The World Summit on the Information Society met from December 10-12 in Geneva. Bringing together government and civil society leaders, the UN-run event took aim at bridging two “divides” impeding human development.
The first, known as the “digital divide,” refers to the technological imbalance separating advanced and developing countries. The steps to bridge it are immediate and the results, tangible: make information and communication technologies (ICT) available to all countries, and standards of living will improve. Medical, agrarian and educational institutions are just a few potential beneficiaries of a coordinated digital policy.
This point found rare unanimity among UN delegates.
The Prime Minister of Tonga spoke of “the enormous powers of ICT’s to change economic structures and greatly contribute to economic prosperity.” Similarly, Nicaragua’s Vice-president directly linked the development of ICT’s and the information society in general to “the eradication of poverty and access to health and education.” Crystallizing these hopes was the Macedonian President, who said that when fully optimized, ICT’s will help create “a better world” defined by an “information society, knowledge economy, and networked citizen.”
Overall, optimism was high and the conclusion was one: the age of technology is upon us. Boundaries mean less, information means more, and most importantly, sustainable development means something – to everyone. As the Uganda representative observed on behalf of his continent, there would be “no missing the information revolution.”
The second divide, the “knowledge divide,” speaks of the unequal flow of knowledge within democratic and nondemocratic countries. Unlike with the “digital divide,” the steps here are gradual and the results, intangble: allow free and total access to knowledge, and people will realize their potential. Success would be measured in ideas and opinions, not pocket-books and dinner-plates.
Also different was the level of support for this initiative, which came primarily from countries with open societies. Closed autocracies sought to steer technology away from the ideational realm, and toward the commercial and professional. In other words, back to the “digital divide.”
Jamaica cautioned against this material fixation, saying, “ICT’s are not just about stimulating a rise in the national gross domestic product (GDP), but were a way of life.” Singapore agreed, emphasizing “the profound impact they [ICT’s] can have on many tangible and intangible issues related to daily existence.” Epistemology, they maintain, is as vital to human development as economy.
Other countries followed suit. Talung a page from JS Mill’s On Liberty, Israel’s representative called for knowledge to flow between peoples and replace “mutual suspicions” with mutual understanding. The President of Serbia and Montenegro echoed louder, saying that increased informational exchange yields increased connectivity and reduces-if not eliminates-discrimination.
While not as robust as the first, the call was still clear: raising standards of living cannot by itself raise the quality of life. For that, the ability to think independently, express openly and exchange widely is needed. Bridging the “digital divide” might bring prosperity, but only the “knowledge divide” can deliver individuality and community. The challenge is to link the two together and treat them as one.
The next Summit is set to take place in Tunisia in 2005, a country struggling with this very challenge. How they fare in the interim will determine if that happens; indeed, it may also signal the direction of other like-minded countries.