The Internet and the World Wide Web are wondrous things, technologies that make geography irrelevant and open up uncharted realms of possibility. This, in
various forms, is the mantra of the information technology generation. If you're reading this newspaper, than you're part of it. So am I. So is my mother in Canada. But Internet-driven hype about IT is reaching dangerous proportions in South Asia, and reality is being replaced by the two dimensional distortion of the
Consider a recent announcement in Pakistan of a new government programme to provide free Internet access to a wide variety of people. The Science Minister was on BBC Radio last week, waxing eloquent about how this would spread opportunity far beyond the cloistered urban enclaves of the present elite. Perhaps. But am I missing something? Is this the same Pakistan with a rural female literacy rate less than 20 percent; an overall adult literacy rate under 40 percent? Don't we need to teach people to read before we give them an Internet kiosk?
Information technology hype certainly has urban India in its seductive grip. The admirable Chandrababu Naidu, chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, seems sincere and capable, and is possibly his country's most interesting politician. His government has hooked many rural districts of the state up to the Internet, and placed land records online. Land disputes in Andhra can theoretically be resolved at the click of a mouse. In practice, power cuts and perfidious local officials are keeping the full benefits of the system from the people. Nonetheless, things are changing and Naidu's drive for IT-led development deserves the credit.
India's private sector high priests of IT may not have motives as thoroughly benign as Naidu. They say their country will leapfrog the industrial age through
its software and IT expertise. They point with somewhat justifiable pride at India's successes in the field, and the insatiable demand for its hi-tech savvy abroad. Sadly though, little of this is filtering through to those most in need-indigenous tribals, Dalits, rural women and others. Social activists and NGO workers who have been soldiering on behalf of the poor for years point this out continuously, even as they use the obvious advantages of the Internet to raise awareness of their
All too often, it seems, the Internet boom in India and across Asia is made up of "get-rich-quick schemes" for the existing moneyed classes. There are many new Internet companies offering inexplicable products and backed by high-risk venture capital. Typically these businesses earn no revenue but spin their initial share offering into huge sums before going out of business, or being bought out by a larger rival. All's fair in love and post-modern capitalism, you say, and perhaps you're right. But don't try to tell me that a wildly speculative, hypedriven
micro-economy will bring prosperity, or even subsistence to hundreds of millions below the poverty line. Even established and reputable companies, providing online services like transcription and airline ticketing, e-profit from advantages that the region might not have for long-plentiful cheap labour and lots of empty
Don't get me wrong. I do believe that IT, the Net and computers will empower and enrich vast numbers of people in Asia, eventually. First though, real social change is necessary. A good place to start is with decent primary education for all, funded by a middle class that pays its taxes in full and on time.
Let me give the last word to someone who should know. As a confirmed Microserf for many years, I am no great fan of Bill Gates. But I have to give him his
due. When a glitzy American television reporter asked him last year at a news conference about "the digital divide", and how pouring billions into Internet
connections for the poor was the answer to poverty, Gates visibly winced. "I'll
answer yes to that question," he said, "when someone develops the software to deliver safe drinking water, female literacy, reasonable nutrition and human rights on the Internet. Let's get our priorities straight here."
(Daniel Lak is a journalist specialising on South Asia based in Kathmandu.)