Abstract: The global information society tends to create a unified market of formatted exchanges and practices, which do not always take into account the cultural specificities and the special needs of the many “knowledge societies” around the world. It also has to confront the extreme disparities of access to information and knowledge between the industrialized countries and the developing countries, as well as within societies themselves. This inevitably induces the need for fundamental political choices and arbitrages on the goals socially desirable, and a definition of the “global common good”.
The so-called “Information Society” is based on information technologies and the exchange of informational goods, on a worldwide scale. In contrast, “Knowledge Societies” are not technology-driven, but mind-driven; they are not necessarily global in scope, but rather based on distinct cultural, political and economic traits, shaping up specific “epistemic regimes”. An epistemic regime characterizes the cultural, economic, societal role of information and knowledge in a given society. For instance, the epistemic regime of the global information society relies heavily on the merchandizing of information and the development of “intellectual property”, as opposed to the epistemic regimes of, say, the 19th century European universities, which considered as obvious that knowledge was a public property, that academic research should flow freely, and that, to be useful, research had to be useless…
The global information society tends to create a unified, global market of formatted exchanges and practices, while knowledge societies come in much more different cultural flavors, and are a key ingredient for an effective diversity. For instance, the notion of a “knowledge society” is not equivalent to the French “société du savoir”, at least linguistically. The etymology of the word “knowledge” and of the auxiliary verb “can” are closely related, while the etymology of “savoir” is linked to the old Indo-European root sap, “to taste”, whence words like “sapience” or “sapid”. Knowledge points to utility and power, savoir points to theory and contemplation. This is not just a matter of words. It is a matter of thrust, of vision, of ends. It is a matter of shaping up the fundamentals of a society, giving rise to certain hopes, but also generating diverse societal divides. Let’s note in passing that the “educational divide” or the “economic divide” are certainly more important than the “digital divide” to understand what is really going on. For the three billions humans who are still living on less that 2$ a day, or for the two billions humans having no access to electricity, what can be the meaning of expressions such as “information highways”? But who would dare to say that these people have no “knowledge”? They do need crucial knowledge, that they will not find in the arcanes of the “information society”.
Information and knowledge are indeed essential factors of competition, wealth and power at the global level. But they are also sources of growing inequalities. There can be no doubt that the emergence of an information society, at very different rates in different parts of the world, arouses great hopes. It is possible to go so far as to speak of a revolution comparable to the invention of the alphabet or printing. A new culture is emerging, based on symbols, codes, models, programs, formal languages, algorithms, virtual representations, mental landscapes, which imply the need for a new “information literacy”. But this revolution has to confront the extreme disparities of access to this new culture and this new literacy between the industrialized countries and the developing countries, as well as within societies themselves.
This educational divide accentuates disparities in development, excluding entire groups and countries from the benefits of information and knowledge. This is giving rise to paradoxical situations where those who have the greatest need of them – disadvantaged groups, rural communities, illiterate populations, or even entire countries – do not have access to the tools which would enable them to become fully fledged members of the information society.
One cannot compare knowledge and information to other commodities. Knowledge and information have very specific properties, very different from the material outputs of the industrial model. Knowledge and information possess a specific characteristic that economists refer to as “non-rivalry in use”, and that is also a characteristic of “public goods”. As a contrast to material goods, information can be shared with the whole world at almost no marginal cost. Some see in the Internet the lineaments of a new social architecture – more democratic, horizontally structured, self-organized, anti-hierarchical, open and interactive. However, the growth of networks will not of itself provide the foundations for knowledge societies. For one thing, while the cost of replicating information and disseminating it can be very low, reproducing knowledge is a far more expensive process, because cognitive capacity is not easy to articulate explicitly and transfer to others, and requires an effective assimilation by individual learners, as well as by the collectivity, which is an inherently slow process, not a technical one but a mental one.
A knowledge society is then not just another instance of the market economy. It inevitably induces the need for fundamental political choices and arbitrages on the goals socially desirable, particularly in order to enhance equitable access to education and knowledge, and to balance with much more refinements the interest of the different stakeholders in matters of “intellectual property”.
In effect there is a political problem, not just a policy one. On the one hand, globalization allows for and benefits from growing returns, snowballing effects and competitive gains, particularly in IT, which in some cases do lead to obvious (and unacceptable) monopolies. This is the “Winner Takes All” effect, at the world level. On the other hand, globalization does not always answer to local needs. This could be called the “Global Winners Local Losers” effect. In other words globalization does allow enormous gains for the global winners, but one can suspect that if no proper action is taken, it aggravates in many ways the situation of local losers.
The crux of the matter is that globalization is tautologically “global” in nature, and hence does not give due consideration to local problems. The “invisible hands” of globalization will not solve the very special needs of local situations. On the contrary, one should be confronted with the fact that an unregulated globalization does aggravate the “Global Divide”.
Here are some examples.
