Cybersociology Magazine Issue Three: Digital Third Worlds

Andy Oram's Review of "Disconnected: Haves and Have-Nots in the Information Age" by William C. Wresch.

 

I recommend William C. Wresch's "Disconnected: Haves and Have-Nots in the Information Age" (Rutgers University Press, 1996, ISBN 0813523702) as a thoughtful and comprehensive explanation of why poor and isolated communities aren't getting the information they need to participate in modern societies and economies. Many commentators have noted such technical barriers as the cost of computers and the poor quality of telephone lines. But this book goes much farther. It asks what information is (there are many forms of information) and what people at different socio-economic levels around the world need.

Wresch gives undeniable evidence of the many problems facing have-nots, whether it be geographical distance, high costs, language differences, or censorship. His statistics are helpful and his anecdotes memorable. Sometimes he's a bit long-winded, but you should at least skim each section in search of unexpected insights. I'll suggest just a couple of his subtler topics to show the depth of his inquiry.

For instance, we think of information as objective facts that can be packaged and transmitted, if people only choose to do so. But much of the most important knowledge is gained subjectively. Whom we know is often as important in getting a job as what we know; that information arises only from personal interactions. Furthermore, the schools that privileged people attend and the mentors they find provide a head start in life that the residents of an African village can never match no matter how many Internet drops they get.

Those of us who are educated and wired find ourselves swarmed by information, but are we getting the information we need? Prejudices and financial needs drive what types of information are provided by the media, even on the Internet. In addition to the open censorship practiced in some cultures, topics can be suppressed or minimized by others.

There's a lot to think about as you read this book. Information is critical to survival in the modern world, but the struggle to obtain it must surmount many obstacles in society and technology


Andy Oram (andyo@oreilly.com) is moderator of the Cyber Rights mailing list for Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, and an editor at O'Reilly & Associates, 90 Sherman Street, Cambridge, MA 02140-3233. His personal website contains two of his stories, "The Bug in the Seven Modules" and "Code the Obscure" (http://www.oreilly.com/~andyo/)


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