What is it we are communicating, asks Kunda Dixit. Is the information useful and usable?
Like the fashion business, the Third World development debate seems to go through fads and styles. Mantras come, and mantras go. The latest buzzword is knowledge. The world is now a Knowledge Society, we are told, and the global gap between know and know-not is growing, therefore the only way to give the poor the chance to catch up is to pump in more knowledge with computers and through the Internet.
The discovery of “knowledge” by today’s development merchants is a bit like the ‘discovery’ of America by Columbus. There is also a danger that like “trickle down”, “basic needs approach”, “community participation”, “gender and development”, or “export-led growth”, the wisdom of the ages is now going to be reduced to another jargon. And like all the extinct buzzwords that preceded it, “knowledge” too is in danger of becoming threadbare with overuse and misuse. It too will end up in that dusty shelf where all past development cliches are stored, while developmentwallahs will move on to another catch-all formula that promises panacea.
Blaming underdevelopment entirely on lack of knowledge has two other dangers. It may make us overlook the fundamental economic factors that keep the poor poor, widening disparities between and within nations. It is a hen-or-egg question: are people poor because they lack knowledge, or do they lack knowledge because they are poor and cannot afford school books, radio batteries, telephones, or Internet service provider fees? Blaming it all on knowledge, or the lack thereof, is to avoid solving the structural problems that lead to inequity. Perhaps the trick is to make Knowledge affordable, and more importantly, relevant.
Secondly, the knowledge hype may tempt us to regard only formal modern knowledge systems as worthy of attention. Mainstream economics tends to regard knowledge of the seasons, the different uses of roots and fruits, and evolved traditional wisdom as dispensable. When indigenous knowledge of genetic resources are finally recognised as being valuable, someone other than its traditional user patents it and profits from it. Ironical, isn’t it, that the ‘information poor’ may actually be sitting on a gold mine of information stored in the DNA of the plants they use daily. When seafaring traders from Sulawesi are lured away to the cities, an entire vocabulary of words and phrases to describe 25 different kinds of ocean winds disappears forever. How do you put a dollar and cent cost to lost words? Across the Himalayan mountains, the traditional knowledge for making, maintaining and managing water mills is vanishing because the power of falling water has been replaced by the power of diesel. Much more than tradition is lost when an indigenous design for water paddles is replaced by mass-produced spark plugs.
Knowledge, therefore, is not new. We have known knowledge for four millennia. The scriptures said: “Knowledge is a sword, and wisdom is a shield.” The texts drew a distinction between the two: how wisdom only comes about when knowledge is assimilated, internalised, when it changes existing behaviour patterns and makes things better. The wisdom of a monk meditating on a mountaintop is not much use because no one knows what is in his head. The knowledge to build a nuclear warhead is not wisdom, because atomic bombs fail an important test: they do not make the world a better place.
There is a similar lesson for the Information Age: the Internet does not necessarily spread knowledge. And even if it does distribute information widely and cheaply, what results is not necessarily greater wisdom. The latest scientific information on tuberculosis is all over the worldwide web: how to prevent it, which therapies work, the antibiotics that bacilli have become resistant to. But this information needs to get where it is needed as cheaply as possible, it needs to be relevant to the needs of the people it is meant for, and the information must be packaged so that it is easily understood. To be useful, information must help people communicate, participate and allow them and their rulers to make informed choices. Only when information makes sense, does it become knowledge. Otherwise information remains merely the background radiation of aimless kilobytes whizzing about in the darkness at the speed of light.
Recognition of the power of knowledge may be as old as civilisation, but what is different now, at the cusp of the third millennium after Christ, is the speed and capacity to move that information. At present, this speed and capacity are concentrated in the same countries in which wealth and power are concentrated. And the gap shows signs of getting wider.
Look at the prices. The average annual household income in Finland (one of the most-wired nations on Earth) is USD 85,000, the cost of unlimited Internet access in Finland is at the most USD 120 a year, and in many cases it comes free with the phone connection. A Pentium III PC in Finland costs USD 1300. Now, compare this to Nepal, where a senior civil servant earns USD 2500 a year, the cost of unlimited Internet access is USD 600 a year (add to that annual phone bills of at least USD 550) and a Pentium III PC costs USD 1500.
Any surprise, then, that one in every three Americans uses the Internet, only one in every 10,000 people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh do? India’s teledensity is 1.5 percent and narrow bandwidth in most places does not allow Internet use; only 13 percent of Nepal’s population has access to electricity; and Sri Lanka has 3.3 personal computers for every 1000 people compared to 400 per thousand in Switzerland.
Knowledge, like technology, is not value-free. This era may well herald ‘the end of geography’, but for whom? Useful questions to ask about the Knowledge Revolution: Whose knowledge? Who produces, controls and owns the information content of knowledge? Who benefits? Will the knowledge improve people’s lives?
Another buzzword is “leapfrogging”: bypassing obsolete and expensive copper cable for digital wireless signals, using the Internet for distance learning, e-commerce. Leapfrogging is a neat idea, but it makes sense only if the existing technology that you are leaping from is already used to its full potential. You can then skip a step to another level where the same thing can be done more efficiently.
