The Quilmes Letter (and III)

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
21 November, 2017
Editorial: 151
Fecha de publicación original: 19 enero, 1999

Never say it’s going to rain until you hear the thunder

When there is talk about the future of developing countries in the Information Society, their way out of poverty and backwardness is not only seen as a one-way route established in accordance with criteria laid down by the Industrial Society (See the editorial “From ICT to IST”), but it is also assumed that the Information Society will evolve in the same way. When we want to gauge how far the Information Society has progressed in different parts of the world, the first significant data we look at is how many people are connected to the Internet. This implies the existence of telephone lines, computers, modems, a certain level of digital literacy and the development of an incipient communications and information industry. And, in that order. Nevertheless, there is nothing to support the idea that these are the inevitable and valid steps that lead us to the Information Society. At least, not for everybody.

If we follow the orthodox criteria, Latin America is sunk in the depths of a very serious information abyss. At the moment, this continent of 300 million Spanish-speaking inhabitants only has about 7 million internauts, according to a recent survey conducted by a Peruvian branch of the transnational Saatchi and Saatchi (not necessarily very reliable data, it must be said). Although spectacular regional growth, way above the world average, is expected –34 million users by the year 2000– (this has happened already since 1995, when there were an estimated 800.000 Internet users), this figure means that only 10% of the total population will be connected. But this is only part of the picture. Between the shades of black and white there is a rich array of tones of grey which, in the end, will be determining factors in the shape of things to come.

In Buenos Aires, at the beginning of December, the “II Jornadas sobre la ciudad y redes informáticas: la ciudad en.RED.ada” (II Conference on the City and Computer Networks: the Connected City” was organised by the Centro de Estudios e Investigaciines de la Universidad Nacional de Quilmes and the Instituto Gino Germani of the Social Science Faculty at the University of Buenos Aires. At this conference there was lively discussion about some of the things we have been dealing with in these editorials, in particular the requirements needed for access to the Information Society. Curiously enough, the frontier between ideas pertaining to the Industrial Society, plagued as they are by beliefs in the “impossibilities” of so-called marginalised societies to develop in the Information Era, and ideas closer to the latter itself, were marked not only by the fact that people possessed connected computers or not (however important that might be in the Information Society), but also by the asphyxiating stranglehold that the Government and telecommunications companies (Telefónica and France Telecom) have on internauts.

Nevertheless, debate about official policies on the development of the Net, and our unconditional condemnation of the traditional greed of telephone companies, cannot and should not force us to view the growth of the Internet in the usual way. In the case of Argentina, in particular (but also in Bangladesh or India, albeit by other means), the Information Society is entering homes before modems and computers, and even the telephone. In Argentina, for example, cable has penetrated households more than telephone lines. Almost 90% of homes receive the former, while less than 70% have telephone lines.

In other words, in the vast majority of households there is a data plug which at the moment only churns out — literally– 60 TV channels. The lines are usually fibre optic with coaxial access to homes. Only government policy, which at present openly favours the telecommunications companies with which it has signed agreements for the development of fixed and cell phones, prevents cable operators from supplying telephone and data access in competitive conditions. But telephone connections and data are waiting for their time to come behind practically every television screen in the country. And, this is happening in very few cities in Europe and practically none in the US.

So, will Argentina need the same number of computers as Finland and Great Britain to access the Information Society in advanced conditions? Will so and so many telephones per inhabitant be necessary to establish indicators of wealth ( and poverty)? Will they have to invest the thousands of millions of dollars –they don’t have– on the acquisition of propietary software when this could be accessible through the Net? And when there is talk of installing networked resources and advanced tools for navigating the Internet via the integration of television and computer, or the famous NC (Net Computers), which countries is it exactly that have the advantage from the point of view of infrastructure?

Something similar could be said of the global society’s own information and knowledge resources. The “Ciudad en.RED.ada” conference demonstrated that initiatives beginning to populate Argentinian cyberspace are on the way to becoming veritable “knowledge vacuum cleaners on a global scale”. To mention just one of these, the popular library run by the Asociación Mariano Moreno de Bernal has developed a digital library project whose potential for use by adults, as well as schools, opens up an extraordinary field of access to out of print books via cheap and efficient technology. It was really curious that while projects of this kind were being presented in the workshops sessions during the Conference, many of them based on connection with educational resources available online from other countries, the large media were talking about “the false expectations created by the Internet and the Information Society”.

Neither the media, nor many of the experts present at the debates, were able to admit that information networks and citizen activity are putting paid to the centuries old concepts of the capitalist metropolises. These used to embody the global polarisation of knowledge. It was in the capitals of the colonial system that big libraries and the best universities were built and as a result they acted as “brain drains” from peripheral areas which had no other choice but to go to the city in order to plug in to the information flow. Today, that is not necessary. In fact, the old metropolises may be left behind in this new process of globalisation, such as is the case of Paris, for example. Knowledge, in the past so static and treasured in large physical infrastructures, circulates freely today through networks with a reach that we can’t even begin to imagine. The design of the old cities characterised precisely by the accumulation of economic, technological and physical resources, is giving way to digital cities determined by the richness of human exchange (despite their lack of technological resources) and their capacity for integrating into the global scheme of things. And these cities are not those – nor do they need to be – that used to call the rest peripheral, quite the contrary in fact.

The “Ciudad en.RED.ada” Conference faithfully reflected this vision in its conclusions, drawn up in the Carta de Quilmes (The Quilmes Letter). It stated, “We conclude that there is a need to join forces to work together. Our main aim is to bring to an end the dichotomy that threatens to take hold in our society: “globality” for the big multi-nationals and “locality” for the people. In these times, when the Internet makes a differential contribution, in the sense that it acts as a factor towards the creation of communities, it is absolutely essential that we study these processes as they occur so that we can apply these conclusions to the foundation of policies, plans and strategies that aim to respond to new forms of social exclusion and contribute to the prevention of the marginalisation of Argentina and Latin America in the Information Society.”

Translation: Bridget King.