Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Editorial from Michael Gurstein

Learning from the LDC’s V.2. no. 3.

As developed countries are retreating from the implicit commitment to their citizens that universal Internet access will be available even to those without in-home Internet access, so such a commitment appears to be emerging within Less Developed Countries, particularly in Asia. Funding programs facilitating widespread public access have recently been cut back or cut completely in Canada, the US, Australia, and France among others. Meanwhile programs to support a widespread distribution of public access have recently been announced in India, Sri Lanka, Bangla Desh and the Philippines.

On the one hand some are saying that the recent cuts are simply policy responses in the developed countries to “mission accomplished”—the Divide Divide has been defeated (everyone who wants it can get affordable individual in-home access on low cost computers). While on the other hand, the parallel development in the Less Developed Countries (LDC’s) would seem to be a sign that those countries are willing to make a considerable financial investment in “catching up”.

In fact, the situation is somewhat more complicated than that. In the developed countries as in other instances, rather than the “mission being accomplished”, the forces at work are in more or less full-retreat not from the enemy but rather from the commitment to universal inclusion and the widespread distribution of what has now become a more or less necessary aspect of full citizenship in a democratic society—that is the ability to engage and connect with government electronically. What has been happening in developed countries is that the state seems to be giving up on those at the margins—the elderly, the deeply poor, the mentally disabled, recent immigrants—those who lack not simply the financial means to access the necessary knowledge for democratic participation which now is most easily accessed via the Internet; but who also lack the associated educational, psychological or motivational means to obtain access and realize use with support and facilitation.

At the same time and across the world, in the LDC’s the extension of such access should probably not be interpreted as a simple response to a national or global “Digital Divide”. Rather these programs should be seen as pragmatic and calculated attempts at economic and social intervention. In these instances, ICT access and use is being recognized as a fundamental element in the successful achievement of a broad based strategy for economic development and perhaps more important for realizing the transformation of traditional and largely rural societies into innovative and productive “knowledge societies”. The understanding appears to be that if these societies are to truly flourish, economic opportunity and the capacity to innovate and participate in knowledge intensive activities must be as widely accessible as possible and this can only be realistically achieved through public (and community) access.

So what we see in the developed countries is a retreat from a policy of broad based digital social inclusion. This seems to be apiece with the continuing neo-liberal erosion of the notions of inclusive citizenship. These in turn are seemingly based on an assumption that decisions concerning Internet access and use are decisions best left to individuals (and individual resources) rather than as being an aspect of social policy. At the same time in some LDC’s we see an extension of precisely the same processes of broad-based access for pragmatic social and economic reasons. So which understanding of the role and significance of broad-based Internet access is the correct one?

In fact, the intension with the programs in the LDC’s is to use the base of “universal access” (the medium term goal for these programs) as a means to enhance the delivery of public services, facilitate a broader base of engagement with governmental activities, provide support to local human resource development, and facilitate the distribution of knowledge as a basis for local innovation among others.

The question of course, is are these objectives for public access programs ones which are already fully accomplished in developed countries, or are they for some reason unnecessary, or perhaps are they beneath the range of interests of governments and public policy? There is probably little dispute that the answer to at least some of these questions is no!

Rather, as in other areas, the developed countries are, for reasons that can only be described as ideological, abandoning courses of action which would appear to be in the national long term economic and social interests, not to speak of issues of equity and social justice. While others, in some cases the direct economic competitors in LDC’s, are in fact, adopting these policies whose long term results are likely to be a sturdier and more robust base of economic activity and a solider base for moving forward into knowledge societies.

Thus while some countries are putting into place the infrastructure for a robust and innovative Internet enabled democracy others are retreating from this and allowing for increasing levels of inequality in society to become etched and made permanent through allowing for structured inequalities to persist and become socially embedded through differential access to knowledge and digitally enabled services and opportunities for participation.


This issue of the Journal unfortunately has been delayed due to a variety of unforeseen circumstances and transitions. The first major transition was that of moving from OJS 1 to OJS 2 which proved to be rather more difficult in a variety of unexpected ways than had been anticipated. The second transition is a personal one for myself, moving from the East Coast and an academic position to the West Coast and into “start-up” mode for a CI think-tank. A third transition still being resolved is towards a more formalized organizational and production structure, difficult of course since to date virtually all activities within the Journal have been voluntary and thus supported by one or another (mostly academic) infrastructure.

Hopefully, most of these and their consequences have now been absorbed and are past and that we can resume a regular schedule of publication.

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