March 2007

ICTs in an unequal world

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The intensive integration of ICTs into the daily lives of people has produced a continuum of social vulnerabilities, rather than a mere digital divide.

The promise and pitfalls of ICTs

We live in a globalising world where there is more information and knowledge available, shared by more people and accessible to a larger number of those people than ever before. Growth in sharing and access has been facilitated by enormous advancements of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). When Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) started to flourish, they were touted as the solution for many development problems. Several years down the road, the accumulated experience of using ICTs in the development arena shows that ICTs are first and foremost communication tools, but can also be used strategically to build capacity, amplify voices, share knowledge and empower people.  The rapid growth of ICTs has rendered the inter-relation between ICT, information and society more complex.  It may not be relevant or particularly enlightening to continue to speak only of ICTs in the relatively limited framework of ICT4D.

A paradigm shift in thinking about ICTs and development is required. The widely used concept of 'digital divide' is still relevant to the extent that ICTs overlay existing divides of gender, literacy, income, mobility and infrastructure. But to take the analysis further, a new perspective is necessary.

ICTs have made the world a 'global village' by providing ease and speed of communication. At the same time, the intensification of information processes (surveillance, data mining, information harvesting, and data processing) has generated new social vulnerabilities, while exacerbating existing ones. The result is a continuum of social vulnerability that spans the globe, crossing even the 'digital divide'.  Events show that everyone feels the impact of ICTs regardless of whether they personally have access to these technologies or not. Proof of the intensive integration of ICTs in daily life can be seen in the ubiquitous presence of closed-circuit televisions, radio frequency identification tags and linked databases.
While the social vulnerabilities generated by digital technologies are felt by all but especially by those who are already marginalised and discriminated against, there are differences in the type and degree of vulnerability that is generated. The key variables seem to be pre-existing inequalities and fissures in society, the presence and active use of checks and balances, a critical and active civil society, and adequate information and awareness of how ICTs are used, by whom, and for what purpose.

The Challenges to Human Rights

The widespread dissemination of ICTs presents unprecedented risks to human rights, which call for conscious behaviour by the users as well as producers of ICTs

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