the dark side of information technology

Monday, March 15, 1999
6:00 - 7:30 p.m.

Incredible amounts of newsprint have been spent on the winners of the Information Age -- the Amazons and the Yahoos. But very little attention has been focussed on the fact that more than 90 percent of the world has never used a computer. What impact will this have on world culture? Will information technology widen the exisiting gap between the rich and the poor? Can something be done before it is too late? Kenneth Keniston of the Program in Science, Technology and Society will address this issue in a seminar organised by Sangam, the MIT-Indian Students' Association.


Kenneth Keniston, MIT Program in Science, Technology and Society
Venkatesh Hariharan, Information Poverty Institute and MIT Knight Journalism Fellow


[This event was organised by Sangam, the MIT-Indian Students' Association and co-‰sponsored by the Media-in- Transition project of the MIT Communications Forum. Kenneth Keniston's talk was based on an article that is available online entitled Politics, Culture, and Software"]

Keniston: One of the great questions of the "information age" is how will computer ‰technologies affect the existing disparities of rich and poor -- both within and ‰between nations. Two major political and philosophical issues embedded in this ‰question are equity and diversity. By equity, I refer to how resources, power, wealth, ‰influence and access are distributed within a country and between countries, ‰particularly between the developing countries and the so called "northern countries." ‰Diversity refers to the extent to which the enormous number of historical cultures in ‰the world will be enhanced and enlivened by the information age, or to what extent ‰they will be obliterated and replaced. As a way of dramatizing these issues, I want to ‰present two bad dreams.

My first bad dream is what I call the "rule of the digerati," where "digerati" refers to ‰people who are digitally savvy -- a short hand definition of this is having a computer ‰with access to e-mail and the web, in addition to other enabling technologies such as ‰mobile phones or palm pilots. The "digerati" make up about 1% of the world's ‰population. In the United States, about 47% of households have computers, and ‰about half of those have Internet connections, and still fewer have all the qualities of ‰the "digerati." In India, about 2 tenths of 1% of the population has a telephone line, ‰while significantly less have the qualities of the "digerati." The bad dream is that in ‰some future world, perhaps not too far away, there will essentially be a new ruling ‰class made up of "digerati" that will consist of the tiny fraction of the world's ‰population who will control the financial, economic and political resources, as well ‰as the entertainment industry.

The other 99% of the people in the world will be excluded to various degrees, ‰although not necessarily in any deliberate or authoritarian way. In India, as in the ‰United States, the majority will not be able to participate because they won't have ‰the prerequisite knowledge or resources to afford technology and connectivity. When ‰we think of the "information age," we don't think about that 99% of people who ‰won't participate, but we do know a lot about them. For example, in the United ‰States, studies show that people who are not "connected" tend to be poor, non-white, ‰less educated, less influential, vote less often and have children who tend to do worse ‰in school. Any new technology tends to be appropriated by the people who have ‰power to increase and enlarge their power. If we believe that computer and Internet ‰access is empowering, and I do believe that, then those who already have power will ‰increase their power, and those who have less power will continue to have less ‰power. If we leave things at that, then we can expect that the emergence of the ‰"digerati" class will increase the gap between the rich and the poor rather than ‰decrease it.

My second bad dream involves the emergence of what I call global "monoculture," ‰which is similar to "cultural imperialism" -- that is to say, it involves the hegemony ‰or dominance of the English language and an Anglo culture with roots in the ‰entertainment and advertising from North America and related countries. In true ‰"cultural imperialism," the use of any other language is forbidden, and there are ‰countries where this happens. But this bad dream is not about such "cultural ‰imperialism." Instead, it is about a defacto "monoculture" in which the chief images ‰in the media ultimately come from the Anglo culture. There might be ‰advertisements for cultural diversity, and MTV might appear in Hindi or Spanish, but ‰the underlying culture is an English speaking Anglo culture. Such a "monoculture" ‰subtly, but nonetheless effectively, puts other languages and cultures into second ‰place, and makes those who are part of those cultures feel somehow inadequate. Some ‰people think of this as an extension of American technological, military and ‰economic power, while others take a less conspiratorial view. Either way, the ‰consequence is that unless you are part of this Anglo culture, you tend to feel as if ‰you are really not "with it".

