From Information Society to Global Village of Wisdom? The Role of ICT in Realizing Social Justice in the Developing World

Sirkku Kristiina Hellsten. Information Technology and Social Justice. Editor: Emma Rooksby & John Weckert. Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing, 2007.


Globalization is the catchword of the day, and the worldwide requirement for more direct democracy, good governance and respect for human rights is at the core of the new millennium’s development strategies. In order to fulfill these goals in global social, economic and political cooperation and development, access to information, knowledge and channels of reciprocal communication are of critical importance. Globalization of economy has been made possible and further expands through the business applications of the Internet and other information and communication technologies. The latest information and communication technology (ICT), which can be used for fast creation, acquisition, storage, dissemination, retrieval, manipulation and transmission of information, could greatly help the marginalized, less affluent countries to benefit from the positive side of globalization and to help them promote local and global democracy and participate more efficiently in the global economy. ICT could provide us powerful means for sharing our global prosperity. However, presently the trends of economic globalization have not led to either to more equal local and global access either to ICT or to the information it transfers. Instead, the Information Age has led to what has come to be called the digital divide between the affluent and the poor, the connected and disconnected, the developed and less developed (Sarrocco, 2002; Warschauer, 2003; Young, 2003).

Despite the fact that new telecommunication technology undeniably has advanced rapidly and more and more people around the globe have today direct access to it and to the information it conveys, there are still vast regions in the world which have either no access or very limited access to these new means of communication and information exchange. The limited access is due to various structural, distributive, economic and political problems that have prevented the equal spread of modern technology, as well as its efficient implementation across the world. Some of these obstacles can be overcome through better and fairly planned distributive and implementation policies. Many of these places without access to the latest ICT may, in fact, have very restricted means for even local, let alone global, connections through more traditional information channels such as mail, newspapers and books, telephone, television, and radio. On the other hand, in many parts of the third world even those affluent and materially well developed countries, which now have access to the ICT, have not succeeded in using new technology internally and internationally to consistently promote national benefit, human well-being and the common good. Instead the technology available and the information it provides are still mostly shared by elites, the already influential, affluent and educated sections of the population. The poor and illiterate, and those in acute need, tend to remain beyond the information reach; local, and particularly rural, development and quality of life gain very little from the new technology.

This chapter focuses on two interrelated issues: firstly, it analyzes the relationship between new information technology and the values and ideals that are attached to its use and application. In this context, this chapter will study the relationship between information, knowledge and power in relation to the ideals of the “knowledge society” and what could be called the “global village of wisdom.” It argues that in global ICT policies there is a need to pay more attention to the realization of human resources and well-being in the development, use and distribution of ICT. In the existing politico-philosophical frameworks, this would mean a shift from the neo-liberal market economy towards the promotion and realization of human capabilities as presented by the capability approach to human well-being constructed by Amartya Sen (1985, 1993, 2001) and Martha Nussbaum (1987, 1992, 1993).

Secondly, the chapter takes a look at the theoretical and practical obstacles that have prevented the developing countries, particularly in Africa, from fully benefiting from the enormous possibilities provided by the new ICT in relation to human capabilities and better standards of living. It will examine how the local and global digital divide between the information-rich and information-poor is created and maintained by international information and technology markets, as well as by political ambitions. Finally the chapter considers the role of culture and tradition in adoption, allocation and use of new technology.

Information vs. Knowledge Society: Ideals and Practice

The developments in new information and communication technology are in general taken to suggest not only efficiency, convenience and productivity but also utopian possibilities—new fortunes to be made, new careers and new lifestyles and, above all, progress that entails revolutionary democracy and increasing equality. This means that, particularly in the West, new information technology is usually seen to provide us with a fast, vast and environmentally friendly “information superhighway” that gives everybody across the world direct access to the sources of influence and the centers of power. In the most optimistic dreams, the possibilities brought to us by technological advancement are believed to mean the actualization of “a global village” which eventually leads us to a new age of wisdom which promotes democratic participation and social justice.

While this utopian ideal of information age may be shared by many ICT enthusiasts, there is no one agreed model of the information society that serves as the standard for sustainable and desirable development. Instead, the significance of the Information Age is that it is a global, diverse and multicultural reality. Thus, in order to realize the utopian visions and ideals, there is an urgent need to clarify further how the values we are striving for can be related to practice in various economic, political and cultural circumstances, as well as in globalization of ICT markets themselves. If we are to use the new information technology in order to strive for what we could consider as the ideal of the “knowledge society,” we need to reflect on the values involved in the developmental realities in various global and local contexts.

Before that we need to clarify the values involved in the information utopias by making a clear distinction between what we have come to call “information society” and what we could call a “knowledge society,” which, in an international context, could be also extended into a “global village of wisdom,” based on the maximum use of not only physical, but also—and maybe particularly—intellectual and moral human capabilities.

Theoretically, I base this ideal of a “global village of wisdom” on the theoretical framework of the capability approach introduced by Amartya Sen (1990, 1992, 1999) and Martha Nussbaum (1987, 1992, 1993). The capability approach defends the moral appropriateness of the concept of well-being measured in terms of valuable human functioning and capability. More generally, it concentrates on our freedom to promote objectives we have reason to value, such as democracy, human rights and equality. According to Sen and Nussbaum, human capabilities that define human well-being, and should be the goal of development and distribution, are first—such basic capabilities as life and health. Second are capabilities relating to integrity, thought, emotions, practical reason, affiliation/participation, control over one’s fate/environment. There are extensive studies on the capability approach in development. This chapter, however, does not try to analyze or criticize Sen’s or Nussbaum’s arguments in detail, but rather to search for ways of applying the capability approach as a criterion for a fair distribution of ICT in the global context. The reason for this choice of approach is that my main aim is to look for alternative approaches to global distribution and implementation of ICT. While problems in using a capability approach are important to take into account, the space available in this chapter does not allow me to go into these in detail, but leaves them to the critical reader’s further assessment.

