Beware, the South is getting nearer

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
4 October, 2016
Editorial: 36
Fecha de publicación original: 10 septiembre, 1996

Date of publication: 10/09/1996. Editorial 036.

None so deaf as those that will not hear

The International Union of Telecommunications (UTI) tells us that there are more than 600 million people in the world who have never used a telephone. And, although one never knows how these UN agencies arrive at such precise figures about poverty (considering how hard it is to be accurate about wealth), no doubt telecommunications in developing countries bears some relation to all the other indicators which establish the difference between North and South. It could even be an underestimate bearing in mind the fact that 20% of humanity consumes nearly 80% of the earth’s resources. From this perspective, there can’t be too many telephones left over for the rest, not even for emergency calls. And not that I think that there would be too many people to answer that call. In the end, the distance that separates industrialized countries from the rest cannot be reduced to a matter of infrastructures. A much more determining factor is the north’s view that they, the poor, when one gets down to it, have got what they deserve. If this were not so, they would have less children, kill each other less and work more.

This comfortable position, which permits the inhabitants of rich countries to perceive with vested clarity the seriousness of deforestation and the insignificance of their living in a petrol barrel on wheels, is accurately reflected in the media. Within it, the values of abundance, hyper-consumerism and waste are expressed. And, when it’s time to take a look at the South, invariably it’s from this perspective. Exceptionally a crack opens and some testimony from the Third World slips through, but it’s always filtered by professional intermediaries, just in case the thorny question of poverty scratches the susceptibilities of the self-satisfied citizen.

Things could be different in cyberspace. Possibly, one of the major cultural impacts of the Internet in the next few years will occur precisely in the relationships North-South, despite existing difficulties in the field of telecommunications in developing countries. Accustomed as we are to viewing the world through our eyes so used to over-abundance, we think of the Net as a glistening pearl necklace which slides through our hands as we travel through the WWW. But the beads on this necklace are, of course, not at the disposition of just any mortals. Dense and high capacity telecommunications structures are required, good modems or digital networks, powerful computers, and, above all, a culture of computer gadgets that you can’t pick up from one day to the next. Where does that leave the South of the planet? I don’t mean just those regions that lie geographically south, but, especially, those that lie on the other side of that great divide that separates rich and poor. For them, in general, the WWW is a nominal reference, as devoid of meaning as laser surgery. However, there is life beyond the Web.

Through the Internet, particularly e-mail, hundreds of individuals and organisations in the South have broken the sound barrier and established a rich network of relationships which they could never have achieved using just the telephone. Through this network, information, knowledge, debates and a coordinating thread of initiatives circulate, covering an ample spectrum of vitally important issues, from the environment and agriculture, to banks for the poor, water resource management or the defence of women’s rights. The best directory of this rising telematic movement is channelled through the Institute for Global Communication (IGC) and the Association for Progressive Communication (APC).

The difficulties these associations have in communicating through expensive nets, under-equipped as they are, is, as one might imagine, phenomenal. But the number of them interacting through Internet is constantly increasing and the Net channels the voice of the South directly into the living rooms of the North. The question is: are we ready to face this shock treatment? Will we be capable of opening our senses to somebody else’s explanation of how we construct this world every day, of how we contribute by our models of consumerism to sustaining and aggravating the living conditions of those who we will be able to talk for the first time without intermediaries to distort their message?

Perhaps we will get to finally understand that the problem of overpopulation is not simply a question of headcount, but a question of consumption per capita. The thousands of millions of people who inhabit the Third World are not a plague which they inflict on themselves as a result of laziness, carelessness and ignorance. In fact, they are the most powerful resource they have for their survival. It is they who build those mega-cities which terrify the rich, they produce the food and create the volatile markets which sustain entire populations. They drive their own economic and social development fuelled by thousands of self-help organisations that cover the whole range of daily life, from construction to finances. It is a culture of daily life which the North is unaware of, and which, of course, its inhabitants don’t even touch sides with when they consume the South as a tourist resource. Nevertheless, behind the backdrop of misery – which looks so picturesque in the holiday snaps – palpitate communities desperately struggling to live in a dignified manner, despite the effort we make every day from the rich areas of the world to make it difficult for them to achieve this.

Up to now we have been quite resistant to the vicissitudes and points of view of these communities, whether they be in Kinshasa, Los Angeles, Karachi, London, New Delhi, Barcelona, Caracas or Kathmandu. We protect ourselves, above all, by a self-created sound barrier which prevents us from hearing the words of the less-favoured directly. Internet could dynamite that barrier and clear the horizon. This does not guarantee that we will at last understand the global consequences of our lifestyle. But we won’t have the excuse of simply hiding behind a selfish ignorance either.

Translation: Bridget King.