Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Connecting Societies, Building Bridges: Information, Culture, Technology – ICT Redefined

A DISCUSSION NOTE

Madhuresh Kumar & Subramanya Sastry, November 2005

I. BACKGROUND: SETTING THE CONTEXT

Information surrounds us these days — especially to those of us ensnared in the web and associated information and communication technologies. One also sees various references to our present-day society as being an information society. But, information (if taken to mean the entire gamut of processes and processes of knowing and making known the world) and information cultures have always been part of societies. But, what is particularly different about our age is that:

  1. The production, consumption, communication, and organization of information are increasingly being mediated by electronic information and communication technologies.
  2. (According to Wikipedia) the creation, distribution and manipulation of information are becoming a significant economic and cultural activity. Even though these two aspects might seem unrelated, it is the increasing deployment of electronic and communication technologies that makes engagements with information significant economic and cultural activities.

Additionally, it should be recognized that the very electronic technologies that set our “information society” apart from earlier “information societies” have facilitated the increasing globalization of our world – that technological infrastructure continues to be at the very heart of the globalizing processes today.

It is this context and the implications of this context that should perhaps inform the activities of CACIM. Several questions arise:

  1. How do we deal with the homogenizing powers of these technologies?
  2. What are the politics of these technologies?
    1. Information in the age of search engines
    2. Internet and the culture of openness
    3. Impact on the Intellectual Property Regime
  3. Other questions to consider (but not elaborated upon)

1. How do we deal with the homogenizing powers of these technologies?
Just as there were different approaches to information and cultures of information in the past (from oral traditions, storytelling traditions, mythologies, ritualistic practices, etc.), there still do exist varied information cultures today — there is no single information, communication or knowledge society. As resources, information and technology are used differently in different cultural contexts. Yet, it is inevitable that a certain degree of “normalization” and “homogenization” will take place. Rather than pose morally loaded questions of whether that is good or bad, one could ask questions that examine the effects of such homogenization, and ask what we do about it. Inherent in processes of change are ever-present responses of control (of change) and adaptation (to change). In turn, these processes of control and adaptation in one realm become processes of change in another realm and the game goes on … If one accepts this description of change, then it also begs examination if newer and other creative cultural practices emerge from the “homogenizing” forces of these technologies.

2. What are the politics of these technologies?
Most technologies have intended as well as unintended political effects. Additionally, via feedback loops that are characteristic of life and social relations on this planet, social forces and technologies influence each other in ways that are not always obvious.

The Internet (and associated technologies like email, the web, chat that rely on the presence of the Internet) is perhaps a great example of this process. The Internet was born from a project to allow communication between a few computers. Very few, if any, could have foreseen what it has become today and its (continuing) impacts on society. Over the last decade during which Net connectivity has grown considerably, the Net has seen various characterizations: as ushering in an information revolution, as a boon for e-commerce, as a globalizing force, as a democratizing force, as an infrastructure for governance, and so on. A diverse range of actors from businesses, governments, programmers, NGOs, etc. continue to try to steer the Internet in various directions. The conflicting processes of control (of the Internet) and adaptation (to the Internet) continue to play themselves out impacting both the nature of the Internet as well as society that is coming to be more and more plugged in.

2a: Information in the age of search engines
Today, there is such an increasing dependence on the Internet for information, that at times, one cannot but be carried away and wonder about the worth of “offline” information that is not part of this great cesspool of networked information made possible by the Net (via the Web). In fact, for some unfortunate souls, the existence of a particular piece of information is determined by whether Google can find it! Perhaps, with due recognition of the power of search engines, on December 3rd 2005, the Information Society Project at Yale Law School is organizing “Regulating Search?: A Symposium on Search Engines, Law, and Public Policy (external link)“.

Several questions emerge from this scenario. As more and more information gets onto the Web, and as a whole generation of kids grow up with the Net, the very landscape of information cultures is bound to be altered. How will this impact the various information practices and cultures that have evolved in an age without computers, and how do we deal with those impacts?

2b. Internet and the culture of openness
The Net carries with it a promise of openness and widespread participation. Starting with the free and open source software movement, the practices and cultures of participation and openness have caught on tremendously: one now hears about open knowledge, open access journals, open content, open design, open publishing, open encyclopaedias, open politics, open democracy, open maps, and the list goes on.

In this scenario, various questions emerge: How much of this practice of openness carries over to the domain of interactions in the world of flesh-and-blood? Seen another way, is it possible, and if so, how does one translate the practices and culture of openness from the electronic world to the “real” world? How stable and robust are these practices of openness in the electronic world, dependent as strongly as they are on technological enablers? Seen another way, what are the weaknesses of the Internet-driven cultures of openness? Perhaps, most starkly of all, are we now entering a world losing control over our commons in the real world and getting enraptured by the commons of the electronic world?

