Information technology and social change

By Zubair Faisal Abbasi

TECHNOLOGY is not a neutral stuff addressing necessity, it is a complex and power-ridden manifestation of socio-cultural, political and economic behavior of societies and social groups. Information Technology like energy, manufacturing and other technologies is no exception to it. IT has potential, by means of its incidence, to empower, dis-empower and create underclass as well as hi-tech social groups and other split-ups in terms of "haves and have-nots".

In this context, primarily, the very incidence of IT in itself is not something operating exclusively and monolithically for the social benefit of societies. Rather, for societies, it has some implications and caveat that must be addressed apart from being fascinated with its rapid growth and economic potentials. The point is to optimize the net social, political and economic benefits of IT for societies and intelligently tap the IT's sprawling power to re-model the institutional and individual behaviors.

The popular catchwords of IT like interactivity, connectivity, access, and standardization of software's has unavoidable links with freedom of expression, socio-cultural norms and innovation potential, globalization, pattern of governance mediated by the politics of knowledge, means of wealth creation and distribution, gender-based equity and the Law of Ubiquity. For developing nations particularly those which are experiencing "post-colonial" regimes and forging ahead with "catch-up" development, the role of the above-mentioned linkages is no less important than in any other hi-tech developed nation.

It seems that the issue of differentials between the emergence of technology as a social occurrence based on the lived experience of the innovative society and that of "catching up" to technological innovations will continue to surface and re-surface on the development debate in developing countries. Yes! This aspect will keep on influencing strategies for technological spread as well.

Getting to a diachronic analysis of the development of the means of communication in the western societies one sees a pattern of changes in the role of Church in mouth-to-ear and crowd-communication of sermons, diffusion-extension of secular trends, the emergence of post-offices and telecommunications for defence, business and general use in the robust industrial development, and "always-everywhere" modern systems of communications. These changes have visible linkages with the institutional development and changes in the intellectual as well as socio-political landscapes along with changes in societal needs in response to multiple challenges in the western societies.

The pattern of emergence of technology and direction of social change are sensitive towards each other. For instance, looking at the process of diffusion and spread of information technologies in our society, one sees a difference in pattern in some ways when it is compared to the western societies. Apparently, mobile telephone, TV, VCR and dish antenna and now the internet are becoming popular and diffused within a very short time but the developmental role of the technology is markedly restricted to mere entertainment and somehow to un-productive usage. Unproductive in the sense that it fails to bring the desired strength in our social, political and economic muscles and hence technological grafting leaves us again looking forward to the West for upgraded technological injection. No wonder, once again the new inoculation stays ineffective because the "guinea pig body" does not respond to the new "not-properly-administered" or '"irrelevant" medicine.

Taking new Information Technology Policy as a test case for exploring linkage of technology with social, political and economic development which are mediated by interest groups and power-relations one sees a typical pattern of response from our society in general and policy makers in particular. Although, the IT policy has many commendable and comprehensive bunch of suggestions and the way forward for human resource development, development of softwares industry, infrastructure development and development of databases, and a suggestion for giving income tax exemption to the experienced IT experts, yet the policy recommendations need further analysis.

It is important to note that to generate a comprehensive document for IT policy eleven groups representing a host of IT business interests groups as well as the government's IT Department with a specialized "trained eye" to forging ahead IT and IT-education per se and for economic gains, worked together. A cursory look at the composition of working groups reveals that the group composition seems to be lacking at least two vital interest group i.e., IT and information consumers like journalists, intellectuals (may be some from social sciences and literature, etc), consumer rights protection bodies, representatives from the civil society organizations, and the women from the civil society at large.

In the wake of this absence of important interest groups from the policy making body, it seems that the steps recommended for a ubiquitous presence of IT in society are skewed. They give negligible attention to the social and general development needs of some vital sections of society. It is sad to see that no specific recommendation has been made to provide special credit facilities and financial disbursement to women who want to advance in the field of IT or want to make use of the IT products for upward social mobility.

Moreover, no mention to the working conditions for women in the IT related fields has been made. This is a significant manifestation of gender-blindness of the IT policy which perhaps seeks to let a large portion of women stay content with low-paid "data entries in data-bases". One should note that hardware manufacturing related low-paid and inferior jobs for women in the Philippines has caused adverse effects on their eyes and strains in their body muscles; there is no redressing mechanism for them from the industry.

Apart from it, the visible links of IT with poverty alleviation and disaster mitigation strategies has not been emphasized in any meaningful way, nor has any specific reference been made to digitize and further enrich the traditional alternative knowledge of our societies. "The men of science" in the working groups did mention the "data-base of scientific knowledge" without reference to facilitating humanities/social science researches and building of data bases as part of their IT policy.

Overall, however, the major portion of stress in IT policy document seems to be on "how to develop business of IT products and services" with little or no emphasis on the qualification of IT to the "structural impact of the IT incidence" in our society. This puts in one's mind the emphasis on taking "machines" and "the money spewed out of the products of IT" as grand saviours.

This is not to say that business and profit motive is irrelevant to our societal needs but the point is to look at the incidence of technology as a "social response" of society and the working of interest groups which significantly alters the complexion of power relationships at the local and international levels. It happens that the so-called scientific and technical experts are inclined to see the "Law of Ubiquity" operating in a stereotypical way. They often tend to think the abundance of machines and some machine-related services everywhere means ubiquity and development.

However, the ubiquity must be interpreted in some broader context. One of the ways to interpret it is to say, "ubiquity means wide scale "productive use" of machines for education, knowledge and information, and social development and change." The above concept of ubiquity perhaps lays stress not only on increasing the IT-user class but using IT for just and equitable socio-economic and political development.Besides others, one appreciable suggestions written in the new IT policy is, "removal of restriction from voice transmittal, video-telephony through Internet, or other data communication links and making data-bases by public-private partnerships and making them open and equitably accessible". Though the underlying current of the thought is business promotion, it seems that it will have social repercussions in the days to come; and that the government must now be prepared to think across the freedom of expression and information not as a political nicety but as a cardinal duty and responsibility.

It must ensure the "right of freedom of expression and information" in the emerging information and knowledge societies; the societies which would be seeking fast connectivity and feedback between the rulers and the ruled. Why the journalists, one of the important stake-holders of the "freedom of expression" should have not been included in the working groups for policy making?

To conclude, keeping in view the relationship of technology with power dynamism in societies, the government, IT business professionals and civil society should try to see IT with social development perspective as well, though the overall objective of the policy is "IT for sustainable development". The socio-economic fruits of the information technology will invariably be perching on the extensions of IT in its value-added, freer expression, an inclusionary and ubiquitous usage for social development and social change.

Source : Dawn.