There are aspects of information technology that contribute to the emergence of a ‰global "monoculture." For example, if you want to use a computer, it is very hard ‰to find software "localized" for many languages. Although more people in the world ‰know Hindi than know English, people who know Hindi have to send e-mail in ‰English, unless they use some very unusual proprietary software. The same is true of ‰Chinese and many other languages. There is a double danger in this situation. The ‰first danger is the loss of culture diversity that will result if the enormous wealth of ‰traditional world languages and cultures become suppressed little by little, so that ‰most of the 6000 languages in the world begin to die off. The second danger is ‰political. In the face of "monoculture," people who only speak traditional languages ‰will probably come to feel inadequate. In some deep sense, all of us base our ‰identities on our native culture, and if that culture is depreciated or not honored, we ‰feel dishonored. We either react with feelings of self-hatred and shame, or we engage ‰in reactionary efforts of reaffirmation. This second reaction can result in efforts to ‰preserve the ancestral culture in all of its purity by casting out foreigners and getting ‰rid of all the modern influences. One origin of fundamentalism may have to do with ‰efforts to reassert a depreciated culture.

I have deliberately given you two dark visions--one being the rule of the "digerati" ‰which entails the widening of the gap between rich and poor within countries and ‰between countries, and the second being the emergence of a global "monoculture" ‰which makes those who are not part of the dominant english speaking "anglo" ‰culture feel inadequate. My point is that there are real dangers in the electronic age. I ‰want to conclude by pointing out that nothing about my two bad dreams is ‰inevitable. The impact of how new digital technologies effect social organization is ‰something that we determine, rather than the technologies themselves. A third dream ‰is that we could consciously and deliberately say, "we have to devise technologically ‰sophisticated means of addressing these problems!" To actively avoid the bad dreams, ‰we have to devise new ways to use technology to deepen, preserve, and enhance the ‰traditional cultures of the world through efforts such as "localization" of software.

[The following talk was based on an article by Venkatesh Hariharan available on line entitled ‰" Five IT Trends for World Development."]

Hariharan: The politicians in Bombay may have changed its name to Mumbai, but ‰they haven't changed the reality that almost half the people there live in slums. As a ‰journalist based in Bombay covering Information Technology, while I could see that ‰jobs in the software industry created enormous wealth for the middle class in India, I ‰could never escape a nagging question about whether information technology had any ‰relevance for the vast number of poor people in India and the rest of the world. When ‰I met Kenneth Keniston, I discovered that the answer to that was a decisive "Yes!" ‰When I interviewed him for a newspaper in India, I though that "localization of ‰software" was just an interesting technical issue to write about. But he pointed out ‰that almost 95 percent of India had never used a computer. It took some time for that ‰fact to sink in, but when it did, I became increasingly shocked and alarmed. Tonight, ‰I want to elaborate about current trends that I hope might be enormously influential ‰in helping to improve the situation in developing countries by helping computer ‰technology to proliferate. Each of them may not matter much by themselves, but ‰collectively, they could have a powerful impact.

The first and the most visible trend is the rapidly falling cost of computing devices. ‰Right now, I can take $400 and go to my neighborhood Microcenter store to pick up ‰a PC, but by the end of 1999, some analysts expect this to fall to a low of $200. At ‰these price points, a greater percentage of the world population will be able to afford ‰a computer. More significantly, this trend of falling prices also applies to smaller ‰hand held computing devices like 3Com's Palm Pilot. These devices have more ‰limited capabilities, but they are available at even lower price points. The MIT Media ‰Lab is working on information appliances that will cost less than $25, and one of ‰these is a wind up browser which can even operate in areas where there is no power. ‰It is estimated by the World Bank that the average per capita income in developing ‰countries is around $277, so it is easy to see why falling prices are critical, and why ‰these types of developments mean that a vastly greater number of people in the world ‰will be able to afford computing devices.