Using a capability approach as a normative ethical framework for distribution and implementation of ICT means that we need to reconsider the role of ICT in relation to what people can do with the new technology or what the technology can do for them in different cultural, political and economic settings, and geographic or environmental conditions, rather than assume that technological development has some intrinsic value, as the most eager proponents of information society appear to assume. Thus, if the distribution and implementation of global ICT policies would set the realization of human capabilities and the formulation of human capital at the core of ICT strategies, the presently digitally marginalized populations need not only to get access to necessary technology but also to gain the means to process the information available into knowledge that empowers them to participate actively and democratically in local, national and international development. Today, however, both the technology, and the data, information, intelligence, ideas, facts and figures it transfers, are often considered as commodities that are to be bought, sold and traded in expanding markets, rather than as basic goods in the Rawlsian sense (Castells & Himanen, 2002, pp. 2-3; Stovel, 1984).

Commercialization of information and knowledge is based on neo-liberal or libertarian market rationality that focuses on economic and technological development. It tends to pay less attention to the wider and more even realization of human capital and human capabilities in local and global contexts. ICT and information trade is then, in many senses, the final result of the Information Age transition from an industrial economy to information economy, in which information itself is seen as raw material. The latest ICT, for its part, can provide not only the means of production, but also its own markets. Technological means, know-how and access to information will then shape the characterization of nations by digital divide as either (information-) rich or (information-) poor, and their categorization accordingly as developed or underdeveloped. This division, however, in most cases tends to be based on the physical access to ICT rather than on political, social and economic benefits of such technology (Jimba, 1999, pp. 79-83; Warschauer, 2003; Young, 2003).

If we want instead strive for the ideal of a “knowledge society” or “global village of wisdom,” we need to see both technology and information as essential instruments in realizing the various human resources that they themselves can be used to develop each nation culturally, and in a locally sustainable manner. Information and communication technology could play a central role in realizing this ideal, but only if more attention is paid to the development of human capabilities and social, political and economic inclusion that can be realized with the help of the new technologies. At the moment the focus, however, tends to be on the advancement of technology itself and the markets of technology, rather than on the use of technology to improve the worldwide, reciprocal access to all markets.

IT: Means for Development or an End of Development

The millennium development goals emphasize good governance, human rights, democracy and social justice. In order for these goals to be convincing, they are to be striven for in both the local and the global context. While the gap between developed and developing countries has been gradually narrowing, the least developed countries (LDCs), still often marginalized in (local) technological development, are failing to catch up with ICT and, thus, are bypassed by its benefits. ICT, for its part, is directly related to both national and international development, because ICT brings the means to communicate beyond the interpersonal level and makes geographical distances between continents and states disappear. Since ICT today goes far beyond mass media communication and offers possibilities for change, knowledge and new perspectives on development, it permits rapid dissemination of ideas, values and processes, supplements education, science, health care, culture and, above all, economic interaction and markets. It provides the potential for two-way exchanges of information to learn what people really need, and to manage resources and data to facilitate the production and distribution of prosperity and wealth. Thus, while it is evident that ICT clearly cannot be used to solve all the problems of developing countries, it represents a potential that can be used to actualize human resources and human well-being in the form of capabilities within less affluent countries (Annan, 2003; Stover, 1984, p. 3).

If information age policies emphasized the realization of human capabilities, there would be a need to make a clear distinction between the concepts of information, knowledge and wisdom in our strategic plans and policies. The capability approach attempts to give human well-being a content that goes beyond rights and rational choice. Instead it focuses on the basic human condition by defining well-being in terms of valuable human “functionings” and capabilities that make our (ability to make) any choices possible (Nussbaum, 1992, pp. 202-246; Crocker, 1992, pp. 589-590; Sen, 1992, 2001). This approach moves from mere technical protection of rights to the promotion of “human flourishing” by defending the moral appropriateness of the holistic concept of human well-being measured in terms of human capabilities. Thus, our rights, as well as our responsibilities, should be set in a context that increases our capabilities and promotes various human functionings—in a teleological sense, as the human beings that we (essentially) are. Thus, human capabilities provide fundamental moral categories for the evaluation of resource distribution that goes beyond protection of rights or satisfaction of needs and sets human beings in a wider social context. The capability approach then concentrates on our freedom to promote objectives we have reason to value, such as participation/democracy, human rights and the value of equality. According to Sen and Nussbaum human functionings and capabilities define human well-being and, thus, can be seen as the goal of distribution of social and material resources—in the end these resources include our moral and legal rights. By human functionings, they mean a person’s physical and mental states or “beings” and activities or “doings.”

There are many extensive studies on the capability approach in development, as well as critical analysis of some of its problems. In this chapter my purpose, however, is not to reintroduce or criticize Sen’s or Nussbaum’s arguments in detail or to point out theoretical differences and dispute between the two. Instead, I am searching for ways of applying the capability approach as a basis for a model for an ethical justification, where fewer of the needed resources and commodities can sometimes be better than their abundance, depending on their proper use for realizing human capabilities. In their search for a foundation for an ethic, Nussbaum and Sen both reject an “externalist” account that would depend on a metaphysical or scientific realism that purports to give, as Crocker has stated, a “God’s eye view” of the way things, including humans, are in themselves. Sen and Nussbaum suggest that what we need instead is an “internalist” foundationalism. This, in part, means that we start digging from within human experience and discourse to find the things that we do and should count as intrinsically worthwhile in our human lives. We must ask what are the things that are so important that, without them, we would not count a life as a human life. This allows us to move from objective value statements on the value of human life to the value of human functionings and capabilities.

