Monday, March 15, 1999
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.


[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

the dark side of information technology    abstract