As we know, Internet access disparities are considerable. Although telecom privatization and deregulation have made traditional operations more efficient, they are not a guarantee for local universal access to the Internet. Furthermore, the trans-border nature of telecom industry is more favorable to those who can impose revenue terms because of their advanced technology, high speed Internet backbones and net-concentration. This advantage has allowed few dominating operators to exert pressure on others to shoulder their access costs, making it even more difficult to provide the most basic services in developing countries.
With the mounting pressure to abolish bilaterally negotiated cost sharing arrangements, developing countries will face with an unprecedented burden to maintain their telecommunication systems. The net result of this « rate re-balancing » is that the operators in developing countries will be forced to offset the costs by increasing their local call charges. ISPs in developing countries are normally located in urban centers, hence the dial-up connections to rural areas are already expensive. Secondly, the over-concentration of Internet backbone business in some international hubs3, is an another disadvantage particularly for the ISPs in developing countries, who in most cases must pay the entire costs of two way links. This has led to a situation which is, indeed, in the long run counterproductive to Internet penetration and eventually will prevent many in developing countries from tapping knowledge resources.
What counter-measures are available to developing countries? The issue of strengthening regional peering arrangement and intra-regional networks has to be brought forward to be high in the agendas of regional forums. Serious thought should be given to the possibility to establish high capacity regional backbones to connect each country within a multi-hub global network in which nobody dominates connectivity.
The need for a global regulation
The question of a « public sphere » capable of setting norms for regulating the private and market interests in favor of the global common good, is essential. A recent study (Kaul, 1999) explains why the market forces alone cannot regulate the global public goods, such as universal access to information and education, or access to limited public resources such as the broadcast spectrum. Global public goods cannot be left alone and require enlightened interventions measures by governments and international agreements within a global regulatory system at national and international levels.
The definition of the “global common good” is not self-evident and implies the emergence of a global political representation of a global public opinion. Important social issues (such as basic education, basic health or maintaining peace) belong to the political sphere. We then need some sort of global governance, to help tackle global issues related to the Information Society, including a global taxation system (such as the famous Tobin Tax on all financial transactions proposed by Nobel Prize Laureate James Tobin). Why not imagine a global tax on the use of global public goods such as the frequency spectrum, geo-stationary orbits or the sea-floor used by transoceanic communications cables, to help reducing information access imbalances and fighting global ecological concerns?
Paradoxically, regulation is even more indispensable for the “free market”. As we know, free market is based on “fair competition”. But who can guarantee “fairness”? Who sets the rules and enforces them? This is why the regulators still have a role to play. Fair competition not only calls for forms of regulation such as the U.S. Sherman Antitrust Act or the Treaty of Rome, but cannot live with the hypocrisy of double standards. In effect, there is not (yet) a global antitrust law. If monopolies do threaten “fair competition” provisions in the US or in the EU, there are some possibilities of regional regulation. But no regulatory mechanism on antitrust is available at the world level. WTO or the ECOSOC council of the UN (which is far from being an “economic security council”) have no legislative tool nor political mandate to “regulate” monopolies or oligopolies that would have passed regional antitrust law tests, but could still be very damaging for a worldwide “fair” competition.
Regulators are supposed to incarnate the general interest and the common good. But where are the regulators in charge of the global common good? For instance who is supposed to define the need for “universal access” at the global information age and to ensure its financing? What should be the new “universal access” paradigm? Should it be only based on physical access? Should it include fair telecommunications tariff policies, including adequate subsidization of certain classes of users? Should it also include free access to certain contents, for instance access to all public domain data and governmental information relevant to citizens imbued with their duty of being well informed on all affairs of state and eager to enforce democracy? What should be the minimum level of service for users? Is it possible to cost obligations to the public service mission in a meaningful way?
Problems of interconnection, interoperability of networks and services are also to be regulated as well as fair allocation of resources (access to numbers, availability of radio-frequency spectrum, pricing the spectrum, frequency auctioning, Internet domain names).
Let’s not forget, that in recent years, telecom regulators have been unsuccessful in restraining the anti-competitive behavior of the dominant operators and promoting effective market competition. Today, in nearly all countries, on the major regulatory issues, the big players make pressure to impose their views. The public telecom operators (PTOs) often represent a bottleneck that can slow down or even stop improvements, especially in new service development. If policy makers and regulators adopt a hands-off or laissez-faire position on the issue of competition, most telecom customers run a risk of being served in a marketplace with a competition policy but few real competitive options. This is why a really competitive (and fair) market needs strong public policies.
This is even truer for developing countries, notwithstanding the compelling ideology of deregulation. Developing countries have been strongly invited to opt for American or European models of deregulation. That is to say general deregulation plus heavy regulation on the incumbent operator to ensure that new operators (often mobile) are able to gain market share. But in developing countries the situation should be reversed. New entrant mobile operators have heavy financial and technical backing from their non-national partners (often very powerful global oligopolies, themselves limited on their own turf by antitrust laws). Whereas, the incumbent operator has no such support and therefore the regulations should be reversed to protect the incumbent from the new entrant. This is often complicated by the fact that any universal access provision is applied to the incumbent whilst the new entrant is given time to build his network and gain market share.
