Network: Is the global village a Western fantasy?

Britain is achieving modest success in bridging the digital divide between the connected and unconnected. But in the Third World, most individuals cannot afford a PC, leaving nation states wondering if the information revolution will by-pass them. By Rob Brown
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The Independent Culture
When centre-left leaders from both sides of the Atlantic gathered in Florence recently for a futuristic summit, it was President Clinton who came out with the neatest suggestion for narrowing the growing gap between rich and poor: "Get more [mobile] phones and computers into the hands of smart people in the Third World."

Ever since the Internet was invented there has been no shortage of people eager to teach the world to surf in perfect harmony. There is a widespread belief that the digital revolution has massive potential for developing countries and could even enable some of them to skip several stages of development to catch up with the prosperous West. In short, they can go direct from dirt tracks to the information superhighway.

In theory, the Internet is a global network with the technological capacity to create a true global village. In reality, most inhabitants of the Southern hemisphere have about as much chance of venturing into cyberspace as they have of flying to the moon. Far from engendering an all-inclusive global information society, the highly uneven spread of the Internet is deepening the divide between the information rich and poor.

James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, issued the following warning in that body's last annual development report: "In our enthusiasm for the information superhighway, we must not forget the villages and slums without telephones, electricity or safe water, the primary schools without pencils, papers or books. For the poor, the promise of the new information age can seem as remote as a distant star."

What has been called the "digital divide" will not be addressed by compassionate rhetoric from First World statesmen, though. It will take a gargantuan investment in information technology across the developing world, coupled with an equally massive education programme to overcome the cultural obstacles.

There is a gathering movement in some undeveloped countries to get the industrialised nations to tax their citizens' access to the Net. The money would then be used to "wire" the rest of the world. This proposal has not met with a warm response anywhere in the West, although the issue of international inequalities in access to the World Wide Web did surface at last week's two-day summit at the Paris headquarters of Unesco involving representative from more than 60 countries.

Everyone concerned with this issue agrees that the first problem to be addressed is phones - or, rather, the dire shortage of this basic communication tool in many parts of the planet. As the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, remarked recently; "Half the world's population has never even made or received a telephone call."

Africa, the poorest continent on the planet, is the least connected. Indeed, there are more telephones in Tokyo than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, where fewer than one in three people have a phone. Almost four- fifths of Africans who are on the Internet reside in relatively prosperous South Africa.

Some have suggested that countries with little or no telecommunications infrastructure could actually be at an advantage as the digital revolution unfolds because they won't have to install an old system in order to install the new one. They can even miss out expensive land lines, and go straight to wireless phones (which is what Bill Clinton had in mind).

Gerry McGovern, managing director of Nua Ltd, a Dublin-based Internet consultancy that tracks computer trends across the globe, has little time for such perverse logic. "That's all well and good," he wrote in his book The Caring Economy, "but maybe the reason there is none is because none could be afforded in the first place and the new-fangled one cannot be afforded either."

Paula Uimonen, of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, has warned in a paper: "Unless these problems of infrastructure are solved in an imaginative and sustainable way, there is little point in maintaining illusions about the widespread use of the Internet in developing countries."

Her findings were published more than two years ago. Tragically, there has been little change in the intervening period. As Uimonen noted, developing telecommunications infrastructure has, understandably, not been high on the agenda of the poorest developing countries struggling to provide basic health and education services for their citizens.

Telecoms are, however, swiftly moving up the political agenda in many parts of the Third World. In the jubilant aftermath of his recent election victory, India's Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, promised to restructure the telecommunications industry to provide world-class telephone services at reasonable cost throughout the country.

Other developing countries are doing even more to kit out their citizens for the computer-driven global knowledge economy. South Korea's President Kim Dae Sung recently inaugurated his very own information revolution, called "Cyber Korea 21". South Koreans are to be offered computers at cut-rate prices in an experimental project which aims to more than double the number of PCs in their country from seven million to 16 million in three years.

At present, just over six per cent of South Korea's population are Internet users. "Compared with the United States and other advanced countries, our PC penetration rate is still low," commented Lee Sang Yup, a project planner at the information and communication ministry in Seoul. "This project is unprecedented in the world. If it bears fruit, many developing nations will follow suit."

Success is far from certain. The major PC producers in the region, such as Samsung, have refused to back the project, forcing the government to cobble together deals with a dozen relatively minor suppliers. Even they have struggled to keep prices low since the recent earthquake in Taiwan sent microchip prices surging. In cyberspace, the best laid plans of ambitious government technocrats often go awry.

Even if South Korea's plan succeeds, it won't offer a solution to the world's poorest countries. "Most people in the Third World will never be able to afford their own PCs and many countries will not be able to invest in the infrastructure or training required," argues Paula Uimonen, who advocated in her UN report that the focus should switch from individual to community access.

That is one way in which the Blair government is attempting to bridge Britain's own digital divide. A major advance for the strategy was hailed recently when the country's main telephone companies agreed to cut prices for Internet access to libraries, citizens advice bureaux and further education colleges.

Similar initiatives are taking place in a number of developing countries through, for example, local post offices or commercially run cybercafes. In far flung parts of rural Peru, where the postal service is highly infrequent,

e-mail messages are printed out and distributed to the recipients.

But that hardly puts poor Peruvians on a par with cyber-savvy citizens of the First World. Nor does it offer them any real stake in the new information society. And, as Nelson Mandela told the Telecom 95 convention in Geneva: "If we cannot ensure that this global revolution creates a world-wide information society in which everyone has a stake and can play a part, then it will not have been a revolution at all."