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Back | Programme Area: Technology and Society (2000 - 2009)

Information Technologies and Social Development Conference

Date: 22 - 23 Jun 1998

What will it take — in social, political, economic and legal terms — to create a setting in which new ITs can be used to improve the conditions of less-advantaged groups? What are the basic elements for promoting an inclusive information society, rather than a world of information “haves” and “have nots”? Questions of this kind formed the basis for discussion at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) conference on Information Technologies and Social Development. More than 200 people, representing a wide range of interests and points of view, took part in the meeting, which began with a keynote address by Manuel Castells.

In his presentation, Castells called for much greater awareness of the revolutionary implications of the “information age”, which is based upon an unprecedented capacity to connect and disconnect people, firms and regions through the creation and modification of electronic networks. In the current international context, dominated by free-market ideology, this capacity underwrites the consolidation of global “informational capitalism”, characterized by (among other things) the instantaneous movement of capital and increasing reliance on flexible systems of production. There are elements of Social Darwinism in this model, which implies instability and insecurity for growing numbers of people and excludes individuals or groups that are not able to meet increasingly high standards of education and technical proficiency.

National governments have many different approaches to IT issues, ranging from laissez faire to highly developed strategies for using new technologies to promote economic and social change. At the conference, two attempts to design national information strategies were examined in some detail. The Malaysian government has a strong commitment to creating a Multimedia Super Corridor, which should attract the most advanced IT industries and the most highly skilled programmers to a specially created zone with state-of-the-art infrastructure. The hope is that the Multimedia Super Corridor will provide a stimulus for high-wage development in Malaysia, and that proficiency in the use of new ITs will spread outward from the special zone toward other areas of Malaysian society. Levels of well-being should rise accordingly. Nevertheless, the adequacy of mechanisms to ensure that benefits are widely distributed among the Malaysian people was seriously questioned at the meeting.

South Africa is also developing a large number of initiatives designed to harness ITs to the tasks of economic modernization and social progress. Discussions at the conference centred around efforts to improve education, and particularly distance education. They highlighted many difficulties, including inadequate funding, insufficient staff and equipment in local communities and schools, and the challenge of creating appropriate teaching materials. A later presentation on telecentre initiatives in Soweto illustrated some of the concrete problems confronted by local people, just as it underlined the commitment of many individuals who continue to work for an inclusive information society under very difficult circumstances.

During the final session on the first day of the conference, there was an exchange of views on policy-making processes in parts of the international system where IT-related rules and regulations are made. Some participants insisted on the need for democratization of the international policy environment, enabling citizens to exercise more control (through their governments) over the use of global resources, like the radio spectrum. Others preferred to adopt a market-oriented approach, and to speak of responding to the needs of users of various services who are concerned above all with paying a fair price. This, they felt, was being adequately accomplished within international organizations, without any special need for equipping citizens to participate in the policy-making process. Finally, still others in the audience noted that difficulties in understanding complex IT policy questions exist even at the level of governments, and that many national representatives are unable in fact to play an informed and useful role in international debates on IT issues. This leaves the field open to manipulation by the most powerful corporations and states.

On the second day of the conference, there was a review of concrete attempts to use ITs in projects benefiting low-income groups in Bangladesh, Cuba, Mexico and South Africa. The central importance of good local organization, adequate finance and efficient national telecommunications systems, capable of providing low-cost (subsidized) service, was clear. This discussion was followed by a debate on the uses of ITs in promoting democracy and defending human rights, with particular reference to experiences in Brazil, Russia and Viet Nam.

Financial support for this conference was provided by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Government of Sweden. UNRISD core funds are provided by Denmark, Finland, Mexico, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.