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- While on one side the US and European techno-elites pose the web as a chimerical solution to inequality in the Third World, on the other hand their opponents use the existence of poverty and inequality in the periphery to deny any serious engagement with the technological practices there.

- The web helps attacking loss-making institutions like universities, but it doesn´t really "westernize" the poor countries because communities tend to communicate first among themselves. And the web doesn´t deepen the gap between the rich and the poor, it has rather inserted itself in existing inequalities. Electronic cultures provide space for thousands left out of official, elite cultures.

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Today the 'grey' market, is the majority of the Indian computer industry

In practice what obtains is a mixture of universalisation

It is nonsense to talk about web-based freedoms ig the vast majority of the population are outside the span of health and literacy

That is so because such cultures adapt to inequality, and thus innovate to survive

"People do not spend all their time in Asia thinking about just food or water. People have desires, they engage with real and imaginary worlds",

an e-mail discussion with Ravi Sundaram

zum Thema: Talking about the World Wide Web nowadays means talking about a new geography. The old categories of the theory of development, the "First and the Third World", don't fit anymore, as the world is a different one today compared with 50 years ago. The "global village" is not least a result of modern communicational technology. But this globalisation (of communication), the fact of living in a "global village", did obviously not bring a better redistribution of wealth to mankind.

So, the Internet seems to be an accelerator for a new geography, where the borders of the cyberspace are more or less the same as those of the social realities: It's the fact of being poor that decides if someone belongs to the PONA, to the "people with no account", those who have to stay east of Cyber-Eden, outside of Cyberspace. So, isn't it useless, if not even absurd, to talk about the democratic and development potentials of the Web without finding realistic solutions against poverty, illiteracy and the lack of basic computer-skills and equipment?

Ravi Sundaram: It seems to me that we must be careful to find an intelligent, critical space vis-à-vis the claims of the new technologies. Most technological transformations in the media were also the time of profound cultural transformations. It is interesting to look at the culture of print-capitalism when it reached the Third (then colonial) world. Print came in the background of near-illiteracy, and worse, was introduced by an oppressive colonial ruler. It was very clear the first beneficiaries of print would be the colonial elites. In the event, as writers such as Ben Anderson have argued, print-cultures actually provided a space to imagine the nation, and mobilise opinion against colonialism.

There is no doubt the web in the Third World will not be accessible to the vast majority of the population for a very, very long time. But that is not the point. The issue is to see the web in its own terms rather than pose the discourse of "solutions". The web is not a solution for anything, such illusions of the California technocracy are very weak.

The problem in the whole debate is a patronising discourse about the Third World in both sides in the debate. While on one side the US and European techno-elites pose the web as a chimerical solution to inequality in the Third World, on the other hand their opponents use the existence of poverty and inequality in the periphery to deny any serious engagement with the technological practices there. From a country like India where inequalities are very violent, but software will soon be the largest export, both positions in the debate are deeply problematic.

zum Thema: The World Bank is talking of the Internet as the "big solution against underdevelopment and poverty" by pretending that the big chance for Third-World-countries should be a "leapfrog", a jump out of their development of an agricultural economy directly into the stage of a knowledge-economy by skipping the stage of industrial development.
The idea of the World Bank's vision is the idea of the rising "information society", where know-how, knowledge and information are called to become the most important economical resource of the 21st. Century; and the Internet, called to be "pure information", is the database of the information-society. How could the vast majority of people in Asia profit from the Internet in order to solve their real daily worries, even if they had the basic abilities to use the data base of the web?

Ravi Sundaram: Very little I am afraid. The problem with such a question is that it has the answer already built into it. The answer to this is that the concept of daily "worries" is very problematic. People do not spend all their time in Asia thinking about just food or water (contrary to Western opinion). People have desires, they engage with real and imaginary worlds. If, as the question poses, everyone has access to the web, there is no doubt that some amount of immersion in web culture would obtain. In this sense, the web would provide some relief, from daily life, and speak to some desires, as I am sure it does in the West.

zum Thema: Do you think, that the Web might support or even enforce the western point of view, the choice of the way of "wise and clever living", the choice of the "most important tools to survive", which, according to Bill Gates, AT&T, IBM and Co, is western information technology?

Ravi Sundaram: The fact is that given the nature of the web and computer culture, the issue in the Third World has gone well outside the policy makers and the trans-national companies. In large countries (India, Brazil, China and a host of others), there is a large pirate electronic sector, which is non-legal and prosperous. Today the 'grey' market, is the majority of the Indian computer industry, and pirate software abounds everywhere. This situation is not something that is conducive either to the states or the multinationals which would prefer more regulation and control. This large pirate culture is crucial when looking at the Third World, particularly in the larger countries. Things are obviously different in Africa and countries where there is no domestic sector, but then the concept of the "Third World" itself is very flawed and makes no gesture towards the differences that exist between countries in the periphery.

zum Thema: There is a risk of neglecting "simple" projects to enforce basic supplies, because the money spent for constructing wells or schools might be used for buying Internet-equipment, hard-, and software. The implementation of the western economical structures, the "free market" with all its consequences like the concentration of capital, the substitution of manual labour etc. is taking place, while the living conditions of the majority of mankind is worsening according to the last UN-report?

