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Challenges for Information Technology Policy at the Dawn of a New Millennium

Alejandro PISANTY <apisan@servidor.unam.mx>
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México


I review some of the major challenges for information technology policy for the present and coming years, emphasizing those with meaning for the development of the Internet worldwide. Some recent, relevant literature is reviewed. The case of Mexico is implied throughout. Some major policy and actions are described. I propose an emphasis on access to the benefits of information technology in all policies.


Introduction: some homework left from the past millennium

Science and technology have produced goods and services whose fundamental understanding is way beyond reach for most of their users. The frameworks in which many of us analyze and apply the products of technology are the same as a thousand years ago. Kicking a refreshment dispenser is a remnant from the learned behavior of kicking donkeys and mules to get them moving.

Thus, a major task before us is to bring a majority of the world's population into gear with the culture, knowledge, and collective intelligence generated during the past thousand years. News from Somalia or a short travel to Mexico City's slums, or to the country's beautiful Southeast, are a fresh reminder every day.

Habermas has pointed out the disjunction between the high-tech virtual world and other "good guys" like the defeat of fascism, the sixties revolution, and the "incessant creation of new well-being" and the other face of the twentieth century, with its wars and horror. Our major challenge, in Dahrendorf's words, is the dilemma of uniting three things in concert: conserving and enhancing the capacity to compete in the turmoil of the international economy, conserving social cohesion and solidarity, and bringing them to fruition in the conditions and with the conditions of a free society.

These are tough constraints for an information technology policy. The benefits of Information Technology (IT) must be both obtained and used as a way to advance in the threefold realm of competition, solidarity, and freedom.

A previous version of this paper exists in Spanish.

Need and framework for IT policy in the age of the Internet: arguments for policy

Most countries, particularly those in development, stand to benefit from a well-designed and well-applied IT policy that bets the house on the Internet.

Such policy faces no mean challenge. The "IT density" is low and expensive to grow. Some typical figures for Mexico are 10:100 telephone line density and 4:100 computer density. Out of 96 million inhabitants, about 1.5 million have access to the Internet at present. Yet this number is not far from that of newspaper readers.

Among the many discussions on this subject, the recent volume by Loader covers the spectrum of options in a most relevant fashion. A statement from Allaire is most illustrative: "Countries who first establish an information infrastructure and develop applications will enjoy enormous competitive advantage."

Yet in many countries, again especially in developing ones, information and IT policy are relegated and regarded with some mistrust. All along the history of humanity there has been a divide between city and country, between technology and nature. Particularly after the sixties, though, there has grown an acute perception that technology has gotten out of control, and its development is resisted from a number of points of view.

A good source for thought on this matter is Pacey, who asks us to confront directly the meaning of serving society through technology (and not only technology's own rationality).

A further important element I have taken from Pacey is a thought to illustrate the development of the Internet. Pacey shows convincingly that the English tradition of engineering tends to look at each new technological object as a monument to past achievements, whereas the American ethos in technology development is always infused with the expectation of future progress. From my point of view, this cultural factor is crucial in determining the way the Internet has developed.

In countries outside the United States this very feature may be quite off-putting, all the more so for government officials who are more guided by political instinct than by technological innovation and its services.

Yet the need for policy is pervasive. In Loader's book, the chapters by Haywood, Ravetz, and Moore all produce arguments. Moore is particularly convincing in favor of a "dirigiste" approach, where the market is allowed to work but governments do set policy. He considers this approach to be more holistic than a strict free market approach -- more stable and based on a clear, long-term, shared social vision.

Talero and Gaudette, speaking from the World Bank (not exactly a government-intervention champion), state three roles for government action:

  1. Formulating policy,
  2. Using IT,
  3. Compensating for market deficiencies.

Further, they at propose at least five forms of action in this matter:

  1. Increase the government's own efficiency.
  2. Fix fair game rules.
  3. Catalyze infrastructure projects.
  4. Push the educational agenda.
  5. Jump-start the private sector.

Many readers will wonder whether policy should be an issue at all. Suffice it to say that in many countries there is either no policy or it is not really enforced. In Mexico there is an IT program within the federal government's strategic planning framework, yet large parts of it are not enforced.

The program has as its main goals:

  1. Fostering the use of IT in the public, private, and social sectors.
  2. Promoting education of human resources and developing IT culture.
  3. Promoting scientific and technological research in IT.
  4. Fostering the development of the IT industry.
  5. Fostering the development of network infrastructure.
  6. Consolidating coordination entities and the legal framework for IT.

Three mandates for IT policy: access, access, access

Any IT policy must stress access to the benefits of information technologies for all of a country's population. It is particularly important in underdeveloped countries or regions to focus on access to the benefits, not necessarily to the technologies themselves as a single strategy.

