World Summit on information fails to rise above vagueness

January 2004 -

To be continued. That seems to be the most important outcome of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held in Geneva from 10 to 12 December 2003. Ministers and heads of state paraded their highly similar presentations to a room full of international dignitaries. Babylonian misunderstandings and a diversity of themes that was perhaps too large already affected the preparations. The results were a lack of depth and vague focus.

But the desires involved are not simple. On the one hand there is the desire for connectivity and on the other the desire to retain cultural values. Information technology presents both opportunities and threats in this respect. While improved administrative facilities and communication possibilities stimulate development, they also threaten the culture through ICT's use of a single language, its uniformity and its standardisation. Right to information soon evolves into a connectivity obligation.

One complaint was that most websites use the English language while only 30% of the world's population has English as their native language. The solution must be sought in niches such as multiple languages on the Internet and in the possibilities for digitising folk music, folk stories and visual cultural expressions. Digital illiteracy plays a part in this respect, but already retaining digital heritage as part of the cultural heritage is an issue.

In order to strive for development above all - with ICT as the means - the market ICT for Development was established. Between cultural expressions including indigenous dishes and tropical music and dance, attempts were made to develop visitors by handing out unasked-for CD-ROMs. Striking was the push with which technology, systems, databases and various tools were marketed: including from developing countries. What remained vague is what the need is now: little was articulated by developing countries concerning their actual needs.

Administrative computer systems are perhaps much more important to development than an internet connection. Perhaps there is a better use for radio and television than soap operas that were current a decade ago. But is that what is wanted? The question is whether the introduction of ICT will turn out differently than planned despite all the good intentions. Discussions toiled with these topics without arriving at a solution. The digital gap between rich and poor is primarily a communication gap. And among all the ICT talk, someone said that traditional paper libraries contain a lot of information as well. To be continued, in Tunis, 2005.