Developing IT

For all the concern about the 'digital divide', there is little sense of the real difference IT could make to the developing world.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

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Who should regulate the internet’s address system of domain names – its .coms, .orgs and all the rest? Between 10 and 12 December in Geneva, Switzerland, no fewer than 11,000 representatives of government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the IT industry were supposed to debate that matter, at the World Summit on the Information Society.

In the event, discussion on domain names was postponed even before proceedings opened, because everyone up to United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan preferred to lament the so-called ‘digital divide’ between the North and the South. Yet little sense emerged of the real difference IT could make to the developing world.

Since the summit closed, a principal complaint has been that it deferred open controversy about domain names to November 2005, when it reconvenes in Tunis, Tunisia. The World Service’s Go Digital commentator Bill Thompson argued that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the UN agency that organised the conference, ‘clamped down on the cleanup effort required’ (1). He was referring to the hope of some delegates to see the World Summit arrange for the internet to be regulated by the ITU – and thus, ultimately, by the UN. That way, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), would no longer rule the net.

From Marina del Rey, Los Angeles, ICANN gives out the world’s domain names, IP address numbers and ‘protocol parameter and port numbers’. It also runs the internet’s root server system. ICANN was set up by the US government and is a non-profit organisation; but it remains a private company. IT activists argue that ICANN is an undemocratic representative of the status quo, and no match for the twenty-first-century challenges of spam, security, child pornography and ‘hate speech’.

In fact, ICANN’s home page has for some time bleated pretty much the same soothing, therapeutic phrases about IT as emerged in the summit’s ‘Declaration of Principles’. The Declaration insisted that ‘the information society should be founded on and stimulate respect for cultural identity, cultural and linguistic diversity, traditions and religions’, and called for ‘appropriate actions and preventive measures’ against IT being used for ‘trafficking in, and exploitation of, human beings’ (2). But ICANN has long talked about ‘achieving broad representation of global internet communities’ and developing policy through ‘bottom-up, consensus-based means’ (3). The only difference is that ICANN’s defenders believe that policy development should be based on the private sector.

I find it hard to take sides. US boosters of IT hail current internet arrangements as a global commons, but it’s about as open to all parties as my native Wimbledon Common is to people from Brick Lane. Yet I’m unconvinced that the UN – just as much as a corrupt body established by the US government as is ICANN – would really be an improvement.

Californian hippies in suits intone the inane and never-challenged mantra that information wants to be free. In practice, however, a quiet UN working group will now mull over regulatory responsibility for domain names behind closed doors, and eventually bring a report to Tunis. In the meantime, Kofi Annan identified a digital divide not just in technological infrastructure or commercial power, but also in content (only 30 per cent of the world’s websites are in languages other than English) and in gender (women and girls have less access to IT than men and boys). To him and others, IT’s main effect today is to reinforce myriad inequalities.

From the naive and unscrutinised ITU premise of ‘information society’ onwards, it’s all so predictable. Through all the breast-beating about divides, there is just a guilty desire to lead IT in the third world only in the direction of what I have termed therapy-to-victim (T2V) applications – those in health, education, education about health, and e-government. What is missed is the link between IT and wealth creation: how IT could bring the third world the kind of productivity benefits that it has wrought in the industrialised countries.

Such benefits are rarely discussed by NGOs, even though, backed by the Western governments they affect to detest, NGOs pretty much run large chunks of the third world nowadays. Zac Goldsmith’s Ecologist magazine features next to nothing about IT. The chief executive of Britain’s Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) claims it ‘unproven’ that IT is an appropriate technology for poor people (4). In its ‘practical answers to poverty’, ITDG believes that ‘real cutting edge technology’ in the Third World is…a donkey plough (5).

Like its founder, EF Schumacher, ITDG prefers old to new technology: the old is small, and therefore beautiful. Indeed, ITDG believes that technology has failed to meet the needs of the poor – as if silicon itself amounted to imperial rule in the third world. (6) But this NGO is not alone. Millions of young Westerners agree with its sentiments, and ICANN itself makes a nod to Gandhi in its frightfully empowering ‘bottom-up’ approach to internet development.

