They Just Don’t Get It

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
25 December, 2018
Editorial: 266
Fecha de publicación original: 8 mayo, 2001

Nobody’s says they’re doing fine without adding “for the moment”

Last week I had the pleasure of attending one of those events that seem to go against all current trends but which, nevertheless, illustrate the rich diversity of the world we live in –something our opulent industrialised world perspective makes it all too hard for us to see sometimes. I was asked to speak at the IX Jornadas de Infociencias 2001 (IX Infoscience Conference 2001) in Barquisimeto, capital city of the state of Lara in Venezuela. On my way there, I whiled away the time reading some “cutting edge” literature: a couple of reports on the slowdown in the “new economy” and Internet investments in the US and Europe, as well as an excellent article on the return of that species so fond of troubled waters: loan sharks with their ferocious jaws aimed directly at wounded dotcoms. When I got to Barquisimeto, however, the speakers and audience at the conference and the general social atmosphere, gave me the impression that here were people getting on with things, their backs turned to that gloomy, threatening landscape. Not that they are unaffected by it: Venezuela is not exactly a bed of roses and their share of the “inequality cake” is a slice so big that it is impossible to digest. But that hasn’t led to paralysis and depression. Quite the contrary in fact.

The IX Jornadas de Infociencias 2001 was a good example of this attitude. A few months before graduating, final year students of the Computer Engineering Faculty at the Universidad Centroccidental “Lisandro Alvarado” (UCLA) organise this periodic event. This year, under the slogan “Towards a Business Society Based on Information”, these future engineers had the insight to choose just the right mix of subjects for the conference including topics such as creating networks for the knowledge economy, artificial intelligence systems and robotics applied to the organisation of online communication, the role of the mobile Internet in Latin America, the dynamics of growth in relation to the value of ideas and a sample of practical cases illustrating electronic relationships between public administration and citizens. Speakers were chosen from a number of countries and Venezuela.

This well-balanced combination of topics made it possible to examine a wide range of possibilities about the uses of Internet and to debate the social potential of networks in the widest sense, and not just their commercial exploitation. The student organisers, whose enthusiasm and organisational capacity would be the envy of many renowned companies, managed to attract 600 paying participants who lapped up the talks and maintained a very high level of debate during question times. These days, when one attends the type of meetings typical in the rich industrialised countries, such as those I mentioned in “Back with a Vengeance II”, one is constantly reminded by the voices of the wealthy world that “the days of milk and honey on the Internet” are over. So, it is great to come face to face with a much more colourful and complex reality, where need does not allow for going off at hypothetical tangents: the fight against poverty demands the use of all the resources at hand to arm society with the ideas and knowledge to confront it. The Internet is one of these resources, and is becoming more and more essential all the time. Even in such adverse conditions as those in Venezuela where the rate of Internet penetration is very low (or Argentina to mention another case we have commented on recently in our editorial “The Talent Laboratory”).

Global figures of those connected in Venezuela indicate that about 5% of the population are Internet users. But, as is so often the case, what these statistics don’t show, is the degree of penetration of informational technology –not only the Internet– such as mobile telephones for instance (Venezuela uses the European GSM system), on the one hand, and the “social impact” of some enclaves, on the other. In this regard, the Universidad de Los Andes (ULA) of Merida (in the state bearing the same name) is a prime example. ULA has become a kind of central nervous system for the city, so much so that the city itself is explained to a large extent by the omnipresence of this academic institution. 35,000 of its 300,000 inhabitants directly depend on the ULA. But its influence goes much deeper and denser than this. Apart from the fact that its budget is much greater than the city’s own, ULA went for the networks very early on. It cabled the university and turned it into one of the nodes of the Internet’s backbone network via a satellite connection with Comsat.

In 1996, when a considerable part of the Internet went “dead” due to a data base management error at dotcom addresses by Internic, the communication was reestablished rapidly in many areas of the US thanks to the ULA’s node. It redirected traffic, avoiding areas that had been made inoperative by a mistake made by someone in a US company. From then on, ULA’s networks have grown and extended both within and beyond the institution. Merida is possibly the most highly connected city in Venezuela, as well as in Latin America. Life in the city is inextricably entwined with the degree of Net penetration. As Luis Núñez, member of the academic vice-rectorate of ULA, told me in Barquisimeto, “We take cable, fibre optics or satellite to wherever our students and lecturers might go”. This way, for instance, all the primary health care clinics in Merida are cabled and connected to the Internet as part of a reticular extension of the School of Medicine. And the same occurs in many other facets of society. In fact, the University is the main Internet access supplier in the city and, at the same time, the promoter of social, scientific, technological, cultural, economic or artistic activities which have their repercussions or are reflected, one way or the other, on the Internet or via the Internet.

So there we have it, there are still people out there who haven’t heard that all this information technology and the networks are in crisis and down in the mouth because “there is no way of making them financially profitable”. By the way, I didn’t put them right on the issue and, in fact, I think I only helped to strengthen their mistaken convictions. Nonetheless, while they keep going for it, I am convinced that we will continue to hear lots of surprising things from people like the final year engineering students in Barquisimeto, or the symbiosis of city and university taking place in Merida which so many cities in the industrialised world aspire to so eagerly but emulate with so little flair and imagination.

Translation: Bridget King