Ravi Sundaram: What is interesting is that in the latest IMF restructuring programs in Africa, there have been cases where universities have been shut down to make way for "virtual" universities. Here you have cases of thousands of students deprived of a real education, teachers out of work and ultimately thousands of young people lacking the crucial skills you learn in higher education. Here we see the web as a tool in the hands of trans-national agencies to impose 'austerity' schemes on Third World countries. I see the web as an important part of the IMF strategies to attack "loss-making" institutions like universities and education, arguing for 'virtual' strategies.

zum Thema: Strategies like those might not only accelerate the change of local economical structures, but also the change of local communicational structures. Would you say that the advocates of the "Web for everybody" take the leading role of the western cultural model for granted?

Ravi Sundaram: Some of the postulates by elite web advocates are quite similar to those put out with the advent of print-capitalism, i.e. that it would universalise (in other words 'westernise'), unite etc. In the event that did not happen as foreseen. The world has not shed 'traditions' and religious links through new techno-cultures. On the other hand traditions, both religious and non-religious get inserted and re-invented into new technologies. Communities tend to communicate first among themselves with new media technologies.

What actually happens is more important than what we feel about it. In practice what obtains is a mixture of universalisation and the spread of electronic communities which tend to speak to regional, national and local communities of culture. How this works in different parts of the world is something we need to look at further. To deny the history of universalisation altogether would be silly, it would ignore the history of the spread of modernity. To express scepticism about its claims are of course, justified.

zum Thema: In the early days of the Internet, communication in the cyberspace was running on a very high level between the first, highly qualified members of the cyber-community. So it was to some extend comparable to the intellectual discussions among the citizens of the 18th Century, when education was directly connected to wealth and power. Today it seems, that the structure of the old political system "Having means Knowing means Participating" is reinforced in the cyberspace: Those who don't have anything anywhere in the world also don't have any chance to get sufficient education, and so they will stay being excluded from communicational (= political) participation.

So would you say, that the Web - instead of supporting a kind of "democratisation" of the mass media and the political participation - could deepen the gap between those who have (money, education, access and power) and those who don't have?

Ravi Sundaram: The answer to this is quite simple - inequalities will not rise due to the web. The web simply inserts itself in existing inequalities. Let us not forget there is a rich pirate culture, employing tens of thousands of young people, and providing inexpensive solutions to many sections of the population. The image of blood-sucking multinationals having a free ride in the Third World is closer to memories of the US United Fruit Company in Latin America than existing reality. The fact is people always find ways to resist.

zum Thema: If we took the hypothesis of the "grace of connectivity" for true, I think about a strategy for making the gains of participation available to as many people as possible: Wouldn't it make much more sense to support the participation of mediating knots like NGOs, local organisations and other representatives of basic democratic movements?

I think, that it doesn't make sense to copy the western system of individualism for the cyberspace - with the aim, that everybody must have his own account. By trying this, we would have to ignore the social barriers - money and education. But if everybody who enforces connectivity supported the development of basic social structures, a renaissance of co-operation instead of the western ideology of competition and egoism could come true. I am thinking of using accounts together like a municipal well. I think, that only a kind of communitarian system where selforganizing groups are trying to substitute the growing lack of social, educational and political integration into the national community could make the "global village" a place for everybody. Being integrated in and beyond the cyberspace would be possible.

Without any basic social and democratic organisation on the very lowest level, the simple chance to become connected wouldn't make any sense and doesn't solve any problem at all. By ignoring this, the Internet becomes unmasked as nothing but a tool of the western market to reach customers all over the world - a way to sell high-tech tools, pornography and info-trash. A strategy for making these gains available to as many as possible has to become a strategy for supplying as many people as possible with the very basic things: with water, food, social integration, security and education.
Would you, Prof. Sundaram, agree with that?

Ravi Sundaram: There is no doubt that if the web is made an integral part of issues of security and well-being, as well as democratisation, it would be a failure if issues of basic needs are not addressed. It is nonsense to talk about web-based freedoms if the vast majority of the population are outside the span of health and literacy.

But if the web is separated from the above issues, but seen in its own terms, that is the various concrete electronic cultures that have emerged in the Third World, then, I submit is becomes interesting. That is so because such cultures adapt to inequality, and thus innovate to survive. This is a culture of non-legality and negotiation and provides space for thousands left out of official, elite cultures. It seems to me that it is this that should enter debates on the web in the Third World, particularly in countries where such phenomena have grown.

zum Thema: Thank you very much for this e-mail-discussion.

Ravi Sundaram was born in 1963 and is a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies at Delhi, India. He has written extensively on urban cultures, globalization and electronic space in the periphery. ("About the Brazilianization of India" in Teleopolis.)

"zum Thema:" Nr. 24, 30.12.1998