Thus, despite various criticisms presented against the capability approach, the value statements regarding human capabilities can still be considered fairly objective and universal in a sense that they are valid for all human beings, since basically all rational humans consider their capabilities and well-being valuable—no matter how they might otherwise react to cultural differences and/or difference in resources and to the various rights-based distributive frameworks for resources. In relation to the ICT, it then requires us to consider not only the distribution of resources but also the overall capabilities that can be realized with these resources.

Democracy, Wisdom, and Information

In political philosophy, modern pluralistic democracy, particularly when described as a reciprocal social contract between morally autonomous, rational and reasonable individuals who rule themselves in their own interests and by their own considerations, values and decisions. This description leaves the individual participants in a context based on self-interest and promotion of one’s own benefits. However, working democracy should be based on decision-making and self-government of enlightened citizens. This enlightenment is possible only if the decision-makers have a chance to realize all their human potential, that is, all their human capabilities.

This definition is not often an accurate picture of political reality, but it does give us the abstract ideal of modern democracy that we are hoping to realize in practice in our societies (Weinberger, 1995, p. 218). The formula of democracy can then be stated as follows: a functioning democracy presupposes a form of political liberty that realizes human capabilities in a manner that guarantees the participation of enlightened citizen in public matters. An enlightened citizen is not the same as a knowledgeable or well-learned citizen. A moral agent with full human capabilities differs from a mere self-interested and rational decision-maker who attempts to maximize his or her personal benefits (Clark, 2000, p. 84; Weinberger, 1995, pp. 218-222). Political liberty postulates freedom of individual will and the individual’s own commitment to use this will to promote good—not merely the promotion of one’s own good, but also the good of society in a form of sustainable and democratic development. Freedom of individual will, for its part, postulates a capacity for critical reasoning as well as knowledge of the options and alternatives available. This means that “knowledge search” has to go hand in hand with “knowledge use,” which should, in turn, aim for wisdom.

One of the first steps towards solving some of the problems of the world’s poorest countries is to find a way towards more democratic governance. ICT can play a central role in enhancing democracy if it is used to disseminate information freely, to provide open communication channels for mutual dialogue and unrestricted participation, and to enhance the responsiveness and accountability of those in public positions. However, in this context its use has to be tied to the realization of human capabilities at several levels. This means that in global ICT policies we need not merely focus on distribution of technology to those who have not previously had access to it, but we also need to pay attention to the use of technology—both in the form of training as well as in its content and goals.

This is a vicious circle. The democratic ideal does not work unless it gets the support of enlightened citizens. Ignorant, uneducated or merely self-interested leaders and citizens can use technology for counter-productive purposes and for their personal benefit rather than for the promotion of public good and public interest, all with are part of overall capabilities of human kind. Thus, ICT should be considered as the means to realize the essential human capabilities (from basic capabilities, to life and health in general, to more the complex combination of practical and theoretical reasoning, moral agency and social participation) needed to build and maintain any democratic process. It should not be seen as merely a means for participation. Participation without commitment to the democratic values of freedom, equality, moral autonomy and tolerance does not lead to social wisdom.

In order to understand the role of ICT in today’s globalized world, we need to pay more attention to the complex relationship between knowledge, wisdom, democracy and power, as well as to the relationship between human capabilities and individual citizens’ political (and moral) agency. A proper place to start is the relationship between the concepts of “information” and “knowledge.” According to the classical Platonic definition, knowledge is a true, justified belief. By this very definition knowledge is given some intrinsic, positive value, that is, it is considered to be both justified and true. The same value judgment does not apply to what we call information. In fact, the value of information depends on what we do to change it into knowledge and wisdom. Information can be relevant or irrelevant; it can be honest or dishonest; it can be straightforward or misleading; it can be entertaining or educating. In other words, it can be justified or unjustified, true or false. Also information coming from different directions can feed our beliefs, but, in order to test or justify these beliefs, we usually need interactive, critical dialogue with others.

The relationship between information and knowledge can be summarized as follows: knowledge is information that is produced by our critical reasoning and tested by our communicative actions. Knowledge is then always more than pieces of information that are distributed in the media and computer networks. The idea of knowledge includes the human ability to produce and process information and judge its validity with the help of social dialogue. However, in the Information Age the very concept of knowledge has become more and more directly embodied in new technology. Thus, its usefulness appears to depend increasingly on the context of its application. This means that the production of knowledge is no longer centralized in the institutions of science and research or the media, but rather in the institutions with political and economical power. The focus on the acquisition, access and use of knowledge has become instrumental in economic and political activities. It is less often seen to be the intrinsic part of global human capital formulation that promotes well-being by helping to realize human capabilities in various circumstances (Clark, 2000, p. 84; Castells & Himanen, 2002).

Knowledge, Power, and Democracy

From the earlier-noted analysis of ICT in distribution of information and in production of knowledge, we can move to the relationship between knowledge and power. Because of its influence and usefulness for us, knowledge is also often equated with social power. In practice this is still the case in most parts of the world. With knowledge we can control not only our own but other people’s lives; we can get authority over those who know less. This authority we can use either to dominate or to serve our communities. Thus, the obstacles—whether these are technological, economic, political, or cultural—in the way of the free flow of information are also obstacles in realizing human capital and human capabilities.

The main obstacle is related to the gain and use of power, which, for its part, is directly related to the concept of knowledge. Knowledge as power has traditionally held an intrinsically positive value. However, those who have access to and control of knowledge, and know how to apply it, can use the power knowledge gives them either in a positive and constructive way, or in a negative and destructive way, in regard to the ideals we have set for ourselves. We can use power to suppress and control others by keeping them in ignorance, or we can use it to pass on and share information and to promote individual freedom and democratic practices. If power and authority are used wisely, both developing and post-industrial countries can recognize the ideal of enlightened democracy that realizes the wide variety of human capabilities equally, locally and globally.

