem, but more are the mechanisms for carrying it out. What has happened is that we have found ourselves deeply entrenched in a patron-client relationship within which people on the recipient end have very little control. And that is problematic. You also perceive this when you talk about civil liberties, good governance and civil society today. The concepts of accountability and transparency don't apply to donor agencies and NGOs, and that is something that has to be changed.

Q: Do you think that information technology could help societies in the so-called developing world to autonomously express their needs?

A: Not if you exclusively focus on the issue of connectivity, which by itself won't solve the problem. What has to happen is access at a much wider level, at a lower platform and also access for people, who don't yet have any. Providing connectivity to major urban centers and corporate bodies within a majority world will not change that. So both politically and technologically we need solutions that reach out to a very different public.

Q: When you say solutions that reach out to a very different public you refer to a term that you have been using in your presentation - appropriate technology. Could you clarify how appropriate information technology as we now have it actually is?

A: I start by asking the question appropriate for whom, because that is the foremost problem as certain people have determined that certain technologies are appropriate for certain target groups. Being in a country like Bangladesh I see that the Internet has tremendous possibilities as a subversive tool - and I don't mean subversive in a negative way. It can be used to challenge current hierarchies that are very damaging. I see it also as an enabling and empowering tool. But those enabling and empowering aspects of the Internet are not being promoted. Instead, what happens is that connectivity provides profit for certain bodies, and that is all that is on the agenda.

I certainly know of activists and journalists, people underground, who, with limited resources use this medium as much as they can. Those are the people that need to be given far better access and a greater extent of power. We also need hybrid technologies that include community Internet set ups, Internet radio, and even the use of the Internet in a manner, which doesn't necessarily require computers and other technological infrastructure. We have already done things like that in our country, where newspapers have been used to facilitate the exchange between the readers on the Internet.

Q: So there is a certain empowerment potential in informational technology?

A: There are tremendous empowerment possibilities, provided that the technology is in the right hands.

Q: Most of the software and computers we have today cannot be adapted to certain cultural symbolic registers such as language. Is there a danger of cultural homogenization through informatization?

A: Yes, of course there is. But that problem relates pretty much to any technology, as the people whose interest it serves push technology. It would be naive to expect languages such as ours to be on people's agenda. Microsoft for example said that the Bangla operating system would come out already in 1993. There is no reason why it should take this long, except that it is not a priority.

But some of the things we can do, and have already partially done, are the standardization within our own language. We need to standardize the keyboards, and even the fonts themselves, so that there exists transferability. So we have for instance modified existing fonts to guarantee Internet compatibility and made them available on the Internet for free. Also the Unix-like platforms, the open platform structures are things that we can take on. I don't actually see this as a fight that anybody else will be fighting for us. I am perfectly aware that we are a marginalized community and that our concerns will not matter to a wider public, particularly not in an economic sense. So we have to learn to use these tools and adapt them in our favor.

Q: Some of the major development organizations seem to look at informatization in pretty much the terms they looked at industrialization 30 or 40 years ago; industrialization as the cure for all problems in the developing world. Is there a danger that the mistakes that were made at the time will now be repeated on a digital level?

A: I don't think they were mistakes, I think it was a very calculated anc concerted attempt to increase profits for certain groups, but was presented in a different way, which is why we look at them as mistakes. And exactly the same thing is now happening as regards informatics. The whole thing is designed to create a large labor pool for certain vested interests and in that sense it is certainly not a mistake. Those groups are proceeding very clinically, very methodogically and in a very calculated manner to increase their own profit.

It is not technology itself that is to be blamed, but its use, which in certain peoples hands will be only in a particular way. Technology has to be honest for our benefits and the research and development has to have people with different agendas on board. And I do not feel that donor agencies and NGOs will actually be agents to change this. They have been around for years and have not been instruments of a change. I fail to see why all of the sudden with the new technologies they should suddenly become more effective. What has to happen is that people on the ground have to shape and force certain accountability structures, so that they cannot get away with what they have been doing in the past.

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