Information and Communication Technologies : Hope and Concern for the Future - by Mohsen Tawfik
The emerging Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are advancing very rapidly and are changing the world. The intellectual and ethical mission of UNESCO calls on the Organization to shed light on, and analyse, the ways in which the ICTs and their related products and services are developing, UNESCO also has a responsibility to draw attention to the mixed impacts of ICTs and to warn of the dangers of an unequal distribution of the positive socio-economic advantages of ICTs among and within nations and the risks of their negative social consequences. The Organization stresses the need for a world-wide effort to undertake a profound analysis of all aspects of ICT impacts; and for a global policy and projects to ensure equal distribution of ICT benefits for all.
The history of human beings has been marked by an accelerating pace of socio-economic development. Some hundreds of thousands of years were spent as hunter-gatherers, about 10,000 years in agricultural societies, and only about 200 years in industrial societies, before the stirrings of the information society some twenty years ago. By extrapolation, the implications are that the information society, advancing at an ever-increasing pace, should reach maturity in a few decades.
For perhaps the first time in world history, a cluster of technologies, the information and communication technologies (ICTs) are developing at an unprecedented pace, which has out-distanced attempts at legal and social regulation. ICT economics are dominated not by governments but by the private sector and multinational corporations. The force that drives them is not the pursuit of the common good, but the "market" in pursuit of profit enhanced by globalisation, including that of capital and technology, and a work-force that no longer needs to delocate.
The ICTs are bringing about a shift of wealth and power both worldwide and inside countries. New ICT productions and services are resulting in vast economic, social, cultural, local and global transformations. The ICTs are increasing the influence and the role of multi-national corporations and NGOs at the expense of governments and states. Wherever they are available, ICTs are changing and sometimes restructuring lifestyles work industry, trade, communication, management, media, education, leisure and entertainment, sports, and many other human activities. It is perhaps easier to measure the technical progress of the ICT revolution, than to analyse its impact, which is a complex mixture of technical, economic, social and cultural factors.
Rapid development and decreasing prices are two of the most salient features of the ICTs. Computing power has doubled every 18 months for the last 30 years and the present cost is less than one percent of what it was in the early 1970s. Growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web is exponential, and its traffic doubles every 100 days. Communication bandwidths are expanding rapidly, and telecommunications costs continue to fall.
Digital techniques allow for the conversion of different types and sources of information such as text, voice and image into digital binary signals, which can be transmitted by computer. Information converted into this form can be sent from different sources through one channel and with much better quality. The capacity of communication channels has also greatly increased and there are more possibilities for interactive systems, which was not the case for traditional analogue techniques. Digital technologies have also been instrumental in the convergence of electronics, telecommunications and data-processing technologies. This convergence allows for multi-functionality and hence the integration of information applications. The personal computer, the television set, the telephone and the fax are being integrated into multimedia stations. Digital technologies are characterised by their ubiquity. They are already in homes, offices, health services, defence systems, governments and many other places. So far, technical convergence has led to institutional convergence and to the concentration of key information services in the hands of a few mega-providers. At present, the ICTs are designed, developed and deployed by highly concentrated transnational corporations.
There was a shift of world interest in the early 1990s from the Information Super Highways (access) to the information society (collection, processing, and dissemination) and later to the knowledge-based society (value- added). In the last two years, more light has been shed on the relation between knowledge (the most important product of the ICT revolution) and development (the most pressing world issue). It took just few years to realise the vital relationship between knowledge and development, whereas about 15 years were required to understand the importance of relating environment to development (Stockholm Conference, 1972 and Our Common Future Report, 1987).
In spite of the great importance of the ICT revolution and its probable socio-economic impacts, there is not yet a concerted world effort to study the phenomenon in-depth and to try to draw conclusions for short and long-term policies to be followed at global level. It seems that our knowledge and judgement of this multifaceted global revolution is extremely imperfect and fragmented. Most of the relevant R§D budgets go to the development of ICTs and the promotion of their markets. There is no world effort to establish a global picture of the future. Present efforts are somewhat "impressionistic" and tend to swing between ICTs optimism and ICTs pessimism, where people are caught between being technophile and technophobe with little attempt being made to view the situation objectively.
