Knowledge Societies: Information Society For Sustainable Development.
(Editors) Robin Mansell, Uta Wehn. The Oxford University Press,1998 Pgs. 323.

Reviewed by: K.Ravi Srinivas, Madurai, PIN 625014, India
email: srinivas_ravi@hotmail.com


The effective application of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for development purposes in developing countries is an issue that has no easy answer. Whether they will be able to dervive any significant benefit from ICTs given the high levels of illiteracy, poor infrastructure and absence of factors that were rapid development and expansion of ICTs in the developed world is a question that has been examined by this volume, which is the outcome of the UN Council of Science and Technology for Development(UNCSTD)'s initiative to assess the implications of ICTs for developing nations.

It may not be out of place to mention at this juncture that the debate on impact of ICTs has undergone a major change over the last decade. Earlier studies particularly the ones done for Club of Rome focussed on employment potential of ICTs and the related issues like impacts of automation, deskilling, industrial development etc.

However the internet revolution was not forseen at that time and the convergence of information technogies and communication technologies was hardly envisaged. Rapid developments in technology, deregulation and privatisation, changes in Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) Regimes and the decline in the cost of computers/ components over the decade have brought in a fresh set of questions that have been debated in many forums since the early nineties.

This volume tries to address this complex question and provides a synthesis of various issues and controversies. Between those who hail ICTs as the harbingers of the next revolution in our lives, and those who warn that ICTs will result in a more polarised world where the info-haves will be in a better position than the info-have nots the debate may never end. But the real questions being faced by developing nations are more complex , more challenging and often the experience of the developed nations may be of little relevance. But the policymakers, academics and activists in developing nations cannot afford to take any extreme postion in the debate and they need information and policy oriented perspectives that could be used in using ICTs for development purposes. This volume fulfills this need.

The basic argument of the volume is that developing nations need to and can implement national ICT strategies as ICTs open up many new opportunities for them and if properly used ICTs can help them to in building knowledge societies. There is nothing new perse in such an assertion for anyone familiar with debates on the relevance of Science and Technologies would have come across a similar position being expounded, by various international agencies/ UN organisations etc. But whether ICTs perse will result in knowledge societies is a question that is being probed in greater detail in various chapters of this volume.

The first chapter tells us why it is necessary for developing nations to design and implement national ICTs strategies. The emphasis shoule be on investing in social and technological infrastructure and development of tacit knowledge and human resources is essential to derive the best out of ICTs.The next chapter examines the diffusion of ICTs and develops an indicators approach to pinpoint the relative stregths and weaknesses of developing nations vis a vis the developed ones.The Indications, Experience,Skills and Knowkdge (INEXSK) indicators indicate that despite lack of data and not so postive factors , combinations of infrastructure, experience and skills could be used to initiate the building of knowledge societies.The next two chapters (3,4) deal with technological innovation and learning.It is pointed out that applications of ICTs for lefelong learning, empowerment of citzinens, and participation by civil society provide many new opportunities and challenges for developing nations and the question of exclusion has to be taken into account by developing nations lest ICTs result in more polarisation.

Chapters 5 and 6 deal with application of ICTs for sustainable development. They give examples of how ICTs could be used to enhance productivity, bring in transparency and efficiency in public administration, and in sectors like health,agriculture and education. It points out among the deveoping nations the wealthier ones are investing in infrastructure development and in human resources for harnessing ICTs for development.But many Least Developed Countries(LDCs) are facing the risk of being left out in the informatics revolution as they lack the infrastructure and capabilities. So creative approaches are needed to share the available facilities and region level coopeation is a must for LDCs.The subsequent two chapters explore the issues relating to National Information Infrastructure(NII) in developing nations. While some developing nations have gone far ahead in this many others are yet to build up any strategy for NII. Developing nations which have better scientific and technical expertise coupled with local manufacturing capacity in ICTs are able to take advantage of their strengths and are investing in Electronic Commerce, software and hardware production.The next chapter argues that market forces will not result in equitable development of ICTs in developing nations. While privatisation and deregulation may be helpful in attracting greater investment in ICTs and in telecommunications they can result in new dualisms as well. Policy makers should use variety of strategies ensure that this does not happen.

The next two chapters provide an overview of the global trends in ICT marketplace and in telecommunications. While the pressures to open up ICTs and telecommunications emnate from developed nations, committments made under trade regimes and MNCs in developed nations the developing nations have to ensure that in the name of opening up they need not result in greater benefit for all developing nations. The next chapter examines the issues relating to governance of inform ation services.Social equity and efficiency cannot be sacrificied in the name of building information society.The new rules of the game will result in restructuring of public and private sector in ICTs and in telecommunications.In the next chapter an overview of what strategies developing nations as diverse as Bermuda, Singapore and South Africa are developing for development is provided and the guidelines of the UNCSTD Working Group is also given.In the following two chapters, the final chapters the consequences of ICTs for social development and the options before them are examined.

This volume thus covers a whole gamut of issues and questions, ranging from Gender and ICTs to Electronic Commerce in developing nations. Its major message is one of cautious optimism, that developing nations can use ICTs for sustainable development provided they have the vision, strategy and the will to do so. For LDCs using ICTs is a difficult choice, given their present state of affairs, but they may get excluded or marginalised in the global information society if they fail to harness ICTs.The concerns expressed in this volume are vaild.

The major shortcoming of this volume, if one may so is that it does not question the predominat assumptions about Information Society and nature of ICTs. That is neither the theories about Information Society nor the critiques from the left on application of ICTs are given the importance they deserve(1). One does not find references to the works of David Lyon or Kevin Robins, to name a few, in this volume. Nor does one come across a reference to various works of scholars like D.Schiller or Langdon Winner who have questioned the major assumptions on social aspects and applications of ICTs.

This volume is sensitive to needs and aspirations of developing nations, particularly thr LDCs. It is also sensitive to issues like Gender and ICTs, role of civil society, exclusion in information society and naive faith in market forces. Thus it does not promote ICTs as a panacea, and lays emphasis on social and institutional aspects besides policies and strategies as much as on technologies. It provides a cautious and realisitic assessment of ICTs and development.The assessment provided by this volume is similar to the two reports by Panos Institute on Telecommunications, and, Internet and Development in the third world(2).

It deserves to be widely read and debated and I am sure that people in developing nations will find it to be a much needed resource book.

References:

(1) For a recent example refere to 'Cutting Edge:
Technology,Information, Capitalism and Social Revolution'.(Eds)
Jim Davis,Thomas A.Hirschl, and Michael Stack.Verso, 1997

(2) Refer to Panos Briefing No 23 'Telecommunications,
Development and the market', 1997 and Briefing No 28 'The
Internet and Poverty : Real Help or Real Hype' 1998. Panos
London,London (http://www.oneworld.org/panos/).



Comments on this review should be sent to K.Ravi Srinivas, Madurai,PIN 625014,India
email: srinivas_ravi@hotmail.com

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