Communication, Technology and the Development of People

Bernard Woods

Fifty years after the decolonization wave started rolling throughout the South, development is still as urgent a matter now as it was then. Thirty-eight years after Bandoeng, the Third World has not accessed the prosperity of which it once dreamed; one after another, the development plans have failed as rural areas, basic human needs, social equality, and personal freedom were forgotten somewhat in the pursuit of economic growth. Clearly, something has gone drastically wrong in the development story.

The author, Bernard Woods, knows this story well as he worked for some time for the World Bank where he was seeking "causes of apparent inability of conventional development approaches to deal adequately with the human/institutional dimension of sustainable development." And, in essence, this book is a natural continuation of that work. Communication is introduced as the one element to which development has not been anchored. His 158-page book wants to be, in essence, a new recipe to solve all these unsolved developmental problems.

It is a book which will be of interest to specialists in communication and development. It does not provide much background to many concepts which are assumed to be known and therefore should be confined to the graduate level. As a short book advocating a new direction, a new way of thinking about development and communication within it, it should give students an excellent opportunity to discuss alternative approaches to development, the role of technology in the Third World, international cultural influences, LDCs' dependency on Western technology as a cause of underdevelopment, etc. The book relies heavily on World Bank data, information, and standards and should be read as coming from those quarters.

Up until now, Woods argues, no new idea has been born which could provide a whole set of new ways to solve traditional developmental puzzles which several decades of economy-oriented development thinking have not been able to figure out. Interactive digital information systems are changing all this, however, and in effect providing this new Messiah of an element to make development feasible at last. This is also the opinion of John Sculley, former CEO of Apple Computer, who wrote the foreword to this book.

Placing communication at the centre of development work is a good idea which, however, is not new. The MacBride Commission's landmark report showed 13 years ago the urgency of such a concept. It in turn had followed in the footsteps of the late Wilbur Schramm, and of the McAnanys and Rogers of this world who have been asking (of the World Bank and other institutions, by the way) for a reorientation of the official development discourse toward communication-centred thinking. Woods, however, wants the reader to consider a new perception of the communication sector in development. In effect, technological advances such as computers, networks, data bases, digital telephony, data compression, digital printing, and desktop publishing have made the previous sectorization of communication a thing of the past. For Woods, these communication advances are so great and encompassing that they should lead and empower us into a similar leap forward into an unlimited sharing of information across sectors, regions, activities, etc. Communication must be thought of now as a holistic, all-encompassing nervous system which could place even the poorest places on earth on a twenty-first century information freeway.

In a parallel manner, we must realize that the concept of development needs overhaul as well. He indeed calls for a reassessment of what is meant by education, health, agriculture, nutrition, and even development itself. In his view, this reassessment of development and the holistic approach to the new integrated communication sector which, he says, nobody has really considered, means a special "moment of truth" which humanity must not miss.

The availability of information systems the world over definitely means a redefinition of work, institutions, and the control we as working beings could exercise over our environment. We would also follow the author in foreseeing a penetration of positive effects on the periphery's centre. But how applicable is this to the poorest of the poor, the ones that development keeps passing by, keeps shortchanging? In theory it could be. But where will we find the faith needed to believe this prophecy? Were not satellites and television supposed to solve education, health, and other basic matters? Was video recording not supposed to resolve information exchange shortcomings the world over? Was the Green Revolution not supposed to eradicate hunger from the face of the earth? Was Telidon not supposed to provide all Aboriginal communities in this country with unlimited access to twenty-first-century information bases and thus help them to get out of the cycle of poverty in which they were--and still are--trapped? Is the digital revolution now the new solution?

Even in the ideal (if not utopian) multisectorial, holistic, all-integrated, and harmonious attack on a redefined underdevelopment, communication workers would still be facing an insurmountable challenge. International, national, regional, and local political imbalances muffle to a vast and effective extent the possible good news that new technologies and new ways of thinking bring. In spite of all the attempts to achieve cultural neutrality, innovations have a way of hiding the culture that produced them.

The book would have gained in strength had it evaluated the effects this technology could have on the societies it proposes to help. If it is so powerful, so all-encompassing, so radical that even an old foe such as underdevelopment would tremble, can we not expect many side-effects which could be quite striking? We know now that technological developments such as the internal combustion engine changed the face of this civilization, if not the planet. It is possible that Henry Ford or Louis Renault did not foresee that change; does that excuse new technology proponents from searching out all possible ripple effects which new dramatic changes cannot avoid producing? New digital information technologies will probably enter the developing world with a bang which will echo the coming of broadcasting in the 1960s. However, checked from the outside by the context in which they will have to function, and from the inside by the culture that brought them about, it is likely they will have a long, hot, and dusty way to walk before they actually can help the poorest of the world.



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