Following are two extreme expectations on ICT impacts. Most of these expectations are arrived at through simple extrapolation and are sometimes contradictory since none of them is based upon in-depth analysis of the ICT economic, social and environmental impacts, which are badly needed to get more clear and objective projections.
ICTs-The New World Paradise
Optimists believe that the ICTs can lead the world into a more interconnected, more consolidated, and more prosperous future. Some examples of these hopes are:
- The future world is expected to be an information marketplace in which, through their interconnected computers, people are engaged in the buying, selling, and sharing of information. Many issues will surround the information marketplace: the technology of its underlying information infrastructures; its uses in commerce, health, learning, the pursuit of leisure, and government; and the consequences of these activities for human lives, society, and history.
- The pace of development of the ICTs is challenging the human brain to think better and faster and to be more knowledgeable, effective, and productive. This will lead to a future in which the ICTs can bring evenly distributed global wealth in an economy of abundance in the next century, when the ICTs will tie communities together, and the problem of haves and have-nots will disappear.
- Just as the development of the printing press in the mid-15th century led to the democratisation of knowledge, the development of ICTs is accelerating our mastery of knowledge. "The global knowledge revolution through ICTs holds promise for isolation in the world to be abolished, with information being abundant and accessible. It could allow less-developed countries to leapfrog over costly stages of development … and focus networked intelligence on our most crucial problems" (The World Bank Report, 1997).
- The idea of universal liberty through the Internet may become a possibility for the future. Transactions between geographically scattered individuals may replace a good part of broadcast media and freedom of expression will belong to cyberspace more than to traditional mass media. The ICTs have given power to the people and they are using it. Young people invest heavily in the Internet with no big financial backing, but with knowledge and creativity.
- A new tolerance and the reintegration of work and life are other possibilities offered by the Internet. It is within communities that technology will allow democracy to prevail. At the centre of this change is a commitment to rebuilding a sense of community. The ICTs will play a critical role in that movement. Although analogue communities are stagnating or disappearing, online communities, virtual communities, built through e-mail and the Web, are thriving.
- During the next few decades democracy will be further restored to the people. The ICTs have the potential and the capacity to revitalise democracy throughout the world and to democratise political institutions. The Internet can connect and empower people inside nations and worldwide as never before. It offers through interactive and creative access to information resources and decision making centres, where information can be freely shared, opinions canvassed and ideas evaluated before decisions are taken. It points toward a future in which order emerges from within the social system itself.
- By eroding barriers of time and space, the ICTs are already transforming the way we live and work, and promise to continue doing so, while leading us to the bright uplands of a socially conscious world. Some few decades from now, the ICTs will probably have penetrated every aspect of human life and activity, while at the same time rapidly becoming the leading edge of social change.
ICTs-The Gloomy Picture
Pessimists claim that for all the avowed good intentions, there are socio-economic costs that come with ICTs, and it would be a mistake to jump from specific benefits to a rosy assumption that all the effects are equally benign. The following mosaic paints the pessimistic picture of the expected ICT impacts:
- Through new techniques of machine translation the ICTs will be able to erode the barriers among many world languages and encourage cultural dialogue among peoples all over the world. They will improve the quality of life of people at a global level, where even the most remote or marginalised can have access to health information and services, life- long learning institutions, and even recreation possibilities. Using the Internet, from their homes they will be able to work for any enterprise anywhere in the world. These and other facilities offered by the ITCs may encourage people not to move from their homes or on the contrary may enable them to begin moving away from cities, which means more settled villages and less urban settings. The higher capacity of the ICTs, the less energy and raw materials are needed for production and for disposal.
- Treating the ICTs as a new religion or revering humans as the creators of technology may lead to a loss of values. On the other hand giving credit to the technologies or holding them responsible leads to a neglect of the human dimension. "New technology is a false god" (Pope John Paul II, 1998).
- The ICTs are growing at an exponential rate, with which humans and human societies can not cope and prediction of the future has become very difficult if not impossible. It is probable that the most serious consequences of the information revolution will be psychological and social. Floods of information on the Internet decrease its credibility and reliability, and mean less time to convert it into knowledge, judgement, and wisdom.