By focusing on the benefits of IT, a large number of options become available as alternatives to the goal of networking every single home and facility. The more ample goal is served by community access centers, centers shared by several public services, combined private-public services, and so forth (see, for example, the work of Scott Robinson on Telecenters in Mexico, http://www.devmedia.org/documents/robinson.htm, http://www.unrisd.org/infotech/conferen/session3.htm#Scott, and for a view of isolated communities in the United States, http://www.itown.org/rap.htm, by Deborah Spackman). Also, for compendia and threads of relevant discussions of policy issues and the social implications of information technologies, see the work by Sam Lanfranco (http://www.bellanet.org/, http://www.globalknowledge.org), and the UNRISD site at http://www.unrisd.org.

Also by focusing on spreading the benefits of IT instead of more narrowly pushing the goods alone, we avoid the pitfall of making people wait for equipment whose only meaning is to provide services. We thus stress that information technologies' goods and services are but a means to an end, and de-fetishize them. Of course, when resources and the underlying infrastructure and culture are present, we do propose to deliver IT directly to the final user.

A major stumbling block for the spread of information technologies in underdeveloped countries and regions is the weakness of the telecommunications infrastructure. Most of the time the POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) is pretty P, very O, and not much of an S. Developing nations have pushed satellite communications hard in the past decades, concentrating more on broadcasting information than in enabling interactions between people, institutions, and countries. One healthy policy in these cases is to develop and deploy services where large amounts of digital data are broadcast by satellite channels.

In such cases, the upstream channel may be very weak and still the whole system is useful thanks to its asymmetry. Even in situations where no upstream channel is available, the Internet is made available, albeit in a limited fashion, as Web pages, which get recorded on a computer's hard disk. Limited navigation within this subset still is better than no access at all.

Coming back to the policy level, policies and programs must be established to enable and foster such programs. The experience of Mexico and some other countries has been successful in assigning a fixed fraction of satellite bandwidth for social use by the government, particularly for education. Such policies are not being instituted in a widespread fashion when telecommunications are deregulated and privatized, at a high social price.

Another important policy element will be linking IT with education. This means using IT for education, aggressively expanding its coverage with quality and relevance, and educating and training for IT as a must for social and individual progress. In order to limit the risks of enlarging the gap between haves and have-nots of IT, access is again a fundamental mandate. All pertinent combinations of media must be put together: whether in teaching courses about the Internet through TV or teaching national history through a combination of TV broadcasts and e-mail exchanges, training teachers' trainers through videoconference, or creating new publications for and from students on the Web and in print.

A related discussion, more from a nongovernment organization (NGO) point of view, by Ellen S. Kole can be found in http://www.yorku.ca/research/dkproj/crit-ict/ek1.htm.

I will not attempt to put together all the desirable elements of an IT policy. However I will state, as many other authors have before, that it has to be holistic and well integrated with other branches of policy. In particular, a major point is integrating IT policy with an information policy and an information culture. It is hard to explain to a U.S.-centered, technically oriented audience the ways that information and knowledge are managed and used in other cultures, e.g., by being less explicit, less certain, less openly formulated, and less structured than in the United States and northern Europe. A whole culture has to be created for the use of information. In places with strong traditional cultures merging tradition with information and applying this merger to decision-making is a tough task that cannot be approached exclusively through Western eyes.

Some action: networking projects that materialize the policy challenges

In the final paragraphs, some lines of action will be described that materialize the policy challenges stated in this paper and response to the challenges.

The National Network for Videoconferencing in Education, http://distancia.dgsca.unam.mx/, in Mexico, is comprised of 110 two-way compressed video classrooms (20 more than a year ago, see A. Pisanty), operating under the H.320 standard mostly through dedicated fiber-optic links. Of these, 36 are part of the UNAM (National University) facilities in Mexico City and a few other cities, 20 are in IPN (National Polytechnic Institute) facilities, and the rest are in a number of universities and other training, research, and cultural institutions. One of the facilities is in the permanent school of UNAM in San Antonio, Texas, and is integrated into the videoconference networks of Texas A&M University and of the University of Texas.

Starting in November 1998, ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) service was introduced in the network, greatly enhancing its flexibility. The network is used for regular graduate and undergraduate education, as well as certificate courses, conferences, seminars, meetings, etc. It logged 18,000 hours in 1998 in the two Multipoint Control Units (MCUs) at DGSCA in UNAM.

In 1999, H.323 and H.324 are being introduced into the network. Also since 1998, Webcasting has become fairly common and digital video archives are being constructed (http://alpha.dgsca.unam.mx/). This will become part of the Internet 2 project (http://www.internet2.edu.mx/, http://www.internet2.unam.mx/).