2c. Impact on the Intellectual Property Regime
Flowing out of the culture of openness that the Internet fosters is the challenge to the traditional intellectual property regime from computers and the Internet. Once a document is in electronic format, it is very easy to make several copies of the document and also share them widely without, in any way, losing the original copy. This ability strikes at the very heart of the Intellectual Property Regime that survives by a strict control over the dissemination of information (and knowledge) via legal and surveillance regimes. This can be seen by the “piracy” and free-sharing of software, music, videos, and other electronic documents that is going on. In an attempt to tighten their control over these electronic resources, the music and entertainment industry in the US managed to get the “Digital Millennium Copyright Act” enacted. Additionally, other means of technological surveillance and control are being considered.

But, given the well-entrenched cultural practices of sharing, downloading, copying, and openness on the internet, all of this seems to be a losing battle in the longer run. An increasing amount of information is now being produced with licences and rights that appreciate this inherent shareability of electronic documents. These alternative modes of information production are likely to substantially alter, if not completely undermine the traditional intellectual property regime, at least in the realm of information processes vis-à-vis electronic information technologies.

3. Other questions to consider but not elaborated upon 
As much as one recognizes the power and potential of these technologies to empower and enable wider participation, it is important to recognize that this is only possible if one is ‘plugged’ into the system. There are currently significant barriers of access: from issues of language, technical proficiency, infrastructure, financial costs. How does one address these barriers, and what does it mean for people to be excluded from these technologies? This is related to the earlier question of what happens to all the other information cultures and practices that still exist, and that are independent of these technologies. While it would be far-fetched to argue that these other cultures and practices will vanish, it would be foolhardy to assume that they will not be adversely impacted.

The other more fundamental and disturbing question that does arise is one of our increasing dependence and reliance on machines. Increasingly so, many people feel “disconnected” when they are away from the Internet and their email or their mobiles! What are the long-term implications of such dependence on these technologies? This question assumes special importance given that our society, social relations, and governance systems are slowly getting restructured and reshaped by these technologies and the social forces that have stake in those technologies. To understand this better, one only need to look at the US and the enormous surveillance that goes on precisely because so much of their lives are now intricately tied in with these technologies.

II. CACIM’S ACTIVITIES IN THIS AREA

At the heart of CACIM’s engagement are the political, cultural and social aspects of information, communication and technology. Our concern is to build information and communication societies that are people-centred, inclusive, equitable and culture-specific. Our engagement in the past has been with the ways in which information is documented and technologies which are used to disseminate, and process that information. During 2002-2004, we gave special emphasis to developing, testing, and maturing alternative systems of bibliographic and other indexing, and managed to cover a great deal of ground, on several fronts.

An important aspect of this work has been to overcome often very culture-specific, less-than-friendly, and exclusive character of many of the available documentation systems and software, which makes it highly inappropriate to the kinds of documents that movements generate. Among other things, with their origin being in formal library collections, these programmes have no way of accommodating the much wider range of documents that get generated in such situations. We have therefore progressively found it necessary to modify existing systems and software – if we were indeed going to be able to give equal respect to all the documents we were working with – and to develop systems more appropriate to the needs of movements and other organisations in different cultures. By this in no way we are trying to generate another set of standards and rules but to develop guidelines which could be customised according to the needs.

At another level CACIM’s engagement has been with the ethical obligation of social researchers – and especially those working with public funds on public issues – to make public not only their research but also the data they have been privileged to collect and the methods they develop and employ, especially those that might be of value to others. By “public”, we include funds provided by foundations working in the public realm, even if “private” by constitution. This requires that researchers can and should use all available technologies, and today especially information and communication technologies, as widely as possible, to make available all such data, information, and methodologies, to the public in general and most especially to those whose histories and lives they have studied and make possible an engagement with the whole culture of working with the information.

CACIM aspires to build culture-specific information and communication societies where knowledge production and generation is democratic and oriented to achieving a more equitable distribution of resources, leading to the elimination of various divides in a way that is horizontal, open, and transparent. To this end we believe technologies can be engaged as fundamental means, rather than becoming ends in themselves, thus recognising that bridging the technological and informational divide is only one step on the road to achieving development for all. We reaffirm that communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and a foundation of all social organisation and is culture specific. Everyone, everywhere, at any time should have the opportunity to participate in communication processes and no one should be excluded from their benefits.

We are conscious that information, knowledge and the means of communication are available on a magnitude that humanity has never dreamt of in the past. It is transforming our lives at a pace we never dreamt of and are helping us envision newer elements of socio-political organisation and development. On an unprecedented scale, information and communication technology is impacting and shaping the cultural dimensions of the engagement with the world and societal processes. In such a situation our endeavour is to seek new ways of organising and engaging using the methods of “open spaces” and develop a culture of information sharing which is friendly, culturally-sensitive, and easy-to-understand, reaching across as many cultures as possible; and wherever necessary, to struggle against systems, software, and conventions that are culturally insensitive or that make information and knowledge obscure and decipherable only to specialists.