Cover Image
close this bookDiversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature (IDRC, 1995, 234 p.)
close this folder2. Global trends and their effects on the environment
View the documentThe information revolution
View the documentDevelopment of global financial markets
View the documentDevelopment of more effective transportation networks
View the documentMovement of people
View the documentGlobalization and the unequal distribution of wealth
View the documentInternational migration
View the documentThe development of free markets

The information revolution

The end of the 20th century is characterized by a profound technological revolution that has profound effects on the environment and the socioeconomic state of the world. It has been referred to as the “information age,” the “third wave” (Toffler 1981), and the “post-industrial society” (Bell 1973). I believe the term “information revolution” is more appropriate.

The two major phenomena promoting this revolution are the development and increasing use of computers, which make possible the storage and processing of large volumes of information, and new telecommunications technologies, which permit the transmission of this information over long distances almost instantaneously. This technology is being integrated to produce powerful tools and systems, increasing by several orders of magnitude humankind’s capacity for collective memory and providing a worldwide arena for social interaction. In addition, these systems have become inexpensive, require a small amount of energy and human effort to use, and are becoming more accessible to more and more people all over the world.

The information-telecommunications revolution is generating a “global intelligence” - a computerized neural network with increasing numbers of information producers and users. The producers are not only the public and private institutionalized information packaging and delivery systems, but also scores of smaller groups and individuals with computer terminals and the will to be connected to networks. Consequently, billions of bytes of information are being exchanged every minute among information producers, relay stations, and users and receivers of various kinds.

Along with these advances, and in large measure as a result of them, accessory facilities for production and reproduction of information and ideas, such as photocopiers, home printers, and faxes, have become widely available. Using these resources, many more social groups are now able, even at the local level, to express themselves in new and complex ways - electronic bulletin boards, community newspapers, and local cable television channels. At the national level, too, media are developing locally customized views.

General effects of the information revolution

The global networks provide wider public access to more sources of information than ever before, not only from central information streams, but also from myriad local sources. The possibilities for interaction are multiplying accordingly. Many social contacts are becoming independent of distance, giving rise to a new spectrum of relations that were not previously possible. Internet, the worldwide computer network, currently links more than 20 million users and is growing at a rate of 20% per month! It was built in an extremely democratic fashion, following the basic principles of decentralization, unlimited and total access, and freedom of information (see Elmer-Dewitt 1994). Although it is not yet clear if the Internet will remain a central element of the information age over the long term, it definitely appears that it will continue to play a key role in the development of new social tools of communication for some time to come.

One overall effect of the information revolution appears to be a general democratization of information flow, both at the producer and at the receiver ends, with loss of power by the monopolistic information holders. The increasing availability of knowledge, technical and nontechnical, about how to get things done is particularly important. We assume (and hope) that information networks will remain free of control or censorship by any existing or newly created “information power” as has often been the case in the past.’ Keeping them open is going to be a ongoing global challenge.

The information revolution will probably also result in increasing diversification of expressed points of view and approaches. This diversification effect is critical. In fact, it may be the most effective antidote to the forces of uniformity that are coming into play in the globalized world.

The complex processes of globalization have promoted the development of a mainstream standardized culture that includes not only widespread homogenization of production and consumption systems and patterns, but also greater cultural uniformity, including expression codes, attitudes, and beliefs. The new trend toward diversification and differentiation is building on the flow of information that allows freer expression of alternative perspectives, including those of social minorities and disadvantaged groups who are finding relevant and accessible channels for expressing their opinions and disseminating information.

The creation of new methods for public participation is producing an immense potential for the generation and use of knowledge and innovation at the grass-roots level. Many traditions that had been eliminated, forgotten, or discredited by mainstream culture may now be revived. Traditional knowledge can be rescued, revived, adapted, and sustained.

The more marginalized aspects of complex cultures, often intentionally or by omission wiped out by the forces of standardization, may also stand a chance of survival if enough of their representatives are determined to use these newly developing mechanisms. In all likelihood, meso- and microcultures (as well as subcultures) will survive at a different level than the mainstream culture. The future coexistence of several cultures, on different planes or levels, will likely become more common and important. Smaller, usually weaker cultures should be able to transcend their limited spheres, however, to claim more extended “virtual” territories. People will be able to belong to a specific culture without abandoning their rights as part of the wider standard culture.

The potential of this development is enormous. People will be able to become more homogeneous on one level, but increasingly heterogeneous on another. Meso- and microcultures and nations will no longer disappear under the shadow of a mainstream culture. The industrial nation-state that has arisen through the smothering of less powerful national or local groups will lose its main source of power. Unavoidably, this will lead to fragmentation of power and perhaps instability; but it will surely lead to more and different forms of democratization as well.

Effects on environmental management

Processes that degrade the environment have often developed as a result of central decisions based on the views of powerful groups about how to control or use natural (and human) resources and territory.

Typically the centralized industrial states of the world, local groups are among the least powerful; their environments and cultures are often undermined or destroyed without their being able to do anything about it. The reigning ideology tends to equate almost any transformation of nature with progress and progress with modernization, and assumes that both are desirable. In consequence, local communities must often choose between their immediate convenience, on the one hand, and their long-term welfare, on the other. To make matters worse, they have little accurate information about the potential long-term effects of proposed natural and sociocultural transformations.

Even where communities do not agree with proposed measures, they often have few effective channels through which to communicate their views. The right of communities to define their own destinies has not been properly acknowledged in practice, even when present in policy. In most cases, national decision-makers do not wish to change this situation.

Circumstances may now be changing, however, and, in some cases, radically. Development paradigms are being reexamined, probably because of negative experiences throughout the world and changes in mainstream culture as a result of the early effects of the information revolution. New and alternative approaches are now being considered, typically under the rubric of “sustainable development.”

The information revolution is opening many new channels of communication to local groups in, among other things, the field of environmental management. People are becoming more involved in their communities, better informed about options, and more determined to have a say in their future - be it in devising new development models at the local level, formulating policies on local issues, or advocating decisions at the central level about issues affecting them.

Because of the wide proliferation of more, and more diverse, information, environmental management can no longer be considered the reserve of a few. Now, if authorities want to engage in environmentally unfriendly actions in communities, they must often first convince ombudsmen, local groups, senior citizens, schoolchildren, and women and men of all professions of the positive impact of their projects. In addition, more people are acquiring the means to propose their own solutions, based on both their own traditional and empirical knowledge, which is gradually becoming properly validated, and the scientific and technological knowledge that is becoming increasingly available to all.