- There is the danger of growing empires of power and big corporations, accompanied by an increasing risk of dehumanising life, as market values replace other human values. The hegemony of political and economic power may lead to totalitarian societies. The ICT revolution may lead to a new electronic feudalism. ICT conglomerates may have a tendency to produce inequality, polarisation and exclusion.
- Rich and poor, the information-rich and information-poor, and income inequalities are not a new local or global phenomenon. The ICTs will worsen, not improve, this situation. This may be concluded from the way in which ICT generated wealth is distributed at a local or global level and its final destination. It can be seen that the ICT revolution will increase the gap between rich and poor countries and between the rich and the poor within countries This will lead to an erosion of the middle classes and the growth of the super-poor, who will be excluded from human progress and become isolated and marginalised.
- The ICT revolution facilitates the transfer and diffusion of different cultures all over the world. But this may also lead to cultural and linguistic hegemony in cyberspace. Moreover, the transfer of culture and lifestyles, which are not welcome in some societies, is also possible. For example, consumption patterns, which may be considered essential for the economy of an affluent industrial society, could be very harmful to the economy of a developing society and, if followed by the affluent strata of that society, could lead to more impoverishment.
- The ICTs threaten to violate basic privacy or civil rights. They can be used in cyber-criminal activities from fraud to theft through easy access to personal data bases, computer monitoring of job performance, computer surveillance of credit card databases, counterfeiting and forgery of data computer theft and embezzlement of funds, theft of data, illegal interception, unauthorised access and disclosure of proprietary and confidential information, intentional damage and destruction of data, hardware and software; fraud and misrepresentation in sales of hardware, software and services; software piracy (copyright infringement) and patent infringement; and finally cyber child pornography, paedophilia, and prostitution on the Internet.
- Cyber-media, satellite T.V., newspapers and electronic games benefit from deregulation and privatization. Children are becoming more susceptible to manipulation by the new cyber-media, which offers them programmes, filled with violence, divorced from any enduring meaning or social context. For both children and adults, spending more time in virtual than in concrete reality day after day could lead to more social and personal isolation.
- The ICTs are disrupting our environment. The amount of toxins that go into producing computers, and the resources that go into producing them are huge, such that 40,000 pounds of resources are necessary for a four-pound laptop. This is just one example of the direct negative impact that the ICTs have on the environment. The ICTs are enhancing a war of the technosphere against the biosphere and those who live in the sociosphere are the losers.
- As the speed of change in the knowledge-based society increases, individuals who are already in a marginal position in educational, social and economic life may find themselves excluded. Even among people whose qualifications and educational attainments are relatively high the feeling of insecurity is increasing. In general, the ICTs will have a negative impact on labour and unemployment will increase.
- Using the Internet at home causes a small, but identifiable, decline in social and psychological well being. Findings from studies of the home use of the Internet, show that during their first year or two online, people used the Internet more, but reported keeping up with fewer friends, spending less time talking with their families, experienced more stress in daily life, and felt lonelier and more depressed. It should be noted that interpersonal communication was their main reason for using the Internet!
Facts of life
In spite of the above-mentioned expectations and even in absence of major in-depth research there are nevertheless measurable facts that can be used as indicators for future projections. Population, economic and market statistics are reliable sources in this area. An attempt to draw-up some features of possible future scenarios using these ‘facts of life’ follows:
The most dramatic short-term impact of the ICTs is economic. In the United States over the last five years the ICTs have been responsible for more than a quarter of economic growth; the ICT industry makes up more than 8%, of the Gross Domestic Product twice as much as 20 years ago; investments in information technologies account for about 45% as compared with 3% in the 1960s of all business equipment investment. In industries like communications, insurance and brokerage houses, ICTs may constitute over three quarters of all equipment purchased; declining prices of ICTs have lowered overall inflation by one percentage point to its lowest rate for the last 30 years. Employment in the ICT field is well paid, 64% more than the average private sector job, with the average information technology worker earning about $46,000 per year (US Secretary of Commerce 1998).
The ICTs can then generate wealth. But the example of the United States is not a typical one, even for other ICT producers. What about developing countries, which are ICT consumers or users? For the majority of them the ICTs seem to be an economic burden. They pay for having the latest ICTs, but they are not yet ready to benefit from them or even to make them cost-effective. Moreover, in some of these economically poor countries even investing in ICT’ national capacity might be considered as a difficult compromise, taking into account other urgent needs. But to what extent is poverty diffused all over the world?