Thus, when and if information is turned into knowledge and knowledge into power, there is still no guarantee of equal and just political order. This is because democracy can work only if a nation’s leaders and citizens use their personal social power with wisdom. Wisdom, however, is often difficult to come by in a modern market-led information age—regardless of whether we are talking about post-industrialized or developing countries. Wisdom, after all, does not follow directly from our access to information, from our capability to turn this information into knowledge, or from the power this knowledge gives us. Wisdom is a result of the development of the moral and social consciousness that integrates our intellectual capacities with our ethical outlooks and with our sense of justice, which is related to understanding the responsibility that comes with knowledge that is turned into power. Because the ideal of modern pluralist democracy is generally defined as the self-government of rational and reasonable autonomous moral and political agents, just as there is no knowledge without “knowers,” there is no working democracy without wise and morally responsible citizens, whether at the grass-roots or the leadership level. Therefore, if we set full realization of human capabilities in all their forms as our goal, any discussion of development of a global knowledge society that is based on the more efficient and equal use of ICT cannot be detached from the civic, professional and ethics education.

Free Markets and Global Ethics

If human capabilities as the basis for increasing well-being were to be the goal of the ICT distribution, advancement, access and use, there would be a need to change the focus from business and economic benefits to education and civil participation. This does not apply merely to developing countries, but also to affluent information societies. Participation in global democracy does not follow directly from the number of Internet or mobile connections, though having them available naturally helps the process. As Warschauer (2003) has noted, access to technology does not guarantee its efficient or beneficial use. Thus, the practical problem is that the prevailing information society policies seldom follow the formula of democracy or pay enough attention to the human capabilities that are to be realized by and for democracy. They too often disregard the fact that the data that is disseminated and stored in information networks and in new media can be processed into knowledge and wisdom only by critical and autonomously developed human reasoning.

While access to relevant information has a central role in the globalized economy and profitable markets, free-market practice, civic education and democratic ideals do not always go hand in hand, particularly when technological advancement and information resources often do not reach those who need them most and would benefit from them most. Instead, free markets tend to enforce the development of information society and lead to the marginalization of groups of people in a manner that prevents all citizens from realizing their capabilities as rational, moral and political agents in the first place. If the distribution and use of ICT is left to the care of the invisible hand of market forces, the resulting society will tend to be fragmented by egoistic pursuits and self-interest. The division to the haves and the have nots, that is those who have access to technology and information and know how to use it for their benefit and those who are left to be socially and politically even more disconnected from the centers of power, knowledge and influence than they were before (Gauthier, 1986, pp. 11-30; Rawls, 1972, pp. 3-22, 54-81; NAME, 1993, pp. 11-39; Reiman, 1990, pp. 25-29; Weinberger, 1995, p. 218).

One main problem is that often technology is itself offered as a cure to the economic marginalization. Improved economy, for its part, is regularly needed in order to get into the technology markets. Thus, there appears to be no direct connection between globalized information economy and global justice. Instead, people, particularly in affluent countries, who have access to all the information channels possible are not using the information they receive, or the knowledge they process out of this information, to share their prosperity and abundant resources any more equally and in a way that will diminish global suffering. The fact that we can now, through satellite connection of television, radio, mobile phones and the Internet, get information more easily, more quickly and more accurately about any natural disasters, famines, victims of war and conflict, sufferers of diseases, or about any human agony that happens anywhere in the world, has not radically increased our solidarity or changed our habits in sharing our prosperity with those who are in urgent need and/or live in absolute poverty. The question then remains: if we cannot use the new ICT to take up our global responsibilities in affluent countries, how can we expect this technology to bring about local equality in the form of shared power and other essential resources in the underprivileged countries which have much fewer resources available, much poorer infrastructure, less efficient and inclusive educational systems, and limited civic participation? If we are not using ICT to enhance human capabilities at the local or global level, it can become a part of the problem rather than a solution for world inequality.

Global Obstacles: Prospects and Problems in Internet Use

Knowledge is still power in the hands of a few—globally as well as locally speaking. Knowledge and know-how guarantees power and influence also in international relations. International dialogue and the free flow of information both play a vital role in local and global social, political and economic development. Thus, new ICT could help us to increase efficiency and productivity, improve democracy and promote human rights. Access to new information and telecommunication technology could be used to empower the poorest and the weakest by helping them to connect with each other, share their problems and find solutions together and empower them economically and politically (Annan, 2003; Heldman, 1994, pp. 328-330; Hudson, 1997, pp. 179-205; Sarrocco, 2002; UNESCO, 2002; Williams, 1991, pp. 38-50; Wresch, 1996, pp. 23-91). Since people no longer have to travel physically in order to communicate, exchange essential information, share knowledge or participate in different types of decision-making processes, we now have a realistic and unique chance to establish a global village of wisdom and social justice. At present, however, despite some positive development and the ambitious information society strategy papers with their global ethical guidelines and public rhetoric on social responsibility, the “information gap” and “digital divide” between industrialized and developing nations, and between the rich and poor in general is widening further (Annan, 2003; Gore, 1995; European Union, 1995 & 1997–2002; Sarrocco, 2002; UNDP, 2001; World Bank, 1999). Instead of providing essential channels of interactive communication to those who need it most, new information technology is still for the most part connecting those who are better off and better connected to start with. Simultaneously in many parts of the world, the worst-offs have become even more disconnected from the centers of influence, power and resources (Heldman, 1994, pp. 264-265).

