Nepali Times
Why leap the digital divide?


It is a bit of an irony isn't it that those of us who are most sceptical about the potential for new information technologies to somehow leapfrog development are the ones who use this technology most intensively. Here we are writing about why a computer attached to a phone line is not the panacea it is made out to be to solve problems of poverty, and these very words are inputted into a computer and transmitted along a phone line to the newsroom.

Not all cybersceptics are Luddites. The questions we have about information technology also apply to previous technological breakthroughs which we were told would save the earth. We are so desperate to find a clean, quick solution to the problems of poverty, the ecological crisis, the growing gap between rich and poor between and within countries, war and social injustice that we will jump at anything that offers a glimmer of hope. We are conditioned to look for technological fixes. Technology is easy, it is something you can lay your hands on, you buy it and the problem is fixed. But many of Nepal's problems are political, economic, socio-cultural. They demand complicated and sequenced interventions, the outcome is often unforeseen and messy, and the process of change will be slow.

After a decade of bonanza, the massive power of dot com startups to generate cash, and the hype, we now seem to be settling down to a more sober assessment of the limitations of information technology. Even The Economist carried a cover earlier this year with the strapline: "What the Internet Cannot Do"-and they were not even talking about the Third World. Bill Gates is the latest unlikely cybersceptic: at an IT conference in November in Redmond, Washington, he spoke passionately about how the Internet was not any use to the world's poor. Said Gates: "The world's poorest two billion people desperately need health care, not laptops, or wireless Internet connections or a bridge across the digital divide." Many people couldn't believe that the guru of the cyberage was having doubts.

Potato chips to microchips

We haven't escaped the hype in our own region. India's Minister of Information Technology, Pramod Mahajan, has given up his homespun cotton shirt for a smart suit and a slick tie. He says India missed the bus on the industrial revolution, it can no longer afford to do the same with the information revolution. He wants to take his country from the potato chip to microchip, and the country has seen investments in the software industry double in the past year. But how is a country in which only 0.5 percent of the population has a PC, and less than three percent have phones, and where six-hour power cuts are commonplace, leapfrog? The joke is that 95 percent of Indians are waiting for phones, the other five percent are waiting for dial tones. All of South Asia is struggling to solve infrastructure bottlenecks, but it is a question of priorities. What is more important at the present time: a high-speed data trunk line or a network bringing safe drinking water to villages? The 700 million South Asians who live below the poverty line, the 53 percent of children who are malnourished, do not make the headlines. And yet the question we must ask is: how are the few thousand well-educated cyber-savvy South Asians going to make a difference to the billion compatriots who are not so fortunate?

South Asia is a land of contrasts. Despite infrastructure problems, most of the software engineers and programmers in Silicon Valley are from South Asia, and India's low-cost English-speaking young people with good education have firmly hitched their wagons to the information revolution. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and even Nepal are leaping on to the business of data inputting across continents.

The Internet is supposed to level the playing field and make information freely available to everyone. There is a basic fallacy here: the Internet cannot do that simply because it is priced way beyond the reach of even the middle class. Only five percent of the world's 6.2 billion people have ever logged on, and nine out of ten in industrialised countries. A computer costs one fourth of the monthly household income of an average Finn, whereas it represents ten years' earnings for an average Nepali. It is not surprising therefore that one in every three Americans uses the Internet, but only one in every 10,000 people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh do.

No doubt, there is a need to level the playing field. But with a digital divide like that, information technology is not going to do it for us. There is now a whole industry that is growing around the self-perpetuating world of development aid, which puts information technology forward as the panacea where all else has failed. The argument goes: the global gap between those with access to information technology and those without is growing, therefore the only way to catch up is to buy people computers and hook them up to the Internet.

Internet ==/ Freedom

The other problem with presenting the Internet as the answer to all our ills is the belief that information will set us free. All the gigabytes of information whizzing around the world in nano-seconds is not necessarily spreading knowledge. Even if the Internet were distributing information widely and cheaply, what results is not necessarily greater wisdom. For information to be useful, it has to get to where it is needed as cheaply as possible, it needs to be relevant to the daily needs of the people it is meant for, and the information must be packaged so that it is easily understood. Information must help people communicate and participate, and allow them and their rulers to make informed choices. It must be affordable, it must make sense, and it must be user-friendly. Otherwise it is just junk mail. It is background radiation of inane digital trivia whizzing about at the speed of light. The other question to ask about information is whether there are any filters: who produces it, who controls it, who benefits? Technology is never value-free.

We tend to get all worked up about information technology, we are dazzled by the latest gadgets, gizmos and its glamorous manifestation. It's a bit like the automibile industry: whose car looks sleekest, whose is fastest, who's got the biggest hard-drives?

What all the talk of convergence eclipses is that a good, old-fashioned short-wave radio is also information technology. Developing countries that have completely wasted the power of radio to spread information and to communicate have no right to go on about "leapfrogging" into the Internet age. Our born-again digirati may snobbishly wave away AM radio, but no other medium in Nepal today comes close to matching the reach, the accessibility and affordability of shortwave radio. If there is one medium that will do all the things we want the Internet to do in Nepal (spread knowledge to the disadvantaged, make useful everyday information available to them) then radio is it.

And yet, what have we done with radio? We have used it shamelessly as a public address system for government propaganda, we have insulted the nine million or so radio listeners in Nepal by making shortwave and medium wave broadcasts so boring that people listen to it only because there is little else on the airwaves in Nepali. Radio, in fact, has become a symbol of official neglect and proof of an unspoken strategy to deny the weak a voice. If the information superhighway is full of potholes, an ox cart may be more suitable than a Sports Utility Vehicle.

Then, take education. How is the Internet going to help us leapfrog in education if we have made such a mess of our existing school system? Before sticking a computer into a school, how about building a roof over it? Why not first ensure children are properly fed? Provide textbooks? These things need to be fixed first, but the mechanism by which important political and economic decisions are made have not changed, decision-making is in the same hands, value-systems are the same. It is doubtful that the Internet can do it for us.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)