|United Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 15, Number 1, 1998 (UNU, 1998, 12 pages)|
The young science-fiction writer who first coined the term "cyberspace," (in the mid-1980s), described it as a place of "unthinkable complexity (with) lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data." In all its unfolding convolutions - with many millions of interconnected computer systems, interactive television, and other ways to communicate knowledge - his original description is still as good as any of that mysterious realm, one in which much of modern history is being played out.
Technological advances in cyberspace, in the computer and telecommunications field, have vastly speeded up our ability to communicate with one another. With millions of computers now jacked into the Internet, we have extended the communications range to the tiniest corners of human settlement. In the vast reaches of cyberspace, we are coming closer to being a truly global village.
This represents a broad-scale transformation in the human condition whose portends we are just beginning to understand. We are too inundated with information flows to see our way clearly. As always, when tinkering with something profoundly central to the human condition, it is an artist who may have sensed the true dimensions most lucidly. The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes warns that "the greatest crisis facing modern civilization is going to be how to transform information into structured knowledge."
The new communications technologies coming on-line offer, to be sure, liberation from many ancient drudgeries on farms and in factories. But they also can bring wealth and power to those who possess the skills to understand and control them - and herein lies their enormous potential for social disruption. To counter this, in the struggle to build a more equitable, peaceful and civil global society, we need to ensure that the on-ramps to the information superhighway are accessible to all.
We are far from getting there. Many hundreds of millions of the world's peoples are still too poor or too far from a major communications hub to enjoy the fruits of cyberspace. Without access to computer and a high-speed telecommunications link, they are the new "have-nots" - the "know-nots," who risk being always behind.
But in recent decades, we have vastly improved the means to disseminate new knowledge. During the past 20 years, the global network of computers, telephones and televisions has increased its carrying capacity a million times over. And cell phones, with modems attached, can "leap frog" creaking and inefficient state telephone systems which have kept so much of the developing world out of the information age.
Obviously, there are many ways to approach cyberspace and its role in human destiny. In this issue of Work in Progress, we look at what the new information technologies might do for the cause of sustainable development - a contribution we have dubbed "cybergrowth." The pitfalls and promises are discussed by scientists, educators and other experts from the worldwide networks of the United Nations University. Information, and the human ability to use or abuse it, has been a concern of the UNU for nearly two decades - since the first PCs began to radically transform the way we deal with new knowledge.
It is appropriate that this issue of Work in Progress - with its emphasis on new channels of communications - should appear just as the University itself was hearing a new voice of leadership - that of Prof. Hans van Ginkel who took over as fourth Rector of the UNU on 1 September 1997, succeeding Heitor Gurgulino de Souza, the University chief executive for a decade. As a human geographer and planner, and Rector Magnificus of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, Prof. van Ginkel comes to the UNU rectorship as someone thoroughly conversant with the challenges of the computer age.
So too was Rector Gurgulino de Souza. Our look at the potential for cybergrowth presents the views of both the present and past Rectors. Prof. van Ginkel examines the impact of a new knowledge intensity on higher education. The previous Rector, in a selection from his speeches, reflects on various challenges and opportunities of the new information age.
In a further look at computer-education interactions, a British scientist examines the benefits to be stimulated by the computer in environmental education, an area in which increasingly widespread demand worldwide is anticipated. Prof. Norman Longworth of the University of Southampton, United Kingdom, discusses some of uses of computer programmes in environmental learning at his home base at Southampton's Geodata unit. The unit has been widely recognized for its innovativeness and creativity in computer visualizations of ecological complexities.
On the surface - with the direct person-to-person linkages that communication technology makes possible - cyberspace might appear to offer the nearest thing to the level economic playing field that development strategists would like. But the workings of the international economic system, and particularly the twistings and turnings of technological choice, confront the development strategist with many tricky hurdles. Measuring productivity induced by investment in technology remains an illusive goal.
The economy-technology nexus is examined from four perspectives. Brazilian information scientist Paulo Rodrigues Pereira warns that "outsourcing" of cheap labour may prove a short-run phenomenon, as industries return home for the computer skills they increasingly will need. In a report from the UNU's Institute for New Technologies (UNU/INTECH) in Maastricht, Edward Steinmueller and Maria-Inês Bastos point up the problems in reorganizing industry to accommodate the new information technologies. A major problem, they find is the tendency of existing industrial networks to resist reform in the workplace.
One of the most thorny problems of the new information age is picking the right tool at the right moment. Every week, it sometimes seems, there is a new explosion in computer performance. But picking wrong can be disastrous, says Ajit Bhalla, an Indian economist who is Chief of the Technology and Employment Division of ILO in Geneva. He argues for widening the set of technological options in the patchwork world of modern computing. The plethora of information options makes choice particularly risky in the swollen mega-cities of the Third World. So concludes Alan Gilbert, a geographer with University College, London, who coordinated the UNU project on population, urbanization and development. The processes of globalization, bolstered by new communications technology, can bring new wealth or suddenly take it away. The computer, the video player and the laptop can create high expectation, but also heighten uncertainties.
After this multicultural look at the social and economic soils in which the computer revolution in the Third World must be planted, Work in Progress examines some of the specific steps the UNU has already taken to aid planners in stimulating cybergrowth.
A crucial need in the developing countries is software that speaks directly to their problems - as, for example, helping trains and planes to run on time. The UNU response is being mounted by the International Institute for Software Technology (UNU/IIST), a UNU research and training centre located in Macau. Two members of the UNU/IIST staff explain the centre's methods and some of the problems it is working on including improved scheduling of China's railways and Viet Nam's airline.
In the rapidly growing world of information technology, a new "homepage" of the Worldwide Web is created every few seconds. As a responsible and relevant centre of international scholarship, the UNU centre in Tokyo has created its own homepage. Among other things, it leads users to the Global Environment Information Centre (GEIC), the UNU's window on the world of environmental data. Glen Paoletto, an environmental specialist at the UNU Headquarters, describes what is available at http://www.geic.or.jp - a web page facility that responds to the call of Agenda 21, the United Nations blueprint for sustainable development operations.
Also available on UNU computer networks is "PlasmaNet," a tool that brings the cutting edge of their field to scientists, particularly in the Third World working with plasmas, a state of matter beyond solid, liquid and gas which offers enormous technological promise. Japanese physicist Takaya Kawabe, who helped set up PlasmaNet, provides a plasma primer and tells how advances in the field are being made available to scientists everywhere. The new network is a specific response to the first words of the UNU Charter that it be "an international community of scholars" - one which must seek new knowledge today in the farthest reaches of cyberspace.