Even in this information age, many of those who are living in isolated rural areas around the Third World have never read a book let alone a newspaper. About half of the world’s population has never made a telephone call. Once again markets play an essential part in this inequality. For instance, in a poor nation local publication is minor, because production costs are high compared to those in industrialized countries. Paper prices are high, because most of the paper has to be imported; printing costs are high because all local presses are small and slow; editorial expenses are high because few people have editorial or design experience. While costs are high, sales are small and profits practically non-existent. The problems are similar with telephone services. For instance, in Africa, still the poorest continent, the cost of getting a phone line and making telephone calls is, in absolute terms, higher and, in relative terms, extravagantly higher than in the United States or in Europe. And even if one could get access to a telephone line and could afford to pay for the calls, it is not always possible to get an open line when wanted. Reasons for this are due to criminality (bugging of phone lines, looting of copper wire, cutting of cables, corruption with licenses and billing) and erroneous technology (Hudson, 1997, pp. 182-183).

Statistics also show that even if the know-how and technology are already there and there are some signs of change, the distribution of the latest telecommunication technology is globally and locally still very uneven. In 1996 about 700,000 people in Africa had access to the Internet, which meant that Tokyo had almost twice as many telephones lines than the whole African continent. The number of lines has rapidly grown; during 2000, sub-Saharan Africa passed the threshold of one telephone per 100 inhabitants. In the same year, all African countries achieved connection to the Internet. According to a report by the UN Information and Communication Technologies Task Force (UNICT) in September 2002, the proportion of Africans with Internet access rose by 20% between January 2001 and 2002. However, altogether only 0.2% of Africa’s population has Internet access, and the lack of infrastructure and affordability has centralized these connections in the bigger cities and business centers. In Tanzania, for instance, the best connectivity is essentially in Dar es Salaam, Arusha, Moshi, Mwanza and Zanzibar, all of which are centers of business, tourism and international events. Government institutions are still the most backward in connectivity. Many local government offices in smaller towns have no Internet, fax, mobile, or even fixed line connections.

The increase in the Internet use in Africa does not match the proliferation of mobile phones on that continent, mainly because of the lack of fixed line technology. More Africans possess mobile phones than fixed line telephones, making the continent one of the very few regions in the world where this is the case. As a result of the mobile explosion, dilapidated fixed line infrastructure has suffered further as many governments and companies believe that the continent can skip the fixed line era and move straight into the mobile age. While mobile connections can help to expand access to the Internet in the long term, it makes access to the Internet more difficult in the short term. Mobile connections in third world countries are still unreliable, very slow for Internet use, and relatively very expensive (Ford, 2003, p. 52; Parker, 2001).

Another option for wider Internet access and use would be to design computers that can be used away from electricity distribution grids. Such technology would enable potential users to bypass the inefficiencies of downstream power grids. Some initiatives are already beginning to put the concepts of non-grid dependent PCs into the Mtabila refugee camp in Tanzania, where people have been given access to the Internet as a result of a new source of electricity generation. The camp lies well away from the existing Tanzanian power distribution grid, so power is being generated using methane gas produced by fermented cow dung. However, there are no signs yet that computers powered by solar energy, for instance, are to be widely available in the near future (Ford, 2003, pp. 53-54; Sarrocco, 2002).

All in all, the mobile phones and other telecommunication devices available are still very unevenly distributed both globally and locally. In poor developing countries, it is mostly only the wealthy people who have access to new information technology and telecommunication services. The gaps are even greater between urban and rural areas. For instance, in Africa there are almost three times as many fixed telephone lines per 100 people in the largest city of the lower-middle-income countries than there are in their rural areas, and more than seven times as many lines per 100 people in the largest city of the low-income countries as there are in their rural areas. These gaps are even more significant given the fact that more than 50% of the population, and as much as 80% in the poorest countries of the world, lives in rural regions (Ford, 2003, pp. 52-54; Hudson, 1997, pp. 180-181; Kyaruzi, 2003, p. 8).

Thus, obstacles in access to information and knowledge, which are related to the global economic inequalities, are also connected to local conditions. In most parts of the developing world, the very same obstacles that we could overcome with the help of new information technology are the ones that prevent its widespread use in the poor parts of the world. Geographic isolation with no reliable means of transportation, lack of infrastructure, together with ignorance and poverty, mean that there are very few people who could use even the traditional communication channels, let alone the new technology. This means that providers must charge exorbitant fees to make up for their high investment costs. Because most private companies have to play according to the rules of market rationality, service providers are locked in charging higher prices in regions where there are fewer customers and where connections are more difficult to establish. Therefore, the use of new technology such as the Internet or cellular phones in much of Africa remains limited to a minuscule elite, often consisting mainly of foreigners or others who can afford the relatively high costs. This keeps demand low, which means lack of competition and little interest from private investors, which, in turn, keeps the prices unaffordable to the wider public at the grass-roots level.

What makes the situation even more difficult is the fact that not only is information technology and its allocation led by market forces, but information has itself turned into a commodity one has to pay for. The more valuable the information is the more people are willing to pay for it. This, once again, results in a market mechanism that makes it certain that the poor have even less chance of obtaining the most wanted and vital information. In summary, the vicious circle is created by lack of infrastructure, unfavorable regulatory environment, high pricing, and an uncompetitive market structure, which cannot be broken without decisive intervention that focuses on the realization of human capabilities rather than the invisible hand of the globalized economy.

Good Fellows’ Networks: Membership of the Global Village

One of the cruder ironies of the Information Age is that rich people get their information practically free, while poor people pay dearly for every morsel, be it a telephone call, a newspaper, a drive to the store, postal services or use of the Internet (Wresch, 1996, pp. 117-136; World Bank, 1999). Thus, the vast majority of information and communication channels are still today accessible only to those who live in the industrialized world, or in the prosperous urban centers of the developing countries. Access to information and communication all around the world remains elitist, since our virtual membership of the “global village” may make us close our eyes to the injustice just outside our own doors.