At present, there are about 6 billion people in the world, of which approximately a mere 15% live in the so-called developed countries. About 85% of the world, which has the fastest population growth, live in the so-called developing countries. The income gap has never been larger in world history. That is because the benefits of industrialisation and technological advance have for 200 years remained heavily centred on the territory of North America, Western Europe and parts of the Pacific Basin. On average, according to the World Bank, the advanced countries have a per capita income of about $25,000. People in the developing world have an average income of approximately $1,000 per capita, roughly a ratio of 25 to 1. About a quarter of the world lives on a dollar a day. For half the planet in the so-called low and low middle income countries, the average income is about $1.25 a day. It is expected that by 2050 the world population will reach 8.5 billion people. All this population growth is expected to take place in the now developing world (UNDP and World Bank).
In terms of the ICTs alone, the gap between rich and poor countries is astounding. Compared to the developing countries as a whole, by the mid-1990s the industrialized countries had about 4 times as many television sets per 100 people, 6 times as many radios per 1,000 people, 7 times as many book titles published per 100,000 people, 12 times as many telephone lines per 100 people, 13 times as many metric tons of printing and writing paper consumed per 1,000 people, 14 times as many mobile cellular phone subscribers per 100 people, 14 times as many personal computers per 100 people, 28 times as many fax machines per 1000 people, and 149 times as many Internet users per 100,000 people (UNDP report, 1997).
According to the OECD, the world-wide information technology market breakdown in 1995 was: North America 43.5%, Western Europe 28.3%, Asia-Pacific 23.6%, Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa 2.6%, Latin America 2%.
At present, about 2% of world population is connected to the Internet and it is expected to exceed 4% by 2002. Considering the number of Internet users in the United States, at the present time 20% of the US population, only 0.9% of the population elsewhere are connected to the Internet. In 2002, these percentages will rise to 30.4% and 2.5%, respectively. Of the existing Internet websites, according to one estimation (eStat), 82% of them are in English, 4% in German, 1.6% in Japanese, 1.3% in French and 1.1% in Spanish. The remaining 9.8% websites are in other languages, mostly European. The majority of people connected to the Internet world-wide have at least a first university level of education. Most Internet users are high-ranking managers and professionals, who are the most affluent in their societies. Therefore, is the Internet now, or will it be in the very near future, (2002), a truly global phenomena?
A Glimpse of the Future
The increasing gaps in income, human development, and ICT applications between the elite and the majority of the world’s population show that the ICTs boost economies and improve the quality of life in industrialised and some newly industrialising countries. They will not however do so in other developing countries, where economic, cultural, social and political constraints are likely to prove obstacles to their use. These countries are slipping gradually into marginalisation and isolation. The least developed countries face enormous risks of exclusion, because they often lack the economic and social capabilities needed to take advantage of the ICTs.
However, the real problem is not that technological change has outrun the ability of some people to benefit from it. It has more to do with the timing. Assuming that in the near future developing countries will be able to catch up, they will be actually catching up with the past, and the leaders will move on to other horizons.
The ICTs seem to have a momentum of their own and if it is sustained over the next decades, there will be a history of dissolving and creating jobs, changing industries, building and destroying great fortunes, and more important, a transformation of societies.
Whenever there are new tools and new media there are shifts in power and wealth. In the case of the ICTs, new wealth and power are being created at both global and local levels and the old institutions and elite will hand over some of their authority to new groups of people and institutions. A new generation of entrepreneurs with a capital of knowledge rather than money is producing the new wealth. Big, transnational corporations and NGOs are acquiring some of the traditional authority and power of governments and states, but, at the same time, traditional power and vested interests will fight against the forthcoming changes.
There is no doubt that the ICT revolution is taking place, but there is considerable doubt about whether its positive will outweigh its negative impacts on the quality of life in different parts of the world, or even at the global level. It may be wise to adopt a sceptical position, simply because there is so much at stake. If current trends continue, the future will be profoundly different from the present. The real problem, however, is that we are hurtling into a new era with very little serious analysis to show us the way ahead. A more problematic issue is that any analysis carried out during this transition period may not prove accurate. It is difficult to draw a picture of the world in the future, especially where wealth distribution, poverty, social and political stability, peace and security, governance and democracy are concerned.
