Nobody knows who they work for

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
13 February, 2018
Editorial: 176
Fecha de publicación original: 13 julio, 1999

Nothing venture, nothing have

Hardly five years after the start of the WWW, the interface that has popularized the use of the Internet at a vertiginous rate, the Net has already gained a leading role in the Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Its conclusions are far-reaching: it maintains that the Internet exacerbates the differences between rich and poor. Reading the report makes the Internet sound like Hurricane Mitch, giving the impression that wherever cyberspace appears the gap between rich and poor becomes ever wider leaving a devastated landscape behind it. According to the UNPD report, the Internet is augmenting the gaps between privileged and marginalised social groups, between ethnic groups and dominated and dominating minorities at an unprecedented rate. Given such a state of affairs, one can only ask what the world was like while the Net was practically unknown all over the planet, except in the USA, until well into this decade.

The Internet does not act in a political, social and economic void. Since 1990, ten consecutive UNDP reports on human development outlined a constant, and not exactly recent, tendency. A 20% minority of the world’s population consumed 86% of all resources on the planet. The second figure increased continuously over the decade and not even the fall of some empires and the end of the Cold War have tempered the greed of this fifth of humankind. There have been no “humanitary programmes” from industrialised countries to palliate the consequences of such a vast discrepancy. Or if there have been, we haven’t heard about them, nor have they featured in the UNPD report. Perhaps, Javier Solana, NATO Secretary General, should do something about this.

The Internet is, in principle, another resource in the hands of this wealthy minority. And, as information and knowledge become the backbone of the new economy, its importance will grow. Consequently, it is to be expected that, for some time anyway, the typical indicators for rich and poor will crudely manifest themselves in the use and enjoyment of the networks. The UNPD report, for example, indicates that the richest 20% on the planet monopolise 93% of Net access, and that includes telephone, computer and equipment density which, for years, have been indicators of resource use at the top of the human pyramid.

What the UNPD does not get right yet is the impact on society that all this equipment brings with it: information and knowledge on a global scale. The report, it seems to me, is still prisoner of the “Industrial Revolution syndrome”, in which tangible goods were –are– more important than what one actually does with them in relation to others. And this is undoubtedly the greatest change the Internet has introduced. Measuring the impact of the Net only by telephone and computer use figures is clearly not enough to assess the impact of its role as disseminators of knowledge and information through the networks. As I said in an editorial titled “Gruesome Figures”, at the time of last years’ report, “Although it does not form part of the indicators in the report yet, the Internet will undoubtedly become an important factor for measuring human development over the years to come, and this does not necessarily depend on the evolution of electronic commerce and the economic exploitation of the Net. In fact, the latter would mean just more of the same almost certainly bringing with it worse results every year.”

On the other hand, the report is, in a way, like a birth certificate for the Net, its impact on human development had not been measured in previous reports, but, at the same time, it now views it as sufficiently mature enough to cast its shadow over the entire planet. Despite the fact that we are used to the UN’s whirling statistical projections, this is a risky jump forward. The Internet still has only 200 million users even by optimistic calculations. On a popular level it came out of its shell only four years ago. Its penetration into the basic variables on which the Human Development Index is built is still insignificant. Income, life expectancy, literacy, health, education, access to knowledge, etc., are socio-economic parameters on which the Net is hardly making its presence felt. Just take the fact that next September nearly all universities in the industrialised countries — and many of the less developed ones– will inaugurate an as yet unpolished version of “digital education”. There is nothing similar at lower levels of education, despite government promises.

Nevertheless, despite the small number of Net users in relation to the world’s population, no-one doubts that the Internet is breaking price, space and time barriers in the area of communication. And, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, information is reaching poor areas of the world where an information “drought” or a lack of necessary investment in it up until now, have really damaged their social and human fabric. These are the things we must watch in the years to come. The impact of progressive access to information and knowledge centres which are not only in poor countries, but fundamentally in the rich ones will give a Copernican twist to how we appreciate the differences between ourselves.

During the next century, the index of human development will have to measure who is working for who in the Net and the impact of this global transfer of human, labour and intellectual capital. This will not solve the extremely serious problems facing humanity, of course. With reference to this, the UNPD report reminds us that the assets of the three richest people in the world are greater than the Gross National Product of all the less developed countries in a world with 600 million inhabitants – more than three times the number of people already connected to the Internet.

Translation: Bridget King