Once people have computing devices, what will they do with them? The value of ‰any computing device multiplies a thousand fold if you connect it to the Internet to ‰access information. That's where the second trend comes in, which is the falling cost ‰of telecommunications. Today, if I have to send an e-mail from Boston to Bombay, ‰it makes absolutely no difference because it costs the same. But if I make a phone ‰call to Bombay, as compared to making a phone call within Boston, I have to ‰consider that a call to Bombay costs me about 60 cents a minute. But the costs of ‰communications is coming down, and the "Internet in the sky" Teledesic project, ‰other Internet telephony projects, as well as improved wireless and cellular ‰technologies will hasten the falling cost and further expansion of telecommunications ‰technologies. This will be a great leveler for developing countries, because it will ‰become much less important where one's operations are based. As the price of ‰telephony comes down, it will be possible to connect a village in the middle of a ‰desert in Rajasthan or a village on top of the Himalayas to the rest of the world in an ‰affordable way. One interesting thing that's been seen time and again is that the ‰moment you connect villagers through information and communications ‰technologies, the first thing they do is call up the markets to check the prices of their ‰produce. In Chile and Mexico and the Philipines, farmers have been able to improve ‰their profitability by around 15 percent because they could access the latest prices in ‰the world markets. That, in itself, is an incredibly empowering tool.

A third major trend is the increasing maturity of speech technology. When one ‰considers the fact that almost 40 percent of India's population is illiterate, then ‰speech technology makes a lot of sense. I am really excited about the fact that even ‰the cheapest PCs in the market today are powerful enough to handle speech ‰recognition.

The last trend is the growth of the Open Source movement, which allows users to ‰freely copy and modify software programs. Recently, the government of Mexico ‰made an agreement to use Red Hat's Linux in 140,000 elementary and middle-school ‰computer labs, and Wired magazine estimated that the Mexican government saved ‰$124 million by avoiding proprietary operating systems. ("India will benefit from ‰Linux, Apache" Interview with Bob Young, CEO, Red Hat Software by ‰Madanmohan Rao The Linux model of development ‰may be the way of the future for information technologies in developing countries. ‰There are 6000 languages in the world, but Microsoft Windows is available in 40-50 ‰of those languages, and Microsoft is notoriously slow in localizing for developing ‰countries. They still haven't gotten around to doing a proper user interface in Hindi, ‰which is pretty shocking when you realize that 400 million people speak Hindi in ‰India. Microsoft may deem that it makes no commercial sense to localize Windows ‰and its applications to many of the world's languages and it won't be done, but a ‰group of Linux enthusiasts can decide that they want to customize Linux into Hindi, ‰and they can just go ahead and do it. In fact, there are already groups working on ‰creating Linux based user interfaces in Hindi.

All of these trends combined do hold hope for developing countries in the future. I ‰am particularly hopeful because they represent an enormous market opportunity. ‰Information technology is only a revolution for 10 percent or less of the world's ‰population. In spite of that, the that industry is worth a trillion dollars, maybe ‰more, every year. Imagine how much the market could grow if technologies ‰addressed the other 90% of the world's population. We are at an historic point where ‰information and communications technologies are converging in a manner that can be ‰harnessed to uplift the lives of people all over the world. We who have assembled in ‰this room are the "digerati" of the world, and MIT has a great history of contributions ‰to the Information Technology revolution. The question that I would like to leave ‰this audience with is: "Can we turn the information technology revolution into a ‰social, economic and cultural revolution?"


Keniston: What are the processes by which we can get information technologies to ‰the people who need them?

Audience: I was at a lecture by Michael Dertouzos where he talked about having ‰kiosks in San Francisco where doctors who only get paid 50 cents an hour in South ‰Asia could get a dollar an hour to give homeless people free medical treatment. It ‰struck me that taking more medical care out of South Asia wasn't a good idea. Its bad ‰enough that doctors are fleeing South Asia to come here, without having the ones ‰that stay no longer working there. Sure, it provides new opportunities for profit, but ‰the medical crisis in South Asia would only get worse.

Keniston: You can extend that to computers. A recent example is the software ‰industry in India, which is the strongest of any developing nation, although it is very ‰controversial. Some people say that it is a wonderful opportunity for Indians, while ‰others say it is just "body shopping" on the part of northern countries. Is this a form ‰of imperialistic exploitation, or is it a way for a country like India to bootstrap its ‰way into high level technologies? It is true that some of the successful Indian ‰software companies are moving to the United States and establishing American ‰branches, while other top companies in India are beginning to win competitive ‰contracts on the basis of quality, time to market and good design rather than just ‰cost. This is in a situation that was initially about cheap labor, but turned into a ‰competitive advantage.

