Information Devolution

As new technologies make it possible to move more information faster than ever before, we are dazzled by the millions of gigabytes that move across the world in nanoseconds. We are infatuated by bandwidth, digital television by gadgets and gizmos. Yet we hardly ask questions about the quality of the information: what is it that we are communicating? Is it relevant? Will it make the world a better place? And does all this information add up to knowledge?


The challenge is to get the information to where it is needed through the most cost-effective method possible. Only when information helps people communicate, participate and allows them and their rulers to make informed choices does that information become knowledge.

The growing gap between the world's have and have-nots is today reflected in the gap between the know and the not knows. If we want to turn information into knowledge, and give the developing world a chance to take a short-cut to prosperity the knowledge gap needs to be bridged urgently. Here we are not talking about the top of the line computers in each classroom in India, we are talking about a teacher who is trained and motivated, a classroom that has a roof, school children who have enough to eat so that their brains are not stunted by low calorie intake.

The scriptures are right: "Knowledge is a sword, and wisdom is a shield." Perhaps nowhere is the raw power of knowledge as relevant today as it is for the two-thirds of the world's people who live in the countries of the South. And yet in the developing countries of the South, the holy trinity of the Information Age (television, telephone and computer) is present, if at all, only in its cable and satellite television incarnation. South Asia, where one fifth of the world's population lives, is today within the footprint of at least 50 broadcast satellites. In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh alone there are more than 70 million households with television, giving a viewership of 300 million. By the year 2007, there will be 550 million television viewers in these countries, and half of them will be hooked up to cable and able to watch 350 channels that will be available by then.

Advances in information technology are supposed to shrink distances, but they don't necessarily bring people together. Better communications through satellite may give people a wider array of programming to choose from, but it does not guarantee that they will be more tolerant of diversity. In fact, more information seems to mean more ignorance, and better communications initially at least tends to highlight the differences between peoples.

Knowledge may be a sword, but it double-edged. The delivery mechanisms for knowledge are today in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Globally, media ownership reflects the supranational ownership patterns and mega-mergers with other worldwide businesses. More and more of the message therefore propagates a global consumer monoculture that is wasteful, unjust and environmentally unsound. It is when this culture is put forward as the only one to aspire for that it helps perpetuate economic disparities and unsustainable lifestyles.

It also leaves more and more people out of the knowledge loop. They have lost the knowledge they had, and what has replaced it is no longer relevant or useful. Ultimately, this provokes an extremist backlash against an uncaring elite and a soulless global culture.

In a lot of ways, it is just like the loss of genetic diversity. High-yield hybrid seeds have replaced a rich variety of local cereals, improving harvests but also making the crops more susceptible to disease, and needing expensive inputs of agrochemicals to make them work. Globalization of media subliminally spreads information that eats into traditional knowledge bases and indigenous processes best adapted to deal with local conditions.

Internet may offer a chance for South Asian countries to leapfrog technology, to level the playing field, to democratize information by giving a voice to diverse groups so that a new age when better communications will spread useful knowledge will be ushered in. But going by past examples, the chances of this happening are not good.

Before its November 1 launch, Iridium has launched a media blitz. The latest commercial beamed via satellite television to millions of homes across the world shows the Himalayas and Kathmandu, while the voice-over talks of how you can now wait for the dial tone at the ends of the earth. But who really grabs satellite phones first? It is the war correspondents, the Osma bin Ladens, the businessmen or dying mountaineers on the summit Mt Everest making their last call home. The poor will be the last to use them, or benefit from them.

How do we ensure that Information Technology will succeed where all earlier previous panaceas have failed? First, by knowing its limitations. Let us not recklessly promise that this will "level the playing field" or "democratize information" but do little do-able things with it which will add up to change. A lot of this already happening. It takes more than an hour to log on to the government-owned ISP in New Delhi because of dirty phone lines and although only India's information elite have private phone connections or can afford a computer and the ISP fees, but Internet in India has become a vigorous parallel information universe. Activists and media have found this to be an efficient and fast way to counter the mainstream agenda, especially in the dangerous age of nukes and religious jingoism.

In places where official information is controlled like in Indonesia, Malaysia and China the Internet has brought the only available means of spearheading the truth. Across the world, non-governmental organizations, human rights activists, trampled minorities, suppressed democracy supporters are bonding via email. The internet's inherent anarchy, its decentralized nature and freedom from official control has ironically made a globalized Internet the most ideal medium to take on the ravages of a globalized economy.

If history has taught us anything, it is that technology by itself is never the answer. The corporate values that drive the Information Age are the same ones that drove the Industrial Age, and things will be no different with the Internet or Iridium. it still depends on who gets to control it, who gets to use it and how they use it. Unlike the computer's binary codes, it is not going to be either/or, plus/minus. The outcome of the Information Age is going to be a messy analog mishmash.

Parts of the world will be enslaved by Information transnationals, others will be liberated. Some will cash in on a commercialized internet, others will do just as well without it. Some will be smothered in an avalanche of information overload, others who yearn for freedom will use it to bypass tyranny. The degree to which South Asia can benefit from the Internet's potential for democracy, bring about true decentralization, or spread knowledge will on how much support the information-poor get to log on.

In the final analysis, Information Technology is like a tiger. You can either ride it or be eaten up by it. You may be eaten up anyway, but at least get to ride it for a while.