Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Where is the information society?

The digital divide is becoming less like a crack and more like a canyon.

More computers are produced than ever before, but they're even more concentrated in rich, developed countries than 10 years ago, according to new research by the University of Washington.

That's pretty surprising, because the world expected open markets to bring technology all around the world in an even way. WSIS was based on it. NGO spend several 10s of millions per year to make sure it happens. Well? What happened?

From 1995 to 2005, the supply of computers, Internet hosts and secure servers became more narrowly distributed among a core group of countries.

Mobile phones and Internet access, by contrast, proliferated to become more evenly distributed around the world.

But even for Internet access, people in developing countries pay more and get less.

While an hour of Internet access at a cybercafe costs people in New York about 6 percent of their average daily income, it costs people in Lagos, Nigeria, about 75 percent.

Those in developing nations are less likely to find news and other content generated from within their countries. In economic and cultural terms, they are missing out in a big way - going online means paying to tap into Western culture, tap into needed information, tapping into developing their future.

Researchers looked at 24 cities - each with more than 10 million people - and the cost of Internet access at three to six cybercafes, then compared those costs with average income figures.

In the rich cities, an Internet user who spends $1 actually gets more out of their experience and finds more Web sites in their language. These findings lend another voice to the debate over how to bring technology to the developing world.

While poorer countries tend to get computers much like hand-me-down clothing, cheaper mobile technology has spread relatively quickly. Most people around the world will experience new information technologies through their mobile-phone browsers - computers are still priced out of reach for most people.

One really has to question whether the right strategy is to build a $100 computer that links people in a network, as Massachusetts Institute of Technology is doing with its One Laptop per Child project, or a mobile phone that computes, as Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has suggested.

The infrastructure and policies of the developing world seem better suited for mobile phones - I can't believe I'm saying this, but think I come down on the Microsoft camp - that is, with one caveat: the mobile devices should be based on the open-source software Linux.

The UW project also showed how the production of books and music is going online in developing countries, and how the Internet has stimulated growth of civic and charity groups there.

And in some countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, Turkey and Ukraine, researchers found an especially large percentage of online news sites per capita.

Finally, some good news but really folks, ten years after the Internet was privatized, where is the information society? Really, where is it?

**Note: The report is the result of a team of 30 students who analyzed 10 years of data from the World Bank and other sources to compile the World Information Access 2006 Report.

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