Hariharan: Unfortunately, what is happening in India only involves a very narrow ‰circle of those who speak English in urban areas. Remember that five percent of India ‰speaks English, but only a very tiny number of the best and brightest of those are ‰exported. Five percent of people in India is a big number, so what about the rest of ‰them? Also notice that most of the programming in the world is done in English, ‰although there is no real need for that, since code is ultimately converted to zeros and ‰ones. If it became possible to program in other languages, that would make a big ‰difference. Right now, 80% of packaged software comes from America, but that could ‰change if more Indians participated.

Audience: There are a number of situations where combining religions or languages ‰brought about a new culture that was richer. It is too narrow to only be concerned ‰about preserving what we have. There are always some people who want to go all the ‰way back and others who want to go forward as fast as possible, but there is ‰something to be said for something in between.

Keniston: I agree that there is another way, and it is symbolized by educated Indians ‰who are polylingual. I am impressed with how many Indians live with a plural ‰identity where they easily function in English, but maintain the more traditional ‰aspects of their lives without feeling any conflict. It is also true that languages and ‰cultures evolve, so that they aren't things you can grab hold of and preserve. Indian ‰English is a good example of a form that is very distinctive and evolving all the ‰time, while it produces a very powerful and distinctive literature.

Audience: The digital age is very young, so it is probably premature and unfairly ‰harsh to expect it to bear the burden of propagating the "monoculture." Satellite ‰television or VCRs have certainly had an even bigger role in perpetuating it. On the ‰other hand, information technology could be the single biggest weapon for helping ‰smaller singular cultures to survive. With relatively little costs and infrastructure, ‰they can suddenly preserve and present to the entire world what was formerly totally ‰inaccessible and in danger of being forgotten.

Hariharan: The great thing about the Internet is that it isn't a centralized form of ‰media. Television costs a huge amount to implement, whereas anyone with four ‰hundred dollars can buy a PC and put up a web page. Developing countries like India ‰have to harness this.

Audience: I am a student at the Media Lab, and there are three things that annoy me ‰about the projects going on there. First, they have this romantic idea of going to the ‰middle of the forest to save 20 people in a village, while there are four million ‰people in one slum in Bombay. I am from Brazil where most of the poverty is urban ‰poverty, and that is different. The second thing is that they assume the atoms are ‰there, so that they think you can solve the medical problem when you can move the ‰doctor's knowledge, although the real problem is that there isn't any medicine. The ‰third thing scares me the most. They have this patronizing vision that says, "we are ‰going to give you something that will make your life better." That keeps people in a ‰helpless mode that doesn't take them anywhere. After some time, a piece of ‰technology becomes useless, except in the best cases, when it is used for something ‰totally different than intended.

Audience: As far as language integration in India, I think the biggest problem is the ‰government. Also, the lack of bandwidth isn't because nobody is willing to do it. ‰Again, the biggest problem is the government, and that isn't being addressed here.

Keniston: On one hand, the enormous success of the Indian software happened ‰because the government of India set up information technology parks which had their ‰own generators and satellite dishes so they could have reliable communication 24 ‰hours a day. On the other hand, if you ask why there is no localization for Hindi, one ‰also has to look at how the government of India works. For instance, there are two ‰totally different publicly supported localization schemes, and they can't come to ‰conclusions on any standards. My general point is that the market works for a lot of ‰things, but it can also be a form of exploitation. We have to think about the role that ‰public authorities can play in creating the infrastructure or facilitating the formation ‰of standards for such things as localization.

Hariharan: I think that the way that the Indian government has implemented ‰technology is a case study in how not to do it. Everybody talks about the great Indian ‰software industry, but what has that done for the Indian people? The government has ‰not been very good about decisions of how to implement information technologies ‰for the good of everyone in India.

Audience: I think that it is interesting that we all seem to agree that what is stopping ‰progress in information technology in India is the government, and I am sure that it ‰is true of some other countries. The government of India was also very resistant to ‰television for a long time, and there were reasons. It was a very centralized nation, ‰and experts on this will tell you that the reason that television took so long to catch ‰on in India was that the government was afraid of people getting too much ‰information. They wanted to maintain centralized power. Information technologies ‰pose the same type of political problem. If you are already a politician who is rich ‰and powerful, why would you want to change the status quo?‰

Compiled by Mary Hopper