We live in an age where British-invented clockwork radios and refurbished Intel 386 PCs are seen as real progress in the third world. Major dams may be designed with the aid of internet protocols, but large-scale irrigation projects are themselves held to be a shocking threat to indigenous cultures.

It’s time we rose above the current level of debate. Obviously, many problems surround the implementation of IT in the third world. IT remains dear, and is certainly dear in the South. The West fiercely protects the intellectual property it has bound up in IT, and would like to get a lot fiercer with countries such as China. On the other hand, even the West’s extremely rapid development of an IT-orientated third world city such as Bangalore cannot rescue the Indian subcontinent from pervasive poverty.

As a political force IT is, as Alfred Hitchcock used to say of trivial objects (lighters, keys) in his murder stories, the ‘MacGuffin’ in the whole plot. But in terms of economic advantage, IT could do much for the third world – if only people didn’t focus on its putative defects so much.

Take, for example, telecoms in Africa. There the Algerian government plans to gain 10,000 subscriptions to its new ADSL broadband service: recently, it held a launch ceremony that included a videoconference with Canada (7). On the eastern seaboard, Telkom Kenya will coordinate the building of a submarine fibre optic cable that will link up Djibouti, Mogadishu, Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, Maputo and Zanzibar, halving the cost of international telecoms from these points by the time commercial service begins in December 2006 (8). Finally, Africa has big opportunities with wireless broadband, in which mobile phone masts use microwave radio frequencies to give access to broadband at higher-than-ADSL data rates.

Or take computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) in China. The Middle Kingdom plans to run 300 university programmes in industrial design, compared with the 53 run by the USA. That staggering figure is bound, sooner or later, to include some world-beating research in CAD/CAM. In Changchun, First Auto Works, the largest carmaker in China, has for some years used CAD for the design and machining of dies, moulds and jigs, to build 300,000 commercial and passenger vehicles a year (9). And when companies such as General Motors, Sun Microsystems and EDS come together to salve their consciences and donate CAD/CAM software, hardware and training to Shanghai’s prestigious Jiao Tong University, they may be giving away more than they imagine (10).

IT has a whole lot to do with the development of the productive forces in the South. But at Geneva as elsewhere, it was domain names, languages, identities, diversity and cybercrimes – not to speak of security, privacy and consumer protection – that were the highlights of the agenda. For all the role that IT plays in the globalisation of technical advance, it is the globalisation of Western anxieties and Western therapeutic solutions that dominates international conferences on IT.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. He is coauthor of Why is Construction so Backward?, Wiley-Academy, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

(1) Looking for ripples in the pond, Bill Thompson, BBC News

(2) Declaration of principles: building the information society – a global challenge in the new millennium (.doc 273KB), World Summit on the Information Society, International Telecommunication Union, 12 December 2003, principles 52 and 59

(3) Information section of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers website

(4) The role of technology in poverty reduction (.pdf 141 KB), Cowan Coventry, South Asia Conference on Technologies for Poverty Reduction, New Delhi, 10-11 October 2003, p3

(5) ‘Let me show you some real cutting edge technology’, Intermediate Technology Development Group appeal form

(6) The role of technology in poverty reduction (.pdf 141 KB), Cowan Coventry, South Asia Conference on Technologies for Poverty Reduction, New Delhi, 10-11 October 2003, p2

(7) Four incumbent telcos sign MoU on East African fibre project, Balancing Act News Update, 184, 23 November 2003

(8) North African ADSL roll-outs – the beginning of the spread of higher bandwidth offerings, Balancing Act News Update, 185, 30 November 2003

(9) China’s largest car maker standardises software, Engineering Talk, 10 April 2003

(10) Taking the fast boat to China, Sherri Carmody, Machine Design, 1 October 2003

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Topics Science & Tech


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