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New Book "Communicating in the Information Society" Launched at WSIS

16 Dec 2003



A well-attended press conference was held on 10 December 2003 at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva, to launch UNRISD's new publication, Communicating in the Information Society. The publication's two editors, Bruce Girard and Seán Ó Siochrú, presented the book, along with Michael Powell, who is in charge of the Institute's project on development and information and communication technologies.

This 235-page edited volume brings together writers of very different styles and backgrounds, some in touch with the WSIS process, some not. The contributors reflect both industrialized and developing countries’ perspectives, some work in NGOs and others in academic institutions. The key objective of this publication is to give the reader the possibility to maintain a critical eye on the question of which information society we are building, and who will benefit most from it.

The contributions range from practical, down-to-earth advice on concrete implementation of an information society, through strategies to enrich the potential of WSIS, to philosophical insights into the central concepts. They all, in one way or another, support the idea that the process of communicating must be at the centre of an information society.

The book begins with practical analysis and advice on priorities in implementing an information society. Dafne Sabanes Plou and William McIver, Jr., focus on two groups of users who are critical to designing and implementing an information society that empowers instead of divides, and whose needs and potential are so often ignored: women and local communities. Building on the Beijing Platform for Action, Sabanes Plou makes the case for gender mainstreaming in WSIS. McIver lays down the principles and practice of “community informatics”, concerned with the design, deployment and management of information systems by communities themselves, designed to solve their own problems.

James Deane and his co-authors underline the powerful dynamic of “traditional media” and considers WSIS as an opportunity to recall that the funnelling of the debate on the information society into the development potential of the Internet ignores what has been happening in television, newspapers and radio, whose impact is larger. He also stresses that the need for action to place the public interest at the centre of all media outlets is pressing. The authors identify a key role for civil society actors in terms of pressuring both media industry and governments to build a regulatory and policy space that pursues not their sectarian interests, but instead serves the broader public interest.

Marc Raboy points out, among other things, that media issues are increasingly transnational and hence must be the subject of international conventions and other instruments. He argues that WSIS can be, if not a milestone, then at least a moment in the establishment of the new global media framework within which media can flourish and contribute to democratic public life and human development. He notes that such a framework can both enhance freedom of expression and promote in practice the right to communicate.

Cees Hamelink addresses directly the issue of the right to communicate—a controversial one in WSIS—and makes a case for it. He introduces the concept of informational developments, denoting the growing significance of information and related technologies and dynamics, and points out that the international community over the years has established a broad set of human rights standards for how informational developments should interact with society as a whole. He calls on WSIS participants to mobilize around achieving the right to communicate.

Jean-Claude Guédon identifies how a narrow, conventional and profit-maximizing trend has created an institutional elite and highly profitable business through ever more tightly policed gateways for accessing scientific knowledge. Digitization threatens to change that, but the question is whether it will be for better or worse. He reminds us that against the traditional approach that would deepen control is a free or open-access approach promoted by civil society. He also points out that the capacity of civil society to network in a distributed manner is what is needed to exploit the fullest potential of the information society.

Finally, Antonio Pasquali’s restates the need to resist the strong tendency of reducing the information society to a purely technical or economic discourse. Taking us back to the etymological roots in ancient history, he says: “The words communication or information always, and necessarily, refer to the essence of community and human relations”. In arguing for rigorous and judicious use of “deontologies”, “morals” and “ethics”, he is at the same time laying the groundwork for a rights-based approach. Then he tackles “informing” and “communicating” together, concluding that while they are inseparable, the latter must always be chosen over the former.

Contents:

What About Gender Issues in the Information Society?, Dafne Sabanes Plou
A Community Informatics for the Information Society, William McIver
The Other Information Revolution: Media and Empowerment in Developing Countries, James Deane et al.
Media and Democratization in the Information Society, Marc Raboy
Human Rights for the Information Society, Cees Hamelink
Locating the Information Society within Civil Society: The Case of Scientific and Scholarly Publications, Jean-Claude Guédon
A Brief Descriptive Glossary of Communication and Information Aimed at Providing Clarification and Improving Mutual Understanding, Antonio Pasquali

Sean O Siochru is co-founder and director of Nexus Research in Dublin. Bruce Girard is a media worker and researcher at the Delft University of Technology.

Background

UNRISD has been working on the links between informational development and social change for six years. Its publications range from global overviews of development and information related change, including network societies, media policies and distance education, to detailed empirical studies of the changes taking place in a single African country, Senegal. Whilst covering many subject areas and involving many authors from various backgrounds and disciplines, this work has seen a remarkable consistency of message:

· that there are no easy technical solutions to deep-seated issues;
· that solutions touted as blueprints should be examined with great rigour;
· that power relations are as connected to the development and deployment of ICT as to any other activity and need to be recognized; and
· that it is worth identifying the barriers because there is the potential – and often evidence – for the creative exchange of information to advance the interests of the less powerful.

UNRISD plans to continue its programme in this area in collaboration with others. It intends to support and disseminate empirical research on the ways men and women use and exchange information in their daily life and how these are changing, and contribute to a greater theorectical clarity of the social implications of such change and the choices they offer both policy makers and citizens.