1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Technology and Society (2000 - 2009)

New Information and Communication Technologies, Social Development and Cultural Change



In the late 1990s, we stand on the eve of the total digitalization of all forms of information transmission, except those occurring on a non-mediated, person-to-person level. Sound, text, voice and image will soon be relayed across vast distances in the binary language used by computers; and this will open possibilities for the high-quality transmission of information, in a volume and at a speed almost unimaginable a few years ago. The cost of doing so is also likely to decline dramatically.

Digital technologies are already bringing about profound changes in the economies and societies of countries around the world—speeding the automation of work, facilitating borderless financial transactions, delivering global news and entertainment to vast new audiences. As these technologies permit the fusion of the telecommunications, computer and entertainment industries, they encourage a titanic struggle among some of the largest corporations in the world for control of a consolidated information industry.

The potential of digital technologies to improve the livelihood of people is great. In remote regions, the disadvantage that comes with isolation can be significantly lessened through access to rapid and inexpensive communications. Like-minded people can co-operate across great distance to defend human rights or promote other projects of common interest. Remote sensing can be used to protect the natural environment. The list of possible contributions to human development is long indeed.

Yet there are also obvious dangers in the current highly charged competition to gain control over digital technologies. Already existing trends toward polarization in the world economy can clearly be worsened. Digital advantage can reinforce the possibility that ever smaller groups of people will determine the future use of an ever larger proportion of global resources. Development can be concentrated in regions where the information infrastructure is most developed, to the detriment of areas that are not endowed with the most modern capabilities. And within societies, a growing “knowledge gap” can separate individuals who have access to the latest equipment, and have been trained to use it, from those less well endowed.

In this paper, Cees Hamelink reviews the background of the current “information revolution”, explains its principal technical features and explores possible scenarios for the future. He challenges the frequently held disposition to accept the current direction of change without question. The course of technological development, he reminds us, is always shaped by human beings with particular interests and goals, and a certain (sometimes implicit) view of the future. The latter should be examined openly, not taken for granted.

We have the obligation to think first of the kind of society we want to see in future, and then to influence the design and deployment of new technologies in ways that are most likely to further our goals. In this regard, institutional innovations are as important as scientific or technological breakthroughs in creating new opportunities for human development.

Cees Hamelink is Professor of Communications Science at the University of Amsterdam and past President of the International Association for Mass Communications Research. This essay was commissioned within the joint UNRISD-UNESCO programme on Culture and Development. It represents the first contribution to a new UNRISD research programme on Information Technologies and Social Development, directed at the Institute by Cynthia Hewitt de Alcántara.
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  • Pub. Date: 1 Jun 1997
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD