From ICT to IST (1)

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
14 November, 2017
Editorial: 149
Fecha de publicación original: 5 enero, 1999

There’s no pain that can’t be soothed

As the population on the Internet increases, so does concern about the fate of poor countries in the Information Age. But, as the population on the Internet increases, can we continue to ask the same questions about the relationship between rich and poor countries? Are the unresolved questions posed by the Industrial Society still valid in the Information Society? Or to put it another way: will the peripheral countries of the Industrial Society necessarily still be those of the Information Society? I will spend this and the following editorial examining this question.

If one listens to present answers to these kind of questions, particularly by the growing number of intellectuals who have started to show concern for these matters (the vast majority of whom have been through frustrated leftist experiences, which encumber their analysis), one gets the impression that there is an unchanging order of things, that things always occur in the same way, following some kind of mysterious historical sequence. If there is a paradigm for the so-called “one-way thinking” it is this way of viewing things, it seems to me, which represents the purest expression of its theoretical driving force. And, curiously enough, it is amongst those who most fervently defend this immanent order that the fiercest critics of present neoliberalism being sustained by exactly this clichéd “one-way thinking” theory, are found.

The argument has a uni-lineal basis: the poor of today will be the poor of tomorrow, they say. What they don’t say is that many of the poor countries of today were not poor in the past and vice versa, that many of the rich countries of today were miserably poor not so long ago. And there is no need to carry on. Of the empires which reigned over the last 300 years, not one remains. Out of those of the present century, just one is still alive and even that is very questionable. So what we can deduce from this is that empires, no matter how eternal they may seem in their age of splendour, are born, expand, develop and die whether their rulers and direct beneficiaries like it or not. We need look no further than Spain itself, which is today almost unrecognisable in photographs of the 60’s, never mind 60 years ago. So this uni-lineal argument does not seem to get us very far, especially since we are witnesses and privileged characters in one of those turbulent phases in human history whose outcome, at least, seems very difficult to predict. Perhaps we have learned from experience, but maybe it unfolds before our eyes a familiar picture, one that prevent us from asking the right questions to guide us through the new dynamics of the emerging society.

In her article “Letter to Alfredo”, published in this magazine last week, Karma Peiró cited a paragraph by Literature Nobel Prizewinner, José Saramago, published in an article in Le Monde Diplomatique, one of the papers, if not the paper, which has most attacked “one-way thinking”: “Less than 3% of the world’s population has access to a computer and those that use one represent even less than that. The vast majority of people are unaware of the existence of new technologies since they don’t even have access to running water, electricity, hospitals, schools, cars and fridges……If nothing is done about this, the present information revolution will pass them by too”. This sequence of events which the Portuguese writer quotes is the stereotypical one of the Industrial Society to describe how people move out of poverty: first there is running water (hygiene), next energy, health, education, roads, domestic comfort, etc.

So, Saramago –and I use him only as an example of one way of approaching the question of what he calls the “information revolution” –, sets very high goals: without water or electricity, in other words the two most basic infrastructures, how can you have a computer in the home? And, if the computer is the basis of the new technology driving the aforementioned revolution, the deduction is obvious: it will never reach the less favoured on this planet and they will remain trapped in their present circumstances “per secula seculorum”. In other words, if the Industrial Revolution has been unable to satisfy these basic demands for hundreds of millions of people, how is it going to solve the problem now when they don’t even have phones?

Saramago is right. If the way to obtain these two basic needs (hygiene and energy) means you have to follow the prescribed path consecrated by industrial society, in other words the primitive accumulation of capital to encourage the development of these infrastructures, obviously there is no solution possible at the press of a computer button. A computer which, in addition, would never be found there even in the wildest flights of our imagination Nevertheless, the sequence of events leading to obtaining these objectives do not have always to be the one which we are familiar with. Architects Justino García Navarro and Eduard de la Peña tell us in their book, “El cuarto de baño en la vivienda urbana” (The Bathroom in Urban Housing), recently published by the Colegio de Arquitectos de Madrid, that in the XVIII century, for example, when King Charles III wanted to clean the city of Madrid to rid it of the foul smell of faeces and other rubbish people quite naturally threw into the streets, he came up against the overt opposition of the medical profession who considered that such a move would be dangerous for the health. Sometimes, it feels as if those doctors are still living amongst us.

