When Ingenuity Takes the Upper Hand

    This document has been made available in electronic format
         by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA 
                         July, 1996

Source : Review of International Co-operation Vol.89, No
1/1996, 24-25.

               When Ingenuity Takes the Upper Hand
          by V. Menon, A. Goonasekera and V. Labrador*

Although information technology can change the way in which
citizens are informed, it requires a critical mass of users to
take off. In Asia, several countries have embarked on some
bold initiatives.

Although the information highway is spreading in Asia, there
are many barriers to its progress. Some are caused by the same
factors that have contributed to the imbalance in the
availability of conventional media or communication facilities
in the region. Take newspapers for example. Annual circulation
revenue per capita runs from $40 in Japan to $0.38 in India.
Or the availability of telephones, which ranges from 378 per
1000 in Singapore to 2 per 1000 in Bangladesh. Among the
reasons for the dismal figures in South Asia are low levels of
literacy and high levels of poverty, insufficient investment
and possibly, inadequate effort to rectify the situation.

The information superhighway would not only require higher
literacy levels and a greater degree of affluence, but also a
long-term plan for human resource development and training,
and above all, substantial investment in infrastructure.

Singapore offers a good example of the changes that the
info-routes can bring to the ways that citizens are informed.
The government has a well-formulated plan to make the republic
"an intelligent island" by the year 2000. Every high-rise
building, commercial and residential, will be connected by
fibre optic cable. The network will support dozens of cable
channels and give each household access to island-wide
information data bases, from the national library catalogue to
the latest stock prices.

The print media across the region is experimenting with
on-line editions. While the manner and means of information
dissemination may be expected to change as technology
progresses and infrastructure is put into place, the way in
which news events are covered will require attitudinal changes
that are much more difficult to bring about. For developing
countries in Asia, an important issue is whether the
information highway will change the imbalance in the flow of
news and information from the North to the South, and how news
events are covered by western media.

An Urban Reality
Theoretically, the right to communicate on the information
superhighway is not guarded by media gatekeepers. Already, it
is being used to transmit information that is not available
via normal communication channels. However, access to the
highway will be confined to those who know an international
language, which alone will cut off large groups who are
educated only in their native tongue. Furthermore, the
technology itself has yet to reach the rural masses in many
densely populated countries such as China, India and

For the information highway to make a real difference, there
should be structures or organized social groups that make use
of the highway for dissemination and reception of  news and
views. An "information highway culture" must evolve, an
endeavour in which education has a role to play. Finally, more
systematic and sustained research should be done to identify
what is going on, and to provide knowledge and information for
policy guidance.

Viewed from the standpoint of speed, cost and efficiency, the
expected changes may be largely positive. There will
inevitably be a widening of the gap between the technological
"haves and have nots". The reality in Asia is that while some
countries are fully integrated into the global information
highway, most have remained in the side lanes. There is no
dearth of effort however. The Philippines and China, for
example, have embarked on an ambitious programme to provide
universal telephone access for their people. In the case of
the Philippines, access can be as basic as providing a single
telephone line for everyone of its 40,000 village.

The installation of telecommunication systems does not
necessarily mean importing  expensive technology. In India,
the Centre for the  Development of Telematics has developed
and  installed rural telephone  switching and exchange systems
using low-cost  local technology and materials.

Information technology requires a critical mass of users to
take off. For the information  superhighway to make
significant inroads in Asia, it has to become widely
accessible,  which requires infrastructure development.
However, as experiences in India and the Philippines have
shown, ingenuity is available in abundance even if financial
resources are scarce.

* V. Menon, A. Goonasekera and V. Labrador, Asian Mass
Communication Centre, Singapore in UNESCO Sources No.75 (Dec.
1995 - Jan. 1996).

                       A Basic Glosary

-    Cable: Composed of optic fibres that transmit digital
     signals at a far higher speed than ordinary telephone

-    CD-Rom  (Read only Memory): Multimedia compact disk that
     can be consulted on a computer equipped with a special
     disk drive.

-    Cyber: Prefix characterizing ways of thinking and acting
     linking to the information highways and virtual reality
     (cyberspace, cyber caf‚, cyberculture).

-    Digital: Transcribed as binary elements  (0 or 1)
     constituting the "alphabet" of computer language. 

-    Electronic Mail (e-mail): Texts exchanged between two
     computers over the telephone network or a local computer

-    Gopher: A system which fetches information from data
     bases. Universities, in particular, set up sites of
     available information accessible through the gopher

-    Hypertext: System of linkages making it possible to
     scroll from one text to another by selecting key words.

-    Information Highway: Digital network linking a large
     number of computer sites and homes enabling instantaneous
     and personalised transmission of information and
     programmes, especially audiovisual materials.

-    Internet: Informal grouping of thousands of networks
     linking millions of computers around the world. It is the
     precursor of the future highways.

-    Listserver: Mailing lists made up of people with similar
     interests. If you post a message to the list, it is sent
     via E-mail to all subscribers to the mailing list.

-    Modem: Acronym of modulator-demodulator. Hooked into a
     computer, this accessory can transmit information on the
     telephone network.

-    Multimedia: Integration of different mediums (text, sound
     and images).

-    Newsgroups: Also called Bulletin Boards or Conferences. A
     site containing a collection of electronic messages
     related to a particular topic, e.g. women or
     co-operation, where people post and reply to messages
     about that topic.

-    On-Line: Accessible through a network on a microcomputer
     equipped with a modem.

-    Server: A computer containing information that can be
     consulted from a distance or a service that organises the
     distribution of information.

-    Virtual: Three-dimensional environment created by a
     computer in which a duly-equipped user (helmet, glasses,
     gloves and sensory receptors) can enter and interact.

-    World Wide Web: One of the Internet's sub-groups which
     has recorded prodigious growth in the past year (over 700
     new servers every day). The Web is accessible through
     specific software (called browser programmes) which only
     work in a windows environment and allow graphics, video
     and audio to be transmitted in addition to text.

Sources: UNESCO, International Women's  Tribune Centre