Thus, ironically enough, the new communication technology that was to be used to connect people with each other has created a digital divide, which actually often efficiently “disconnects” many from the problems of their own societies. A large part of the information people receive in developing countries through such international channels as the Internet, cable and satellite broadcast, fax and telephone lines, mobile The information they receive can be quite one-sided, and sometimes even biased. It presents the views and lifestyles of those who rule the commercial markets, entertainment industry, news media—that is, the views of the financial, political and industrial powers, mostly, those of the North and the West. Movies, television, international news agencies and publishers and the Internet all spread information that originates in the Western world, especially in the United States. This means that the information received in the developing world is often very limited in its scope. It is not an exaggeration to say that, for the better-off who live in urban centers of many developing countries, it is often easier to know what is happening on the other side of the world than to find out what is happening in the slums or villages just a few miles away from them.

While the developed countries rhetorically demand that developing countries support the free flow of information, they evidently do not mean that information is going to be cost-free for them. Neither do they mean that information is free to flow in any direction (Wresch, 1996, pp. 117-136; Ford, 2003, pp. 52-53). After all, if we seem to live in a particularly productive time in the history of science, there is a wide division of those who are admitted in the global science community. Countries of the industrialized world do not pay much attention to scientific and research done in the developing world, unless they are involved in that research or are giving funding for particular research projects. Local scientists working in local universities without international financial support or connection networks have a much harder time in getting their results published internationally than do many of their Western colleagues. Consequently, when their work does not get international recognition, it easily loses its chance to be further developed. Information from developing countries that could be spread to the important research centers of the world and processed further into important knowledge that in the end could benefit everyone is often partially disregarded (Wresch, 1996, pp. 79-91). Only if it is regarded more fully could it consistently contribute to the realization of human capabilities and a holistic view of well-being. When information is used merely commercially or as technical means for information production, the goals of wisdom and full human development are set aside or ignored.

Thus, it appears that many Western countries have maintained their role not only as technological or economic advisers, but also as “intellectual advisers” and “the sources of proper knowledge.” Instead of looking for equal partnership, the industrialized world tends to tell the third world how to do things, to put conditions on aid and give or take information it sees as suitable for its own purposes. As a result lots of important local knowledge is wasted and lost.

Local Obstacles: Local Politics and Ambitions

In addition to the unequal distribution of information technology and information itself, there are other local cultural and political obstacles that prevent us from turning the information society into a global community of wisdom and that further widen the global gap between “the information privileged” and “the information beggars.”

While new communication technology could provide citizens a channel to get involved in public matters and policy decisions, the ruling elite of many developing countries use this technology merely for their own purposes and for their own personal benefit. This is often due to authoritarian political orders in which the head of the state (or the ruling elite) declares a country a democracy. In reality, however, “politics of no choice” is practiced. Often there is only one serious political party and policy line and no real room for opposition. In this one-party “illiberal” democracy, the distinction between party and the state (or government or regime) is blurred and corruption, bribery and nepotism become common problems. The ruling elite lack the links to the problems of most of the society, particularly to those of rural populations. Nor do they encourage citizen involvement in public matters.

The only real citizen involvement in governance of a nation is often through taxes. The governments of many developing countries originally set high taxes on the new information and communication industry, basing these taxes on the attitude that the latest information technology is a luxury rather than a necessary and integral part of overall development. The tendency to prioritize basic services, such as building roads, educational facilities and health care units, sometimes disregards the possibilities that new communication technology could have in establishing these very services more quickly and more efficiently. However, it should be noted here that recently changes in this attitude have been evident and that taxing of ICT has become more customer friendly.

Nevertheless, earlier taxing policies have influenced the slow progress in nationwide adoption, distribution and use of ICT in the developing countries. For instance in Tanzania the rate of import duty on information technology accessories used to be the highest in East Africa, because computers were for a long time considered as luxury items rather than an integral part of setting up a working infrastructure in all fields of development. The heavy taxing made most Tanzanians unable to buy computers privately, and this led to a digital class divide in society. Even today many local educational institutions, including those that specialize in the use of new computer technology, have to wait until someone donates them the technology (often already out-dated or short-lived and unable to give students up-to-date know-how or access to the most advanced information/data/media resources). High taxes also prevented many computer centers from registering themselves officially. The result of this was usually inferior teaching and/or high fees. Import duty on a computer was, only a couple of years ago, 20% of its value, and a further 20% was charged for value-added tax. As well as these taxes, international shipping costs had to be paid. Thus, in the United States, one of the richest industrialized countries, a new computer can be sold at US$1000 or even less, while in poor countries like Tanzania the price of the same computer is almost double, unless you settle for an out-dated model or used computer (Heldman, 1994). However, the heavy taxes on ICT do not prevent foreign residents and big businesses from obtaining the latest technology—usually tax exempt. In Tanzania the situation has recently changed with tax policy change and with the recognition that ICT is an essential element in the overall development of the country and not merely a luxury commodity (Mutula, 2001, 2002).

In many other developing countries with stricter authoritarian political order there are other coarser reasons for the heavy taxes and high prices on new technology. Some rulers simply prefer to keep most of the citizens ignorant and uneducated in order to secure their own position and power. History has shown that most of the totalitarian regimes take very tight measures to control information and citizen communication. In many third world countries, for instance, there has been a tendency to protect existing power structures and hierarchies by limiting access to information and by suppressing the capabilities to process information into useful knowledge. As long as the citizens believe in their own “underdevelopment,” social and political hierarchies can be maintained. Official documents are stamped confidential, secret, for limited distribution, depending on who we think deserves and has the right “to know” about particular issues. Information that is distributed widely is often trivial, misguided or unclear. For example, in various African countries the passing and distribution of information has turned out to be one of the biggest obstacles in developing “good governance” and participatory democracy.

