Your telecom provider is watching

Rafael Martín
14 March, 2017
Editorial: 80
Fecha de publicación original: 15 julio, 1997

Date of publication 15/07/1997. Editorial 80.

The tailwind of spectacular development in telecommunications in the USA, Europe and Japan at the end of this century has come about as a result of the fact that transporting voice has been considered a social right.

Meteorological conditions were, nonetheless, different in each case. In the USA, the impetus came from anti-monopoly laws which divided “Mama Bell” into “Baby Bells” in the 80s and granted telecommunication rights in each state to companies which could not compete outside their demarcated zones. In Europe, voice communication formed part of a social welfare package which meant the creation of monopolistic operators in each country. As it was considered a social right to have access to telephonic voice, one of their objectives was to get telephone lines to every household ( a principle which is still doing the rounds in EU regulations on the liberalisation of telecommunications). In recent years, when the telephone map had become almost complete and there were only some remote zones which remained unconnected, the PTTs (Telefonica, for example) conjured up the cell phone, which arrived just on time to cover these gaps and eliminate waiting lists in urban areas without having to increase fixed infrastructures. Thus, the dream of every operator was fulfilled: more telephones, more expensive ones and less waiting time.

Now that the market is tending to globalisation and developing countries are becoming more and more dependent on telecommunications, tables have turned and, of course, with them, the principles themselves. The idea of telecommunications as a social right has given way to the necessity of opening up frontiers to foreign operators in order for them to establish their supremacy in other countries. Almost imperceptibly, above all for consumers in the wealthy North, another facet of the double standards that those in power know so well how to play, has been fulfilled: what was good for the USA, isn’t good for the rest any more, especially if the rest are poor. In this instance, there is the added aggravating factor that those who are perpetrating this new incursion into foreign territory are the same operating companies that we continue to faithfully pay up to in our respective countries thus allowing them to impose these policies on others.

The question is whether consumers –rich or poor– will at some point insist that these companies put into practice that criteria of communications as a social right, without it necessarily having to affect their investment profits. This is a question which the numerous social action groups, who are apparently worried about the fact that the infolytic age could widen the chasm that divides North and South –now between info-rich and the info-poor, perhaps to the point of no return– will have to address. If this should happen, it would not be as a result of a natural catastrophe, nor because it is written in the book about the end of history (according to Fukuyama), but instead, because we have allowed our opulent telephone companies to apply, without restrictions, their double standards on the less fortunate.

Interesting, from this perspective, is this month’s front page article, The Long Boom, in Wired magazine. From the spokespeople of a generation of “radical”, young internauts, the challenge is issued for a future in which we face a wave of prosperity, freedom and a better environment for the whole world. Like the good little Americans that they are, they blindly believe in the value of technological change and what they call the new “ethos” towards an increasingly open and and more tolerant society. The analysis, full of brilliant intuition and carefully-chosen metaphors, predicts an end to poverty and, of course, hunger. The technologies of the 80s and 90s, the PC in particular, networked telecommunications and biotechnology, will mature over the next years and will begin to have a decisive impact on the new order of information economy, scattering their beneficial fruits all over the place. The article, very much “a la Negroponte”, is very USA biased (in fact, what is clear is that their country is entering a period of prosperity without precedent according to traditional statistical parameters). Nevertheless, despite the fact that they are the intellectual protagonists of the process they describe, curiously enough they are not mentioned anywhere as active protagonists. Not them, nor the rest of humanity either as individuals or as thinking collectives which interact with or via technological tools.

Things happen because they happen, but more especially because of the decisive force of the immanent logic that propels technology into occupying all the space it finds. Perhaps that is why they are fascinated by what happens outside their country (a praiseworthy gesture): their sights are set on Asia and to a lesser extent on Russia. As far as Europe is concerned they wish they would damn well come to some kind of agreement in order to achieve what they call “integration” (strangely enough, the USA never integrates anybody, but it keeps an eye on and leads everyone).

The foundations of this future scenario could be seriously shaken if, for example, as opposed to what has happened and is happening in the rich countries, where brutal assaults on the environment have been made by industry while their citizens looked on indifferently, via Net initiatives there are attempts to control investment in new technologies, the sectors they are directed at, the rate at which these new technologies are implanted and in whose favour, or against whom, they are introduced. All this without losing sight of the environmental aspect, an area which will play an increasingly important role in the future (agriculture, food, biotechnology, land management, mega-cities, etc.). Nevertheless, in Wired’s analysis social action is not mentioned once. Not even their own.

Wired seems to believe that economic growth alone will solve the problems of poverty and environmental degradation, as though both these scourges have not arisen precisely as a result of growth as they understand it. Meetings such as the Global Knowledge Conference demonstrate that this concept may undergo some modifications over the next few years, particularly if a sector of humanity has access to the Net to be able to debate these issues and prepare strategies for putting into practice the conclusions they come to.

In any case, it has to be said in favour of the authors of the article that when they get to the highpoint of their predictions, they include a list of 10 possible scenarios that could spoil their vision so beautifully developed in seven illustrated pages with four pages of fold-out graphics. It’s worth mentioning some of these “inconveniences” because they relate directly to the subject of telecommunications development in developing countries. The authors warn, amongst other lurking dangers, of the increase in tensions between China and the USA which would could turn into a new Cold War… or something a little hotter. The environmental crisis as a consequence of climate change (solutions for which or, even attempts to palliate its effects, are systematically vetoed by the USA at all meetings that have been held so far, without any change in attitude in this regard being apparent) could provoke an imbalance in the food market, a corresponding increase in prices giving rise to areas of endemic famine (or to be precise, more than there already are). Another possible spoiler could be the rise in crime and terrorism in the world (although they don’t say so, one imagines that the reason for this is not prosperity). The authors also concede that, despite their blind faith in alternative energy and clean high tech factories, global pollution could, nevertheless, increase, and the number of cancer cases along with it, to the point where present ill-prepared health systems become unsustainable. And, last –but not least–, they cannot exclude the possibility of a social and cultural backlash which might bring technological innovation to a standstill.

Although they are not very clear on this point, the reason for a counter-offensive of this kind might be precisely that the promises of a “wave of prosperity” are never fulfilled for everybody. Wired says that people have to decide if they want to go forward or not. Curious. It is one of the few times in which the protagonism of the USA is substituted for the idea of human beings. One suspects that on this occasion they must be referring to the inhabitants of developing countries, the only people capable of doing something so disastrous for our culture as halting technological progress according to MIT’s gospel.

Translation: Bridget King.