Sep 21, 2009

Can ICT Save the Developing World? Using Afghanistan and Iran as Examples

Towards the end of Chapter Five of Elizabeth Hanson's book The Information Revolution and World Politics, Hanson begins to explore what role bridging the digital divide can play in aiding the advancement of the world's developing nations.

The reading uses India as an example of a nation that has the most greatly benefited from the proliferation of IT products and services while still being victim to the largest domestic digital divide in the world. The reading presents the point of view of what it calls 'pessimists' of the digital divide who ask what good can increased communication technology be in aiding people who are lacking clean water, food, clothing, shelter, and security? This point of view is contrasted by the 'optimists' who believe that the increased access to knowledge can help the people advance their economy and possible find ways to challenge the rule of despots (which the reading doesn't address).

In the recent election and subsequent 'Green Revolution' of Iran, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Youtube and Blogs played a large role in circumventing the foreign media blackout the Iranian government imposed shortly after millions of Iranians took to the streets. Of course, these people were still held back by the censorship, control, and spying of Internet activities by the Iranian government. In a nation like Iran with a seventy seven percent overall literacy rate, the bridging of the digital divide is really only useful if the limitations on access and fear of government intrusion on activity is put to an end. Iranians had to work very hard to get the information out there as the days following the highly contested tenth presidential election went by. They had to constantly create proxy servers, find ways to get information to foreign websites to broadcast, and try to discern the spies and fake government accounts from actual news sources.

Therefore, though the majority of the nation is literate and the educated, more well to-do people of the cities have considerably good access to technology, that access is worth nothing without the freedom to find and broadcast what you will.

In contrast, the August 20th election of Afghanistan, which has seen vast accusations of fraud on all sides was almost exclusively broadcast online through foreign sources on the ground. There was very little online activity among the people of Afghanistan itself. Unlike Iran, Afghanistan has a literacy rate of just twenty eight percent, in fact, the literacy rate is so low in Afghanistan that the majority of ballots had to have graphics next to each candidate's printed name so that the largely illiterate people of Afghanistan could vote. Afghanistan, as the fourth poorest nation in the world, is like the slums and villages of India where access to information technology is of little use without clean water, food, shelter, education, and above all security. Unlike Iran, no website in Afghanistan is blocked by the government and twenty five percent of Afghans have cell phone access, and yet the people of the nation are largely illiterate and thus have little use for Internet technology. In the case of Afghanistan, the people are in need of life's necessities before they can be given unrestricted access to the vast knowledge of the world offered online.

What these two nations prove is that there is more to the argument than just the increasing or reduction of the digital divide - the Internet is useless in the hands of a largely literate populace if their access is controlled by a government and on the other hand, unrestricted access to the information of the world is of little use to a people who by and large can neither read nor write.

Again, this vision of the widen or reduction of the digital divide presents a Western slant on an important international issue that affects millions of people around the world. There is far more to consider than whether or not the people of the world have access to the information of the Internet, because that information is rendered powerless in the hands of deprived peoples.

1 comment:

  1. You got a great point here, though I would disagree with you on some of the things you brought up on the Iranian elections...
    The thing is that despite the fact that many in Iran are computer/Internet literate AND have the access, I would say they are NOT a majority. Yes, whatever happened in June (and later) was more than just horrid, but I would say that it was MORE noise than what actually happened, because everyone pumped it up so much... particularly in Europe and the US. Why weren't the presidential elections in Belarus 2006, Armenia and Georgia 2008, or Moldova 2009 (to name JUST A FEW, not so far from Iran) given a similarly "warm" welcome by the international media? All these cases had a plethora of blogs and social networking groups mushrooming online, while their governments censored ALL media and violently harassed ANY opposition. I see this as the media multiplier effect - especially given the intense interest in the Iranian issue - which, in a sense, made the voice of the dissenters louder... but exactly due to the digital divide, I wouldn't say that their voice was truly representative of a "vast majority" INSIDE the country. Nevertheless, things would've been so much better if their attempt actually worked...
    And your overall point: sadly, it is very often forgotten. The poorer countries are encouraged to "embrace democracy" and fight for their political rights and political freedom... while they have no basic needs, just as you pointed out. I'm afraid many have got the principles of negative and positive freedom all mixed up, forgetting that to be able to desire AND attain positive freedom, one must first of all have the negative one. And yeah, no matter how many millions they spent on last-generation laptops and cell-phones to promote the ideas of "liberty" in the more destitute regions of the world, their plan will not work FOR REAL unless people have the time, the energy, and the will to be thinking about "metaphysics" (yes, I would dare to use this metaphor here)...