People in positions of power and influence are protecting their authority by blocking, distorting and censoring information so that people’s capabilities are not sufficiently realized so that they can efficiently and plausibly evaluate government actions, functions of state institutions and policies, monitor business management, and, in general, demand their rights, recognize their duties or complain about the misuse of power. Thus, the idea of an information “revolution” can be directly related to political revolution, which may not be appealing to many leaders. Instead, information and knowledge, with the help of the new technology, can be used to cover up corrupt activities that increase rather than decrease global and local inequality (Mutula, 2001, 2002). After all, when people do not know what is happening around them and when they are not informed about the abuses of political power, or if they do not understand how the political system works, they are much easier to control and keep satisfied. People who are disconnected from the outside world are less likely to stand up for their rights, fight against injustice and demand political change. One central question is then—while there were increasing technical possibilities for e-democracy, would the cultural and political context welcome wider participation and more open and transparent politics? Here again, in relation to the capability approach, new directions in national policies would help to find such a focus. When people participate and can more fully realize the capabilities they have, the leaders themselves learn to understand the benefits that democratic regime can bring to the whole society, and not feel threatened by giving power to people rather than hanging on to it as long as they can.

Culture and Tradition

All the previous text is at least partly related to the attempts of many countries to maintain their cultural independence and to avoid what they consider to be the negative effects of globalization. In some cases governments set restrictions and censorship on the Internet, since these are seen to import the culture of globalization, consumerism and Western individualism. In contemporary Iran, for example, while the use of Internet is encouraged up to a degree and its possibilities are seen as positive for the spread of the Islamic culture and ideology, the sites that are considered to pass on Western propaganda, moral deterioration or otherwise culturally or politically harmful materials and information are blocked and access to them is denied.

In relation to this, it is evident that in addition to economics and politics, culture plays an important role in development and in the adoption of new technology. Some cultures are more recipient to change and promote technical progress, while others are more oriented towards traditional wisdom. According to well-known philosopher from Ghana, Kwasi Wiredu, this is no accident. Instead, it is due to the cultural differences in worldviews and attitudes towards technology and mechanics. Wiredu (1980) notes that, for many African communities, development does not often mean merely the acquisition of sophisticated technology and material benefits; it also means searching for the intellectual and social conditions that will permit internal, positive freedom for human beings in the form of self-realization. In their search for self-development many African peoples simply do not care about new technology. When development is seen as self-development, learning about mechanical and technological details loses its importance. This is almost the opposite of the Northern view, which conceives development as external rather than internal progress. On the other hand, there has been some local resistance to modernization in a sense that it is seen to be a sign of further cultural colonization of developing countries.

These differences in attitudes are, at least in part, based on very distinctive intellectual traditions and value systems. If we make some very wide generalization, we could note that the Northern and Western countries have, at least ever since the Enlightenment, had a very individualist, atomistic and mechanistic world-view, which has traditionally equated a human being with a machine. Many non-Western cultures, for their part, have more collectivist value systems which emphasize social harmony and communal interdependency, with understanding of the wholeness of the universe and our social interdependence. In the Western individualist culture the emphasis on reason and rationality requires that we constantly seek more specialized and specific information, which we can turn into scientific knowledge about the way world really is. In many more collectivist cultures with more holistic worldviews and value systems, knowledge about the world can better be achieved by understanding of the whole, with the help of mystical experience that computers and mobile phones cannot produce. In such cultures too much outside information can, in fact, be seen as taking attention away from our internal powers, personal moral development and wholesome wisdom. This is not always the way, however; some of the most technologically advanced countries are based on very holistic worldviews and have very collective social structures, for example, Japan and the technologically fast developing nations of southeast Asia. However, the personal or cultural experiences of the new technology might be very different. In the Eastern context, the idea of virtual reality may be seen as a sign of the holistic nature of the universe and the interconnectedness of (physical, intellectual and mental) human capacities with the immaterial dimensions of our world, while in the more atomistic Western worldview virtual reality may be seen merely as a device that provides us with the means to extend physical senses and capabilities further across our material world.

The Western emphasis on reason as the source of knowledge gives value to specialized data, that is, external information. In many other cultures the knowledge of the world is rather accomplished by inner awareness, that is, internal information. Achieving the understanding of the interdependence of all things requires us to empty our minds rather than fill them up with distracting piecemeal information. From an African point of view, for instance, the Western world may be seen to conceive knowledge as political and economic power, and thus it tries to monopolize, patent and commercialize all the knowledge it can produce. Since the Industrial Revolution, Westerners have used knowledge to control nature and to exploit it. In many parts of Africa knowledge is equated with moral and social wisdom and understanding the profound interdependence of people and nature and the universe as a whole.

Humans do not produce knowledge about nature. Instead they discover it with the help of the nature itself. While, in the Western worldview, wise men create or produce more knowledge, in Southern cultures it is often “the knowledge” that makes people wise. And wise men know that knowledge should not be used to technologically and commercially suppress and manipulate nature, but to live in harmony with it. After all, humans are merely partners or shareholders, with all other creatures, inanimate objects and invisible forces, in the resources of the earth, of which knowledge itself is one (Tangwa, 1999, p. 276).

Thus, different cultural traditions are often based on very different metaphysical outlooks and thus, may have very distinct views of knowledge and wisdom. People with different cultural backgrounds may therefore have very different ideas and ideals for how to form a global knowledge society. People coming from individualist cultures may see the holistic respect for universal harmony as inefficiency and primitive ignorance, while people from collectivist cultures may take the emphasis on individuals as arrogance and morally indifferent selfishness (Wiredu, 1980, pp. 53-59, 83, 105).

