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ICT wusses

With its low-key focus on the developing world, the World Summit on the Information Society suffered from a poverty of ideas.

Nico Macdonald

Topics Science & Tech

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The United Nations-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) aims to set the global agenda for the future development of information and communications technology (1). But what kind of agenda has it promoted so far?

December 2003 brought over 10,000 people from almost every country on the planet to the world’s diplomatic capital, Geneva, for the first phase of the WSIS. The event was formally organised by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which, founded in 1865 and based in Geneva, has the distinction of being the world’s first intergovernmental body. Most UN summits concern worthy but uninspiring subjects, so the announcement of a summit addressing ICT attracted considerable attention.

The WSIS aims to ‘bring together heads of state, executive heads of United Nations agencies, industry leaders, non-governmental organisations, media representatives and civil society in a single high-level event…to develop and foster a clear statement of political will and a concrete plan of action for achieving the goals of the Information Society’ (2). Nothing is worthy of being called a global event today if there isn’t some sort of counter-event, and the WSIS is no exception – although the Geneva counter event, the ‘WSIS? WE SEIZE!’ Strategic Conference’ (S-CONF), was actually listed in the official conference guide.

Were the WSIS organisers being healthily open-minded by acknowledging the rival event, or just defensive? The antis even managed to grab the better acronym pronunciation, leaving anyone wanting to be on the inside of the WSIS clumsily referring to ‘wusses’.

Although the first phase of the WSIS was planned under the patronage of UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, headed by executive director Pierre Gagné, and hosted by Swiss president Pascal Couchepin, there was no feeling of anyone being in charge, directing debate, or cohering the event. It felt as if the grown-ups were out for the evening, and the kids had been left to play on their own. The event planners couldn’t even properly organise the print information and signage at the WSIS, let alone the digital information around which the WSIS was organised.

The focus was on the developing world, while the G8 leaders were conspicuous by their absence. US involvement in the event was negligible, and for all New Labour’s crowing about the UK’s future as a knowledge economy, there was no visible UK presence other than a detachment of BBC correspondents and an irreverent, British Council-supported weblog (3).

Although all the representatives at the WSIS were keen to embrace information and communications technology (ICT), they tended to discuss it as if it was some benign external force, that would magically transform societies and economies. There was little sense that anyone had a deep enthusiasm for, or subtle understanding of, these technologies. Were these people really the best and the brightest that their nations could muster, for such an ostensibly important discussion?

Put bluntly, the WSIS serves the following purposes. Minor world leaders get to be statesmen for a day, and tell their parliaments and electors that they are taking part in a world summit. World powers can appear to be consulting other countries, non-governmental organisations, ‘civil society’ and business, about a key issue. The event provides a forum for people to vent their frustrations, as long as they do this within a certain language framework, and are not overambitious or militant about their demands. The UN can appear forward-looking. And everyone else can network and have ‘corridor conversations’, arrange business and other meetings, and generally have a nice time in Geneva.

The language framework is particularly important. Along with wretched acronyms such as ICT, there are a number of terms that littered WSIS presentations and discussions, including ‘civil society’, ‘sustainability’, ‘inclusion’, ‘respect’, ‘diversity’, ‘digital divide’, ‘action research’, ‘cultural identity’, ‘women’s empowerment’, ‘traditional knowledge’, and ‘multi-stakeholder’. In a spoken statement, use of these terms above a certain threshold renders understanding impossible, and turns strings of words into a calming but meaningless background burble.

For all its high-falutin’ language, the WSIS sets its sights remarkably low, focusing almost wholly on the developing world. This would make sense, if it were motivated by the fact that the developing world constitutes the majority of the world’s population, and should benefit from the best available technology. But the models being suggested for the use of ICT in Geneva reflected a poverty of insights. I worked in an Indian development organisation – the Centre for Development of Instructional Technology (CENDIT) – in the mid-1980s, and the sophistication of its thinking about development was way ahead of any projects showcased at WSIS events.

Presenters at the WSIS treated us to stories of ICT use in India, Mali and the Caribbean, that seemed at best slightly pathetic – not least because they appeared to be using cast-off kit from the developed world, that was inadequate to the needs of its original users, and certainly did not meet the needs of its current users. It is worth remembering that the people who fought for liberation in the decades after the Second World War wanted what the developed world had, not shoddy cast-offs.

One of my former CENDIT collaborators went on to work at Apple Computer in its advanced technology group, where he led a project to enable rural healthcare workers in India, using mobile information based around Apple’s Newton handheld computers. This was cutting-edge technology, at a time when the Pilot was still a pen, not a Palm handheld. But examples such as this are the exception today.

It is ironic that the discussion of ICT is based upon the assumption that there are ready-made solutions for the developing world, when in reality, the developed world hasn’t worked out how to use information technology effectively.

In fact it is foolish to focus only on the developing world. Not only does it lower our horizons in the developed world, but the reality is that innovations made here are likely to be beneficial there. The personal computer, the mobile phone and the internet all originated in the developed world, and were developed with barely a thought for anyone outside it. Yet soon, wireless technologies, in the form of satellites and WiFi, could transform information access in the developing world more dramatically than they have in the developed world. One of the most inspiring stories I came across at the WSIS involved an African-owned consortium raising funds to launch a satellite, that would save the continent half a billion dollars in commercial bandwidth rental fees each year.

In terms of meaningful progress toward a network-enabled society, we are still barely out of the starting blocks. Such a society will not have been achieved when every home has one lousy PC in the corner of the room, hooked up to a second-rate ADSL connection. We will have made real progress when we have internet-enabled devices in our living rooms and kitchens, about our person and in public spaces, employed in offices and factories, and used in farming and in the extractive industries – such that we are no longer aware that we are ‘online’. We will be further ahead, when key information is created and stored such that it can be easily accessed and manipulated. And we will be most of the way there, when our industries and services, our infrastructure and our administration, our education and our transportation, are reengineered to take full advantage of ICT.

There is no meaningful digital divide yet. By focusing on the ‘digital divide’, the WSIS simply sets the standards for development somewhere below the level of digital poverty that exists in the developed world. What good is that to anyone? We all need to progress beyond digital poverty, and successes in the developed world will contribute directly to lifting up people in the developing world as well.

It has been noted elsewhere that diplomatic machinations and a lack of political will have led to issues such as funding for digital development, and internet governance, being shunted on to the second phase of the WSIS taking place in Tunis in 2005 (4). But more importantly, the great and the good convening and leading the WSIS have no clear idea what to invest funds into, how to promote innovation in information technology, or how to enable the proper social application of this technology.

They lack imagination and ambition. They overestimate the power of current applications of information technology, and they underestimate the potential of the people they assume will benefit from it. Whatever their intentions, our leaders don’t have the heart to manage the real progress that information technology could help to deliver.

Nico Macdonald is the author of What is Web Design?, RotoVision, 2003. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Developing IT, by James Woudhuysen

(1) See the World Summit on the Information Society section of the International Telecommunication Union website

(2) About the World Summit on the Information Society, on the International Telecommunication Union website

(3) See the Daily Summit website

(4) See Looking for ripples in the pond, Bill Thomson, BBC News, 12 December 2003

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Topics Science & Tech

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