Leapfrogging with hardware is the easy part, all you need is the money to buy the equipment and most of it will pay for itself. It is when you have to use that hardware to upgrade the quality, relevance and effectivity of “content” so that it improves peoples’ lives that leapfrogging gets tougher. We have to stop and ask ourselves: what is it we are transmitting, does it make any difference at all that it gets there a couple of nanoseconds faster, is the information useful and usable?
The other question is whether the people who really need that information can afford it, or have access to it. As Chandrababu Naidu has shown in Andhra Pradesh, good policies and clear vision need to be shared with people and their support cultivated — that popular consensus can only be created through two-way information. Naidu is known as an Internet geek, but he will use any medium that gives him the reach: phones, radio, television, the press. And as a politician of the Information Age, he knows there is no substitute to face-to-face interaction
South Asian countries that have completely squandered the potential of radio for knowledge dissemination have no right to go on about leapfrogging into the Knowledge Society. South Asia’s born-again digirati may look at unglamorous AM radio with contempt, but no other medium today comes close to matching the reach, the accessibility and the affordability of shortwave radio. If there is one medium that could do all the things we want new information and communications technologies to do (to spread knowledge to the disadvantaged and to improve their living conditions), 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 broadcasts violently boring. Radio, in fact, has become the symbol of official neglect and proof of an unspoken strategy to deny the weak a voice. In their decades-long neglect of radio as a source of information and knowledge, all South Asian states are equally culpable.
Now, it is possible that South Asia’s digital elite will use the same argument that Nehruvian industrialists used in the 1950s — that by talking about AM radio we are trying to keep our people in the age of bullock carts. To begin with, what is wrong with bullock carts? Secondly, if your information superhighway is full of potholes you are probably better off in a bullock cart.
And why is it that our officialdom only deregulates the newest information and communication technologies? Murdoch’s television channels are not under government control, private cable operators have a free-for-all, there is competition among cell phone operators, there is a choice of internet service providers, FM radio has been privatised, and some South Asian governments are even letting go of that cash cow: state telecom monopolies. But not AM radio. Here, in the one medium which can be the carrier of information and knowledge to the mass public, the iron hand of government is as strong as ever. Why?
Or 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, or more importantly, staff it with some competent faculty? Why aren’t there girls in the classrooms? Why are the kids dropping out after one year? And what of a curriculum that is still designed to churn out clerks for a colonial civil service? Where is the electricity, the phone line, the text books? Why is the single teacher in a village school who simultaneously teaches grades four, five and six mostly absent? Go on, convince me that the Internet is going to change this quickly.
The hype surrounding the Internet and the merging of computing with communications leads many to believe that this also a real revolution in the way human beings think and live. New information and communications technologies with global satellite-based links have accelerated communication, and given us new hardware. These have speeded up decision-making and opened up a vast storehouse of information, but the process by which important political and economic choices are made are still the same. Computers and cell-phones have allowed some lucky ones (mostly the kind of South Asians who have access to this magazine) to skip a few steps, but value-systems have not changed, decision-making is still the same. The corporate-political structures that govern the Knowledge Revolution are the same ones that governed the Industrial Revolution.
E-commerce is turning the Internet into a global mall. It could potentially transform political and economic relations, and e-commerce may be the engine that will finally and truly pull economic globalisation into the age of information. But even here, its main impact is felt in good, old-fashioned consumerism. E-commerce allows access to a digital mail-order catalogue with online payment and global home delivery. As Bill Gates says in his book Business@The Speed of Thought: “Information technology and business are becoming increasingly interwoven. I don’t think anybody can talk meaningfully about one without talking about the other.”
Gates’ vision of the world is one where a digital central nervous system will have billions of ganglia of sellers and buyers. A marketplace where pulp from the hardwood trees of the Amazon end up as books in Amazon.com. All this (and the contents of Michael Dertouzos’ What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives) may make many of us want to follow the advice of the hippie-era ballad: “Stop the world and let me off.”
Limitless growth and wasteful materialism that is already threatening the ecology of our home planet (not a virtual reality Sim-Earth, but the real Earth that our children will actually, physically breathe and live in). There is no reason why e-consumerism could not foul things up even more, because the economic model is the same.
The Knowledge Revolution is driven by the information marketplace, the world of technology futures, the global currency casinos, IT shares. This global free market is under no one’s control, and it is seriously widening not only the economic but also the knowledge gap between and within nations. New technologies rarely invest in the social capital that is needed to enable those who are lagging behind to catch up. It is supposed to happen automatically, but it never ever does.
New CPU exteriors are now being crafted by the same people who design automobiles. They look nice, but they should not distract us from the purpose of all this technology. It is a communication tool, and it is an education tool. Knowledge for all is the goal. Fidel Castro boiled it down to the bottom line when he asked delegates at a UNESCO conference in Havana in July: “If only two percent of Latin America has the Net, we must invent something else… If peasants can’t read or write, how can we reach them?” Try radio, Fidel.