Understanding cultural differences is an integral part of global development. Part of this understanding requires that we accept that neither attitude towards technology is, in itself, superior to the other. Instead, both have their strong and weak sides and have a lot to learn from each other. While the Northern and Western mechanistic view is eager to develop new means to conquer nature, its emphasis on efficiency and profit often leads to environmental destruction, social inequality and moral indifference in an endless market rat race. While the Southern holism may not take full advantage of the technological progress and may sometimes disregard individuals’ special practical abilities and rights, it can also encourage environmental harmony, social solidarity and personal peace.

Here discussion on human capabilities can also help us to overcome some cultural differences and different understandings of human well-being and good living. As noted in the beginning, people may have very different view of whether the aim of development is material, spiritual or social, but most human capabilities we are looking after in life are universal. We might have different cultural, political or economic contexts to realize them, but, nevertheless, our goals are shared. Thus, promoting human capabilities as the end that justifies the distribution and implementation of ICT should not mean that we have to adopt one global culture, but rather that, with the help of new technology, we have equal capacities to understand, promote and maintain our different cultural values and practices within a context of modern globalized world.

Primitive as an Ideal?

If we are to build a global society of knowledge and wisdom, different cultures have many important lessons to learn from each other. However, instead of seeing local in global, very often there are hasty polarizations made between modern and traditional. Instead of promoting the best parts of both, people (individuals or groups of people) are forced to make a dichotomized choice between modern and traditional ways of life.

These fallacious polarizations lead to cultural conflicts and to assumptions that local and global are incommensurate. When the fundamental differences in metaphysical, ethical or social outlooks of different cultures are not fully understood, there is a danger that we justify clear injustices as cultural diversity. Also, sometimes people from highly industrialized countries with materialistic values may be skeptical about the value of technological progress as such. Instead, they may romanticize traditional ways of life as resistance movements against technology and consider those who do not have modern technological access to outside world as noble savages.

In fact, those who defend traditionalism and set against modernization are not always residents of technologically and economically less developed countries. Quite the contrary, in many instances it is the information-rich rather than the information-poor who may envision the primitive way of life as an escape from the modern world and the information and consumption anxiety it creates. Some may even themselves sometimes join “the disconnected,” on a desert, in a jungle or in the mountains for few days or even weeks.

The difference between the information-rich and the information-poor, however, is that the rich ones always know how and have enough resources to get back to civilization when the times get too rough. Anytime they want to, they can get back to their phones, faxes and communicators, drive their cars back to cities, and take an airplane back home. The idealized noble savage is usually isolated, poor, and in many other ways disabled. They have no hope for a better life, nor do they have any control over their fate, which is often decided for them by others living in the centers of power and influence. In most cases and most areas people have not chosen their own isolation. The poor simply lack the options to live in any other way (Wresch, 1996, p. 136). Helping these people to get connected with the outside world, and become involved in matters concerning their own lives, is not an attempt to rob cultural traditions; it may be the only way to maintain those traditions. It increases their chances to realize the full set of human capabilities and to see the plurality of human existence and well-being. Keeping people disconnected and ignorant may respect cultural difference, but shows moral indifference. It clearly blocks people from using their full potential, in whatever cultural, social, and material environment they live in.


New ICT can play a central role in helping developing countries to improve their standard of living and quality of life in relation to realizing human capabilities. However, markets alone cannot bring the technology to those who would most benefit from it and technology alone cannot bring about positive changes. Instead, technology can be made to be a vehicle of positive or negative affects, depending on our personal values and goals, and our cultural beliefs and norms. Information technology can just as easily be used to gain one-sided market benefits or to impose a dominant political culture on different people as it can be used to build a just world order that promotes tolerance, equality and social justice. If we look for new ways to share our global prosperity, it is essential that we make a clear difference between means and ends in the advancement, application and distribution of ICT. An alternative normative framework that gives a promising start in finding new options for distribution and implementation of ICT is capability ethics that remind us that all material resources are a mere means—never the end in themselves—towards holistic well-being. Since ICT brings together in an intriguing manner both material resources as well as intellectual development, it is important to be clear about what are looking for in our attempts to create global connections. Are we realizing human capabilities and building a global village of wisdom? Or are we creating a superficial global information culture that focuses on market exchange of hardware, software, data, time and social relations?

While it is clear that world neo-liberal economic policies play a central role in global injustice, the Western neo-liberal market capitalism and cultural imperialism cannot alone be blamed for the existing inequalities within developing countries. In many developing countries governments abuse power and resources, as well as people’s commitment to tradition. If we are serious about building a global knowledge society, we therefore need to consider first what the ideal of the knowledge society is and how it is related to the realization of human capabilities which are the basis of a working democracy and the moral development of any society. Second, we need to understand the fundamental differences between cultural traditions. Third, we have to conceive technology as a means to better quality of life as well as to more open cultural dialogue, instead of seeing it as an end in itself. If we want to build a global knowledge society, we have to acknowledge that technology per se is always value- neutral and, thus, all of us share the social responsibility to develop and use it for the common good and the realization of human capabilities, as is suggested by application of capability ethics to the global distribution and implementation of ICT. While this approach certainly needs to be further studied and its potential problems taken into account, it at least can give us a starting point for debates on global distribution, particularly in relation to technological advancement.

While there is no clear indication that any comprehensive change in our attitudes is to be expected immediately, keeping the dialogue going is important. Without any change the present trends of global development show that while Internet and other new telecommunication technologies reach more and more people rapidly, at least as many people are at the same time losing their connections to the sources of essential information, local knowledge and basic political participation and power to influence their own fate. This not only deepens material inequality, but also widens further the digital divide and communication gap between the information-rich and the information-poor.