Today, nevertheless, even in places where basic infrastructure does not reach people, condemning millions to poverty all over the world, information networks do somehow get there. The first, and most obvious of all, television. Saramago, and those who think similarly, commit the very common sin of reductionism. They apply the term new technology (others prefer information technology) to computers. However, this conjunction of “hard” and “soft” is only one of many possible ways to access information. The other is, of course, the TV. A few days ago I was on my way back from Ourzazate to Marrakesh when we stopped at the top of the Atlas mountains in Tizi-n-Tichka, which lies 2.260 metres above sea level. The town consisted of a shop selling mineral stones and trinkets, a few houses and a bar where I went to have a coffee and shelter from the snow storm outside. Inside there were just two Moroccans behind the bar and one freezing customer, me. Before they’d even pulled the lever on the coffee machine to fill the cup, they were both telling me that Van Gaal was not going to last long as Barcelona football coach, how he was so crazy to have let De la Peña be sold to an Italian team, and why Spanish football supporters could stand teams so full of foreigners and, from there they moved on swiftly and naturally to the Euro and what the new currency could mean for Europe. The information network was obviously working, and well-oiled at that. As for the rest, hygiene and energy, they were below minimum, as is the case in so many of these villages bordering on the desert in the south of Morocco.

The important thing is what this access to information means and what can be done with it. If the only information that gets there is from the television in its present format, then there is no solution. We will continue within the framework of the Industrial Society. Information administered from above by powers firmly entrenched and without any possibility of interaction between emitters and receivers of information. In this case there simply is no information revolution or anything remotely resembling it. Not even technological innovation to which some people seem to attribute mysterious therapeutic social values. Technological innovation does not bring about social change, it’s what people do with technology that counts. And, for this to happen these technologies have to have certain peculiarities, as is the case with the Internet. Otherwise, what we have is technological innovations that impose themselves for other reasons, fundamentally commercial forces. And if social change has to depend on market forces alone then we may as well shut up shop and find something else to do.

This is the new factor that all too often is missing in analyses of the present situation. What matters is not whether the Internet is a better or worse technology than others (who knows?), but rather that it is in the hands of many doing many more things than the market would allow under other circumstances and even more than the the big corporations would like them to do as they attempt to consolidate the wave of neoliberal capitalism. It is not clear, for example, that bartering, one of the essential mechanisms for the creation and exchange of information and knowledge in the Net, is one of the means favoured by capitalism. In fact, all the drive towards the commercialisation of the Internet and its conversion into a universal marketplace for electronic business, with forms of payment which are safe and recognised by traditional markets, is quite obviously the contrary of the bartering process, which is based on reliability, service and the creation and supply of socially useful goods. That’s why I think that the concept of “information and communication technology” (ICT) is becoming obsolete and less explanatory. I prefer to use the term Informational Society Technology (IST) which includes not only hardware, software and its interconnection with telematic networks, but also the different kinds of social organisations associated with the use of these tools.

The question we now have to answer is how, and via what kind of organisation of human networks interconnected by the Internet, as part of a growing globalisation process in the activities of concrete human communities, we are able to create essential social goods through IST. Something definitely worth exploring — and researching –and which cannot be ruled out “a priori” because it is not the usual way of reaching certain levels of human development. But we are entering the Information Society and we will need to find the corresponding means of organisation for achieving objectives of a public nature that otherwise will not be attained. The Industrial Society, the “ancient régime”, has proved only too often its chronic inability to satisfy these needs.

Translation: Bridget King.