By: Kirsten Smith
Computers, and more specifically, the internet - tools for global communication - have changed the face of society worldwide. This era, known as 'The Information Age,' propelled the development of the Information Superhighway ensuring the fastest access to information all over the globe. However, amidst this state of rapid technological growth and advancement, developing areas and minority groups have been overlooked. The World Wide Web has mainly been adapted in wealthy, developed countries, such as the United States and Britain, who tend to dominate the net. As a result, English has become the main language on the web and most sites target the more affluent, educated, upper-class groups. Thus, developing countries are either excluded from the benefits of the internet owing to the language barrier, or for various reasons, such as a lack of access to computers. This essay shall explore the problems preventing minority groups and people from developing nations from entering cyberspace, as well as identify some of the solutions already implemented. I will also examine whether virtual communities are dominated by the new, mostly white, educated, middle-class suburbs and see how authors on the web respond to these theoretical problems.
There are barriers preventing minority groups and people from developing countries access to information. These barriers include: the language problem, lack of computer systems, lack of communication channels, lack of education and geographic isolation. For example, William Wresch uses the example of Namibia, a developing country where poverty, unemployment and no education is the norm. He says that the irony of the information age "is that rich people get their information practically for free, while poor people pay dearly for every morsel. Be it a telephone call, a newspaper, a drive to the store - all cost more in Tsumkwe (Namibia) than they do in Beverly Hills." (1996 :119)
Telephones provide the means for access to information, however, there are many areas where phone lines do not reach. According to the US Census Bureau (1993), "there are 51 lines per 100 population in the US, 68 lines per 100 population in Sweden, 57 lines per 100 population in Canada and only 1 line per 100 population in China, India, Kenya, Pakistan, Zimbabwe...." (Wresch, W. 1996:125) to name but a few. Thus information is not evenly distributed across the world owing to a lack of appropriate communication channels. Wresch refers to these areas and people as being "disconnected" or "off the information superhighway." The Bushmen of the Kalahari are an extreme example of "disconnected" people, but they are not alone. Owing to their geographical isolation the negative aspects of a lack of communication channels as well as computers, are compounded.
As a result of the alarming poverty in developing areas, not many computer systems exist - the medium to supply information. Even if computers are available, problems still arise. In Africa, for instance, "there is a lack of local repair facilities....One survey in Tanzania found only 55 percent of computers brought in by donor groups could be serviced locally." (Wresch, W. 1996: 216) This is one of the major obstacles preventing these developing areas from joining the information superhighway. Another problem is the lack of educational programs in computing. This "results in part from African governmental attitudes toward computers who tend to see computers as a drain on their treasuries and as a threat of employment." (Wresch, W. 1996:134)
However, often the main barrier preventing users from interactively joining the net is language. "English dominates the world of computing.....and communication technology." (Wresch, W. 1996:131) This immediately omits a vast number of disadvantaged groups and people from developing areas whose main language is not English. Although some sites do offer a translation of their text into other languages, for example, <http://www.cnn.com> present their site in English but offer the alternative of "espanol" or "portugues", what happens to people who speak other languages? How are these people catered for on the net? Now we wonder why these disadvantaged groups are not found on the web.
In contrast to <http://www.cnn.com> who only provide a choice of three languages on their site, Channel Africa, a site of 'daily news from Africa to the world', offers a vast selection of languages including, English, Chibemba, Chinyanja, Swahili, Portuguese, French and others. <http://www.sabc.co.za/units/chanafr/currenta.shtml> For a global news network like CNN, their language policy is unsatisfactory.
Web authors should provide a wider selection of dominant languages into which their articles can be translated. They should also encourage potential authors from developing areas to write articles in their mother-tongue which would appeal to, and be understood by, their own language groups. This would stimulate interest in the web from disadvantaged groups and perhaps encourage them to nurture their own little corner of the web. The name The World Wide Web suggests that it is here for the entire world and should be utilised and exploited for this exact use.
Too much emphasis has been placed on the US and the UK resulting in an influx and domination of their ideas and information. As Schiller, H. I says "US films and TV programs are the chief fare of national systems in most countries. News programs, especially CNN, offer US perspectives, sometimes the only perspective provided, to world audiences....The free flow of information ....has meant the ascendance of US cultural products worldwide." (1995:18)
I found CNN's site <http://www.cnn.com> very biased toward the US. For example, in its World News section, it divides the 'world' into Asia-Pacific, Europe, Americas, Africa and the Middle East, and selected news highlights are designated for each region. I found the World news to be limited in its content and coverage in comparison to its Local news which is divided into US regions, for example, San Francisco, Colorado Springs, Miami, Atlanta, and so on. A map of America as well as one of Canada showing graphically the different regions is even provided. Although it is an American company, it still supplies global information to many other countries outside of the USA - a fact its authors often seem to forget. It seems to define its audience too narrowly.