In managing future complexities, the old concepts of the industrial era no longer apply. They must be re-evaluated and may be replaced by concepts, which are a product of the new age. In any event, the value systems and the role of human response and resistance can not be ignored. The shaping of the new society cannot take place in a vacuum.
The most pressing future problem is the widening gap between developed and developing countries, which threatens both peace and security. Developing countries can be assisted to find ways of adapting their existing social and technological capabilities in order to benefit from the potential advantages of the ICTs. There are very good examples in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, which show the close connection between education and equitable sustainable development. In spite of a scarcity of natural resources, these countries have managed to assign qualified and able people to keep abreast of the latest ICT developments and impart this knowledge to others, particularly in more disadvantaged or rural areas. The importance of laying the foundation for life-long learning, on which depend all other sorts of learning activities, re-emphasises the pivotal role of initial education and training, particularly in childhood and early adulthood.
Although computers and other new electronic media are an important tool for education, they cannot replace teachers as role models, mentors, and motivators. Education systems will thus bear the brunt of training, while people themselves will bear the burden of continuing their education throughout their lifetime. Those who lack the proper preparation for the digital world will become an increasing social problem for themselves and for the rest of society.
In conclusion, the ICTs together with globalisation are changing the world at an unprecedented pace, creating opportunities and challenges as well as risks. But opportunities and risks are not equally distributed among the different countries in the world. At present, most opportunities such as economic growth, knowledge and wealth benefit a small percentage of the world’s population, which produces information and communication technology, while the vast majority of countries, which are ICTs consumers, are facing a number of risks including threats to their cultural and linguistic diversity. There are also communities in the world which have no access to ICT and therefore find themselves isolated and marginalized. This situation presents a real challenge, and even a threat to world peace and development. As the ICT gap widens and the risks increase, the lack of an adequate ethical and legal framework for the ICT’s has important consequences for all societies.
The ICTs can facilitate the flow of information, but information is not knowledge, which has to be distilled from the information flows. Knowledge is not the prerogative of the rich; the poor also have considerable knowledge drawn from their livelihood and civilisations. Without the integration of the knowledge possessed by the poor, development would be impossible. At present, knowledge is replacing capital as the driving force of development; and the establishment of a knowledge-based society is the real challenge to development.
In the search for sustainable and equitable development, the ICTs are not a solution in themselves, nor is access to information. Real development can be achieved only through institutionalised knowledge-based societies. A knowledge-based society is one which is capable of locating, processing and using knowledge wisely to mobilise all partners from government and civil society to work coherently to determine their goals, targets and priorities, and to decide upon policies and strategies for development. Local and national, as well as global knowledge, available through the application of new ICTs is necessary to construct such a society, but there is no one solution which is applicable to all countries. Each country has its own conditions. Global co-operation is an effective component, but the real basis for development is local. Building a knowledge society and adopting development strategies based on knowledge is not an easy task. It requires an intellectual multi-disciplinary, systemic approach.
UNESCO is the only international organisation, which has an intellectual mission and is multidisciplinary in nature. According to its Constitution, UNESCO contributes to human development through education, science, culture and communication. UNESCO was and still is very responsive to the problem of sharing the benefits of the ICTs. It has studied the problem of the impact of Information Super Highways, and conducted discussions on the societal, ethical and legal problems of the new information society. Now UNESCO has to become more proactive in dealing with the problems that prevent societies from using the ICTs to achieve their development goals.
In close co-operation and partnership with all the other stakeholders, including other United Nations Organisations and Programmes, governments, world enterprises, NGOs, and civil societies, UNESCO is expected to play a key role in this endeavour. It is a huge responsibility, but only international and regional co-operation as well as national initiatives will serve to restore humanity on our globe at this historical moment of transition to a new era. A vast number of forces will combine to shape the future and it is hoped that human values will be foremost among them.
|Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.
Mohsen Tawfik is Director of the Unit for Special Projects of UNESCO's Communication, Information and Informatics Sector