Thursday, February 08, 2007

Globalization and the Philippines: "The walls are within us"

Two weeks ago, Dana (a journalist friend from a Japanese wire agency) and me were discussing “globalization” in reaction to Thomas Friedman’s book The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Last Monday, I was surprised to get an email from her detailing some of her recent comments. The points she raised are interesting.

Dear Dave:

1. You said you dream of an information age where information would be readily available to people, so people can improve their lives by making informed decisions. Friedman talks about a world where information is available at the click of a mouse, but my question is, can this be done?

2. Technology has made information available to a lot of people, and it has also kept out a lot of people. But if you think of it, poverty and lack of knowledge are the not only walls we have built. We keep information to ourselves because it is power, and we trade it as we do money.

3. Sometimes, people are afraid to say what they know because they fear persecution, from those who would lose their power if the information were to be publicly known. Sometimes they feel that no one would listen anyway. In our day to day lives, do we readily share information with anyone who would like to know? Or do we check first if the person is worth our trust? If we think of information as dangerous, and believe that even the smallest detail can be twisted and used against us, will we ever come to a time when information will be freely shared?

4. We are the ones who make the technology, we are the ones who build the walls. And we are the ones who choose not to share. For as long as we continue to distrust each other, for as long as we build walls to keep strangers out, we will not have an information age, regardless of the technology. For always there will be some who will be left out, by the walls that have been built.

5. Ursula leGuin, in her novel "Dispossessed," talks of an ideal society, one where they tried not to build walls. There were no laws, no properties, no incentives save the satisfaction of doing the work that one liked and the respect of one's neighbors. There was no religion, no taboos. Sex was not forbidden, and people had no idea of heaven or hell. Yet still they built walls: in their hearts and in their minds, they clung to the ideas they knew, to the comfort of customs and traditions, and tried to keep strangers out. The walls are inside us. We will not be ready to share until we see each other as brothers. So the information age you dream about is not about technology, it is about sharing. And it will come about when we are ready, not when the technology is.

Comments? Reactions? Violence

It seems that these are existential questions whose answers hang in the realm subjective thoughts and feelings. But let me try in my own way.

1. It could be done, why not? But there are certain conditions like the ubiquity of broadband and the greater affordability of these technologies. Policy-wise, we need to open up telecommunications and media industries to greater competition. We need to allow 100 percent media ownership in media. We need to dismantle the oligopoly in these sectors.

2. Poverty and lack of knowledge is somehow one and the same. Many people are poor because they lack access to information and knowledge. When you are information poor, you don’t have a choice. And choice is the essence of development, right? Right. And where do you start? With education, with reforms in telecommunications and media ownership. Some information are actually “free”; notice the proliferation of open source software and user generated content. But there’s really no worry about the trading of information and knowledge. If you could trade and make money from these things, there are more incentives for you to acquire them, process, and sell them as value added contribution to society. Going to school and working as journalist, analyst, or engineer later on are examples of how we trade knowledge and ideas in return for something that we value, be it money, prestige, and power.

3. Information and knowledge per se are always neutral. If someone twists it for certain ends, the solution is only greater openness. That’s how you expose the malicious, the fake, and the plain dimwits. That’s the rationale for encouraging greater competition in the economy. When there are competing sources of information, and greater freedom of the press and information, there are greater chances that those who are manipulating the truth are exposed and pay for it.

4. For me the key word there is choice, as always. People should have the right to give and withhold information, subject to certain legal limitations. But that’s not really a problem. What is crucial is the question whether or not the social dispensation allow such freedoms, whether or not The System allows or bans the technologies that ensures people have access to information that they seek. But mind you, people—as proven by the growth of blogging, Youtube, and social networking like Multiply—would really like to share. It appears to be part of human nature. The Internet it appears is breaking lots of barriers, including distrust.

5. This year’s Time of the Year is “You.” Or “we” who are there transforming information and knowledge through open source, user provided content, etcetera. Isn’t that enough proof that LeGuin is wrong? There would always be people who would try to build walls but these barriers are going to be shattered by the innate desire to share, to reach out, and connect. Yes, the information revolution is really all about connectivity.

I really hope I answered her questions.

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