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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 15, Number 1, 1998 (UNU, 1998, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentCybergrowth: Pathway to sustainable development?
View the documentShrinking knowledge frontiers
View the documentWiring environmental education
View the documentInformation technology: Panacea or peril?
View the documentFinding the right blend
View the documentOrganizing for growth...
View the documentIn Latin American cities... A chancy life in cyberspace
View the document"The only true international currency"
View the documentUNU's Ecological Homepage:
View the documentSoftware for development
View the documentNetworking the Sun's power
View the documentThe global debate ...
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"The only true international currency"

By Heitor Gurgulino de Souza

During his 10 years as the third Rector of the UNU, Heitor Gurgulino de Souza, a Brazilian educator trained as a physicist, frequently reflected on the role of new information technologies in the development process. The following article is excerpted from various speeches he made during his tenure. He stepped down as Rector in September last year, and was succeeded by Prof. Hans van Ginkel. - Editor

Much of the globe's ills, since the dawn of history, have spun out of humanity's inability to cope with information, the first step in understanding. Indeed, it might be said that to the degree the human species has survived, existence has hinged on the ability of our remote ancestors to sort out that which hurt and that which satisfied - which is to say, new information....

The different actors who play a leading role in the information revolution make for a provocative convergence of some of the key impulses driving and transforming society today - education, basic and applied research, and the management of increasingly sophisticated information systems. These are the people who will have major responsibilities for that vital and intricately wired global switchboard that will be connecting all our daily lives in the 21st century.

Photo: PPS

In a world as complex and rapidly changing as the present one, access to new knowledge, and the capacity to absorb and make use of it, are essential requirements for all levels of society. Knowledge today controls access to opportunity and advancement. The achievement of sustainable development depends crucially on ability to absorb and utilize vast amounts of new and relevant information. A major part of our efforts are directed to helping the poorer societies improve scientific and technological prowess....

It can sometimes seem a virtually borderless world one linked only by electronic "highways to tomorrow." those fabulous freeways of fibre-optic cables, satellites, computerized switching devices, small handheld cellular phones with computer and fax capacity and incredibly enhanced capacities for storing vast amounts of information.

The education potential in all this can stir the mind and race the blood of the educator looking to expand the mind of the pupil to the broader world. This is particularly so for those in the developing countries who for too long have had to do with overcrowded classrooms, outdated texts and second-rate lab equipment. It is important that we keep in mind that the digital superhighways do not necessarily have access ramps everywhere - at least not yet. We educators need to work to ensure that the knowledge moving up and down these highways is open to all

New electronic advances could breed even greater disparities between the rich and poor communities, with lack of access to information and technology spawning a tragic new kind of global society one divided not so much into "haves" and "have nots," but perhaps even more perniciously into "knows" and "know note," with the latter falling ever more hopelessly behind....

Information is now a commodity to be bought and sold. New products and new markets are constantly being created by the application of new knowledge, giving industry ample motivation to be out on the cutting edge of knowledge, a terrain once thought to be reserved exclusively for the university scientist and scholar on the university campus....

Information flows... may well be the central disturber of our age. (They) directly impinge on human consciousness arousing as never before new hopes and fears. And while one effect of this has been heighten, sometimes to unrealistic levels, the expectations of the world's poor, the disturber is not necessarily all bad. Some of history's greatest disturbers were those whose new thinking jarred and dislocated old ways, to the ultimate betterment of the human condition.

Probably one of the most ancient of truths is that the human species tends to be wary of new knowledge, particularly when it may uproot and dislodge old comforts and familiarities. This was as unsettling in Galileo's time as it is today. His was an age of new questioning - and so is ours. As his telescope unleashed new heresies, so today do our computers, cellular telephones, videodisks seem to encourage new disturbing forms of intercommunication that leave us slightly uneasy with their implications for our daily privacy.

It has been rightly observed that living along the electronic highways of the late 20th century, you don't need to know everything indeed to attempt it would be folly in today's fact-crammed world but you do need to know where to find it. A second imperative follows: you must have free access to that information.

At the United Nations University, we have been giving a good deal of attention to the question of how knowledge is generated in our modern world and where the gaps are which are impeding development. We subscribe to the notion that, in late 20th century terms, true knowledge is information in effective action, focused on results that improve the human condition. Indeed, one could argue, I believe, that the very process of learning and understanding is a central part of our humanity - when that capacity is lessened, so is our capacity as human beings.

I am convinced that higher education - thanks largely to the wonders of the communications revolution - will more and more become a kind of global marketplace where ideas, values and perspectives will be freely traded.

Using the Internet and the World Wide Web, educators will be able to network to an unprecedented degree. Anything less would be a disservice to our students in preparing them to enter the intimate interdependence of the future.

The growing reach of computers, faxes and other communications technology, along with the emergence of a new international social stratum - of scientists, engineers, computer specialists, software developers and others - is cutting across the webs of global interdependence, creating a new interconnectedness all its own.

My academic background is that of a scientist - so I have no difficulty in seeing the immense potential of the computer as a vital scientific tool, capable of absorbing and sorting out vast amounts of raw data. But as an educator, I am also aware of the larger repercussions of such an instrument, and thus we do well to listen to the perspective of the humanist. Like that, for example, of my fellow Latin American, the novelist Carlos Fuentes who has warned that "the greatest crisis facing modern civilization is going to be how to transform information into structured knowledge."

As educators, we must be concerned with how the computer can help, and be a welcome partner in the human endeavour. The computer, it seems clear, has immense potential for improving and enriching the quality of daily lives everywhere. It can digest and make available vast amounts of information - and it can do this in the blink of an electronic eye (much more quickly, in fact, than the time it takes me to tell you the story). In particular, the small personal computer could be an invaluable tool in helping to promote decentralized growth and self-reliance at the regional and village level in developing countries.

But immense new strides in our ability to do something as profoundly central to the human condition as communicate is bound to have its negative implications. We need to be aware that the impact of these miracle communicators, like virtually any technology, can at times be something less than benign.

We must ensure that the information superhighway is open to all. We need to remind ourselves that we exist in a world which is at once part post-industrial and part pre-industrial. Many millions still do not have access to something as basic as a telephone. A computer, a modem and a Web page can seem light years away to the Third World villager.... It is vitally important that the marginalized and impoverished of the global society learn how to make creative use of the new information advances and participate in their development.

When we think, as educators, about what kind of education the 21st century will need, it becomes clear, above all else, that the educated person of tomorrow must be able to retain a global perspective. Which is to say to be ready to value diversity, understand the demands of interdependence, and to be able to adapt to change.

The new electronic communications technologies have the potential to permit contact among the world's educators far beyond anything known in the past. The flood of new information that microelectronic technologies has released is very exciting but it is bound to sorely test existing traditional educational structures and actors. In addition to schools, a number of different institutions - businesses, government agencies and a range of other entities - some still defining themselves have become players in the world of ideas and reaming.

Prediction is always a risky business - and trying to organize our reaming needs around guesses about the future means working within an enormous margin of error. In a rapidly changing global society, hoping to pin down the specifics of what we will need to know 20 years or 40 years down the road is totally unrealistic.

Still, I think one might fairly safely make a few guesses about the coming configurations of international education. I would envision a future world in which educators, of all levels, all cultures, and all parts of the world, engage in a constant and stimulating exchange of ideas and values. Global networking believe, will be the norm in the educational efforts of the 21st century.

It seems to me that our readiness and ability to learn from each other will be key.... What seems clear to me is that knowledge is rapidly becoming the only true international currency. (We) need to mint it cooperatively - for it is a very precious coin.