One of the most significant projects applying the Internet aggressively in Mexico is called Red Escolar (School Net, http://redescolar.ilce.edu.mx). Directed by Dr. Victor Guerra, this project aims to introduce computers and networks into the K-9 schools of the country. It is complementary to other projects at the high school and higher education levels, which are in more advanced stages.

Red Escolar is pursuing asymmetric technologies (e.g., data over satellite), standard phone links, etc., in order to achieve its purpose. Further, with participation of UNAM and other universities, it is enhancing the Ministry of Education's teacher-training programs to make teachers more technology-able. Some methodologies adopted by Red Escolar, like Study Circles, are making a significant impact by allowing children to express themselves through the Internet.

Red Escolar is also coalescing around itself previous efforts in many of the Federal states of Mexico. In these states, state governments and public universities are aiding the project by providing financial support, political leverage, their own knowledge and projects, and trained people. In particular, the universities are supporting Red Escolar through students fulfilling their constitutionally mandatory, six-month-long social service requisite for graduation.

We have presented a paper on school networks at this same conference, providing a comparison of similar projects in other Latin American countries (Dunayevich et al., INET 99 paper no. 99376). Further work on the matter of Latin American networks for education has been done and compiled by Daniel Samoilovich (http://www.columbus-web.com/).

A closing note

I have attempted to describe in this paper some recent information technology policy for development that is particularly relevant for the extension of the benefits of the Internet. As a conclusion, a nagging one for many years now, I believe we still have to stress access to the Internet as a main policy goal, which does not detract from training people to use it. We also need to stress developing contents and services, and adapting the general social and legal frameworks to enable electronic commerce and other advantages the Internet provides society.

Also, some projects and results in Mexico were described, where education is being served by the use of networks.

Further reading

J. Habermas, "Nuestro breve siglo", Nexos 248, 39-47 (1998).

P. Allaire, J. Young, and C. Vest, Breaking the Barriers to the National Information Infrastructure, quoted by E. Talero and P. Gaudette, Harnessing Information for Development. A proposal for a World Bank group strategy, World Bank Discussion Papers no. 313, World Bank, Washington, 1996.

A. Pacey, The Maze of Ingenuity. Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

T. Haywood, "Global networks and the myth of equality -- trickle down or trickle away?" in B.D. Loader, ed., Cyberspace Divide: equality, agency and policy in the information society, Routledge, London/ NY, 1998, pp. 19-34.

J. Ravetz, "The Internet, virtual and real reality," in B.D. Loader, ed., Cyberspace Divide: equality, agency and policy in the information society, Routledge, London/ NY, 1998, pp. 113-122.

P. Virilio, La velocidad de liberación, Ediciones Manantial, Buenos Aires, 1997.

B.D. Loader, "Cyberspace Divide: equality, agency and policy in the information society" in B.D. Loader, ed., Cyberspace Divide: equality, agency and policy in the information society, Routledge, London/ NY, 1998, pp. 3-16.

N. Moore, "Confucius or captialism? Policies for an information society," in B.D. Loader, ed., Cyberspace Divide: equality, agency and policy in the information society, Routledge, London/ NY, 1998, pp.149-160.

E. Talero and P. Gaudette, Harnessing Information for Development. A proposal for a World Bank group strategy, World Bank Discussion Papers no. 313, World Bank, Washington, 1996.

M. Kapor and D. Weitzner, "Social and industrial policy for public networks: visions of the future," in L. Harasim, ed., Global Networks: Computers and International Communication, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1993.

A.W. Bates, Technology, Open Learning and Distance Education, Routledge, London/N. York, 1995.

A. Pisanty and J. Martinez Peniche, Medios y Tecnologías para la Educación a Distancia, UNAM, México, 1995.

A. Pisanty, "National Videoconference Network for Education in Mexico," Proceedings of the XIV International Conference on Distance Learning -- Distance Learning '98, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1998.

A. Pisanty, "Dos taxonomías de los medios técnicos para la educación a distancia," in G. Vadillo, ed., Medios Telemáticos para la Educación Continua y a Distancia, IPN y Asociación Mexicana de Educación Continua, México, 1999.

S. Malo and M. Fortes, La tecnología de la información y la educación en México Academia Mexicana de Ciencias, México, 1998.

Plan de Desarrollo Informático, México, 1995, www.inegi.gob.mx y Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público, México, 1996.

W. Zijp, Improving the Transfer and Use of Agricultural Information. A Guide to Information Technology, World Bank Discussion Papers no. 247, World Bank, Washington, 1994.

P. Tang, "Managing the cyberspace divide. Government investment in electronic information services," in B.D. Loader, ed., Cyberspace Divide: equality, agency and policy in the information society, Routledge, London/ NY, 1998, pp. 183-202.

V. Guerra, "Volando a través de la era digital," Proceedings TelEd'97, ISTE-ILCE, Austin, 1997.

S. J. Gould, Millennium.

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