The double divide

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
25 July, 2017
Editorial: 118
Fecha de publicación original: 5 mayo, 1998

What one throws away, another would die for

We know that wealth is drawn to wealth, but now they can call each other up on the telephone or the Internet. In the world there are (an estimated) 1.466 million homes. Only a third of them, 500 million, have telephones. 676 million, the other two thirds, simply cannot afford the cost of this service. They are unable to have phones now, and not even the most optimistic neoliberal models for the next century are able to predict when they will. These disparities, of course, also apply to other telephone services such as mobile phones, fax machines and the Internet. 84% of all people with cell phones live in developed countries, where there are also 91% of all fax machines and 97% of Internet hosts. This is some of the data published in the document “Universal Access” presented last month by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) at the World Conference for the Development of Telecommunications in La Valetta, Malta, where it was shown how telecommunications, and particularly the Internet, have become the definitive backbone of the world economy.

As is the case with the exploitation and appropriation of other strategic resources, the Net, its benefits and beneficiaries are firmly rooted in a small sector of the world’s population. At the beginning of 1997, 62% of all the world’s main telephone lines were to be found in 23 developed countries: the European Union, Australia, Canada, the US, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland. Altogether they make up hardly a third of the world’s population. On the other side of the coin we have the distribution of telephone lines in developing countries. While 60% of populations there live in rural areas, 80% of their telephone lines are in urban areas. Although this data doesn’t necessarily give the full picture, it does say quite a lot about the challenges the vast majority of humanity have to contend with in the face of the revolution that the Information and Knowledge Society represents.

However, the danger of not being linked up to this revolution, to this profound change in the global economic model, not only has an impact along the traditional lines between rich and poor countries. There is also a considerable chance that within the rich countries a substantial breach could open up, the consequences of which, as regards the shaping of the international community, are as yet unknown. While we continue to use and plan the exploitation of the Internet originated in the technological developments that took place mainly in the 70s and 80s, the US is about to turn the situation around creating the Internet of the future: the so-called Internet 2 (for the moment, essentially an academic exercise) and the Next Generation Internet (a long-sighted federal project from the economic and social point of view). The White House and Congress, scientific institutions and private enterprise have opened up there wallets (and their minds) in order to make an unparalleled, concerted effort to “help the American people to live better and work in a smarter way”. Some of the institutions that were fundamental to the birth and development of the Internet, such as DARPA (Department of Defence) or the National Science Foundation, are involved this time around too.

Will manna from heaven fall on us again like it did with the Internet that we now have? Well, it all depends. What we are talking about here is a strategic decision that involves not only the US Defence sector, the research sector and a few telecommunications operators, as happened before, but also practically the whole of American society. The Next Generation Internet does not answer to the criteria of so-called teledensity, calculated by the number of telephone lines per inhabitant. The basis on which this new project is organised is the teledensity of knowledge and information being transported through computer networks capable of transmitting images, video, graphics and text a 100 to 1,000 times more quickly than we can today. This means giving an enormous boost to research and development which will in turn mean new technology, applications, systems, content and infrastructures suitable for the new Internet.

The gauntlet that the US has thrown down has left the rest of the world, particularly the rich countries, completely bewildered. Just when they were getting ready to put up the scaffolding for the construction of their digital building, they find that it’s already too old before the doors and windows have even been put in. Neither Europe nor Japan, to mention two leaders amongst the developed nations, have yet managed to develop the instruments that the times demand, the space for social agreement to boost a strategic vision of cyberspace. We are still so concerned about, and “subjugated” by, the enormous power of the telecommunications operators, that we have simply not understood that the Internet is far too important to be left in their hands and at the mercy of their petty investment and tariff criteria.

Things have moved beyond the framework of investment in infrastructures. The information revolution needs an information industry and this can only come out of social agreements of the broadest kind, on every level, from the political to the financial, including, in passing, education and research and involving the greatest variety possible of economic and political forces. The challenge does not lie in the number of telephone calls made, but instead in the economic goods transported by the networks in the form of information and knowledge. Unless we start to address this aspect, the breach will continue to widen and, in passing, exacerbate the one that already exists between rich and poor.

Translation: Bridget King.