Web authors need to be sensitive to the needs of other users. They need to make a concerted effort to avoid being prejudiced against disadvantaged groups and to eliminate the "blind-spots"(Wresch, W.1996: 2) inherent in many websites. For example, some online competitions require you to fill out a questionnaire which, among other things, asks where you are from. It immediately eliminates you from the competition if, for instance, you live outside the US.
The emphasis and exposure the US receives extends beyond its products and perspective's to its citizens and their achievements. For example, when comparing two writers of similar acclaim, Toni Morrison (American citizen and winner of 1993 Nobel Prize in Literatu re) and Nadine Gordimer (South Af rican citizen and winner of 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature), the amount of information available on Morrison far outweighs that found on Gordimer. On Yahoo's search files, there was reference to 576 pages of information available on Gordimer compared to a staggering 2805 pages on Morrison.
This is not an isolated incident, as often there is little, or limited, information on works by people from developing countries. Web authors need to address this problem by allowing equal coverage to writers from developing areas or simply by giving exposure to individuals outside their society in their articles.
Besides the challenges associated with these theoretical issues facing web authors, organisations are in the mean time, attempting to reduce some of the barriers facing people in need. South Africa's National Information Technology Forum (NITF) <http://wn.apc.org/nitf> aims "to promote universal access to information for all citizens and to eliminate disparities between urban and rural, town and township communities as regards the use of information and communication technologies." Its 'Relevant Resources' page <http://wn.apc.org/nitf/nitfres.htm> is divided into "SA Policy, Africa IS, Development, Europe IS and Canada IS." Each resource contains information about organisations promoting development in underprivileged countries.
For instance, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) supports the project started in June 1996 which is "designed to help formulate an effective strategy for the promotion of internet connectivity in communities in the South African region." <http://www.idrc.ca/> It has "contributed to meetings by school networks in South Africa leading to the establishment of Schoolnet SA in October 1997 - a project to connect twenty-two schools which is already nearing completion." <http://www.idrc.ca/research/index_e.html> It has also helped its Acacia Initiative in 1997.
Acacia is an "international effort led by the IDRC to empower sub-Saharan communities with the ability to apply information and communication technologies to their own social and economic development" <http://www.idrc.ca/acacia/acacia_e.htm> It helps sub-Saharan Africa to meet the objectives of the African Information Society Initiative (AISI) which include providing "a uniquely African perspective on the opportunities and challenges of that continent in an emerging information age." <http://www.idrc.ca/acacia/acacia_e.htm>
Closer to home, Deputy President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, initiated the ISAD Conference (Information Society And Development) which was held at Gallagher E state in May 1996. It aims for a Global Information Society (GIS) "that addresses the distinct needs of all countries in the world." <http://www.wn.apc.org/nitf/isaddebr.htm>
Even though the aims and good intentions exhibited by these organisations should be applauded, not much evidence of change exists. One viable reason could be offered for this lack of action: Most members of these organisations have permanent jobs outside their organisations. This results in a restriction of available free time which could be dedicated to the aims of their organisation. Thus, many of these projects will develop over long periods of time staging the illusion that nothing is happening.
Another reason is the lack of available money. In order for developing countries to become 'connected' heavy financial support is required. Upon closer investigation, it appears that action has already been initiated in this area. The European Investment Bank (EIB) "has granted in 1995 a loan of eight MECU to Eritrea (including Ethiopia and Djibouti) for improving their internal network as well as international connections" <http://www.idrc.ca/acacia/acacia_e.htm> Chile has also been included in another venture by the EIB.
Thus, the major financial institutions such as the World Bank, EIB, Afr ican Development Bank, as well as governments and private donors, need to inject interest and money into these areas to give them the opportunity to participate in the information age and join the information superhighway.
A major stumbling block preventing this from occurring is the crippling debt these developing countries will subsequently owe. Conservative governments will undoubtedly question the benefits of such a loan which would paralyse the process of improved communication. National priorities will inevitably determine whether a country spends its money on basic necessities such as food and electricity, or on allowing their country to 'get connected.' Ideally a balance between the two should be reached.
However, if loans are successfully granted, the deep chasms of information separating developed and developing countries can finally be filled. Until this happens though, virtual communities will continue to be dominated by mostly white educated, middle-class suburbs. Many sites will also continue to aim their information and wares towards this target group. Majority group bias will probably also persist until disadvantaged groups begin to infiltrate the web and become fellow 'netizens'.
In conclusion, there is much energy, money and time that is needed to bridge the gap between disadvantaged and advantaged communities. The predominance of the English language also needs to be reduced and the attitudes of web authors need to change. They need to become more openminded and sites in general need to embrace all societies and their members. With help from financial institutions, these solutions can be implemented ensuring not only the increased education and 'connectivity' in rural areas but also allowing the World Wide Web to truly match its name.