Monday, April 03, 2006

Disconnected and Slow

Had a beer with Laurent last night and he struck a nerve (as he usually does). He mentioned the word disconnected and then he was talking about something he saw on Bruno's blog ... something about 'Slow' .. a book or something ... little bit of google action and here we are, at the website of Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slow.

The book sounds interesting but this is not about the book - this is about the rest of the world that's not connected.

Disconnected and slow.

I was talking with some very smart and passionate North Africans at a British Council sponsored conference in Tunisia. What does 'disconnected and slow' mean to them? What does it mean to the multitude of people from all over the world that are missing the wave .... the ones deep in the ditch of the digital divide?

While the high cost of Internet connectivity may still remain a challenge for countries without adequate infrastructures, an even bigger hurdle can often be establishing a culture of collaboration among countries within the same region to create 'economies of scale.'

But then there's education. Seven of the world's largest distance education universities - where students and faculty alike all use some form of computer-assisted learning - are located in developing countries.

For these communities, educational resources available via the Internet can offer cutting-edge applications of cyberspace. Yet, roadblocks - from inadequate national communications infrastructures to teachers reluctant to adapt to eLearning - exist for the full success of online education for higher education.

Latin America is making a change .... Red CLARA (Cooperacion Latino-Americana de Redes Avandazas) is an Internet education network for Latin America that began in 2003. It is funded by the European Union through a project called ALICE (America Latina Interconectada con Europa) that is supported by @LIS (Alliance for the Information Society).

Red CLARA links national academic networks in 15 countries. At the beginning, the networks were based on commercial Internet services at low speeds (frequently 256Kbps) but graduated to 2 Mbps through Internet2 (i2), a U.S-based consortium led by 207 universities.

Now that many of these countries have access to fiber optic cable, Red CLARA really got going in 2005. For instance, Ecuador was just connected to Red CLARA in January 2006 creating new opportunities to get connected to academic peers around the world.

These are theinfluencers - key people that can foster change - raise awareness at the political levels - open doors for students. The ripple effect is ongoing ....

Meanwhile, the use of internet in developed countries for corporate training is predicted to overtake education usage in developing countries by 12-to-1, becoming an estimated $150 billion industry by 2025. Something smells.

The history of African telecoms is based on the initial infrastructure developed during colonialism followed by a period of stagnation during the 1960's to 1980's that saw little advancement (except in the pockets of the colonists and then, their puppet governors).

This stagnation resulted in a terribly inadequate system with the lowest teledensity of any continent. Thus when the Internet arrived in the mid-90's, Africa was wholly unprepared to access its new opportunities.

But the Internet does have a vital role to play in advancing African development; the emergence of the global information economy is unavoidable.

But it's still not a done deal.

If some efforts are not focused on bringing Africa into this economy, it will surely be left behind and end up further marginalized than it already is. There are five major areas where ICT development holds the most potential. These include:

  • Education - ICTs improve opportunities for African scholars to advance their own work and access the wealth of information (especially e-journals) available throughout the web.
  • Health and Medical Information - Telemedicine and other innovations have proven effective at delivering services over wide areas and IP based communications have the potential to inform poor populations about a variety of pressing health issues.
  • Balanced Media Environment - IP based publishing and broadcast media could help to shift the balance from Western produced media to more regional information and entertainment sources. Honestly. news about Africa is often filtered through Western lenses before Africans receive it!
  • Economic Development - ICTs can make major contributions to the functioning and competitiveness of African entrepreneurs and contribute to African efforts to become producers of knowledge rather than producers of goods.
  • Human Rights - Access to information is central to efforts to challenge and check governments and political forces and there are studies that have causally linked interconnectivity and increased respect for human rights.

    Here's the chicken and egg question: while education should probably precede infrastructure development, how can the people become educated without the important tools necessary for such education.

    Investments in the emerging markets of Africa (like cellphones) are more likely to generate rapid returns on investment that will generate the resources for improved education efforts. Guess one has to pay the devil first ...

    Despite the difficulty that the continent faces in leapfrogging into the information economy, the prospects for improving the lives of Africans make such efforts worthwhile. The changes that are embracing the entire globe also affect Africa and it would be perilous for the continent if it does not heed these winds of change and embrace a new liberalization of the access to information - open the doors or at least the windows!

    Western nations are not patiently waiting. Listen to this;

    'Children need to participate fully in digital culture in order to develop the skills, knowledge, ethical frameworks and self-confidence needed to be full participants in the world around them,' MIT Professor Henry Jenkins told members of the AAAS recently.

    Jenkins proposed that there is a high 21st-century literacy rate among teens -- measured by their skillful use of all things digital, including instant messaging, Myspace, sampling, zines, mashups, Wikipedia, gaming and spoiling -- that has far more meaning than "screen time" implies.

    How are the children in the developing nations going to compete?

    There is no getting away from the Internet - what does this mean for any digital divide - in relative timeframes - we better start now. Each one of us!

    Why? Listen, the number of people online will triple in the next 10 years, and the number of connected devices will increase by billions.

    The number of people online will triple in the next 10 years.

    With the Internet such a critical component of national economies, governments will struggle to determine standards and oversight.

    A UN solution? A UN responsibility? a UN obligation?

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