In other words, there is not one regulation model but many. There are many sorts of “knowledge societies” under the sun.
An equally important regulatory issue is the access to knowledge content. There is undoubtedly a market-driven trend to merchandise information and knowledge. The knowledge base for the knowledge economy is being developed largely through publicly funded ventures such as universities and research grants, while the exploitation of knowledge to produce products has become mainly a concern of private industry. While it is true that industries increasingly do their own product research, it is also true that the publicly funded institutions produce the researchers, and publicly funded academic institutes continue to be a fountain of knowledge. Then who should own the knowledge? Shouldn’t there be an arrangement to ensure that all research grants of public funds are issued on the condition that research information is made available for fair use, on a non-exclusive basis? The principles of free access to information in the public domain will have to be defined and promoted.
Current law and practice generally concept allow “fair use” of published information for research, study, reviewing and reporting. Access to knowledge resources on the Net, if ethically applied, can be seen as an application or a corollary to this fair use principle. But the “fair use” concept is more and more threatened. The most forceful counter-arguments to extending the concept of fair use to the electronic domain come from publishers. This reflects the tension between access and ownership. The analogous printed materials are browsed either in a library or a bookshop, hence they are less vulnerable to copyright infringements. But electronic text available in the Internet is not only storable but also can be duplicated and re-distributed at will. Therefore, pressure is mounting from publishers to tighten copyright laws and to make browsing on screen and sharing them through networks without permission, illegal. Policing of such tightened laws will be problematic with the difficulties of proving how and where the material is obtained and with ample opportunities to make changes to electronic text. In extreme cases some preventive technological solutions such as disabling of printing can be applied. However, it would seem more fruitful to expand the definitions of « fair use » and to inculcate « info-ethics » principles of respect for legitimate intellectual property.
Another, perhaps even more important strategy for development of knowledge resources is to increase the volume of public domain information available on the Internet. To this effect the governments and publicly funded institutes such as universities should be equipped and obliged to make their information available in public domain. The global public domain of information should be freely available, at no cost, to everybody, while being protected by “copyleft” legal regime against predators.
Finally, one should consider with the utmost attention the actual trend to broaden patentability. Through the patenting of software, all intellectual methods may be patented in the future4. In the US, for instance one can already patent business methods or even learning methods. This intellectual land grab could have disastrous consequences on the access to knowledge, on education and on fair competition. There is a need to start a complete re-foundation of the intellectual property rights global framework taking into account the fast changing balances. Until now, we have witnessed a continuous and relatively unchallenged international move in strengthening IPR laws. It is time to open a very wide international democratic debate on the very goals that should be socially pursued in terms of intellectual property. It is a philosophical and political debate that should not be obstructed by mere juridical constructions, and should be conducted out of reach of vested interests, in order to search for the “global common good”. For instance the viewpoint of developing countries regarding access to knowledge should be particularly taken into consideration if we are serious about bridging the gap between info rich and info poor.
An education society
Global markets without people capable of creating, and effectively “using” (or “tasting”) knowledge are unsustainable. With the advent of the knowledge society the opportunities for life-long education will become the most important requirement for our future. Education systems with their traditional approach of fixed courses to make us ready for our adult careers will no longer suffice to meet the demands of knowledge society and economy. Therefore people will have to have more avenues to obtain continuing formal education at various stages of their careers. A lifelong education society should provide facilities and opportunities for lifelong education along with the required level of ICT support. Telecommunication and ISP operators could assist these efforts and promote the development of their own future markets by establishing concessionary rates for Internet access in schools, academic institutes and public libraries.
In a wider sense, the national policies to promote public domain information and to ensure that they provide information and applications to improve education, health, environment and government functions should be considered as a priority. The availability of public domain and other heritage information is an indispensable investment in education and therefore in the development of a knowledge society for all.
The importance of the “public sphere” for education is central to ensure re-usability of contents, methods and tools, interoperability of services, quality, multilingualism, and harmonization of curricula. Educational systems and other public service organizations will have to work closely with industrial concerns to develop standards which are flexible, open, freely available, and meet the needs of both industrialized and developing countries. It is clear that the international community, including UNESCO, has a special role in promoting and guiding this process.
Education must no longer be seen as a period of learning limited in time but as a process to be pursued throughout one’s existence. The learning career today extends over a whole lifetime. Lifelong education for all is not, then, simply the addition of initial education and continuing education: it presupposes the development of a “learning society”. From this standpoint, we need to redefine the role, missions, profile and functioning of the universities. Universities, if they don’t adapt, are virtually dead. But if they succeed in this mutation, they will regain an essential centrality in our societies. Universities must break free from the ivory tower syndrome, become a local development resource and a center for lifelong education and open up to the world of work.
UNESCO’s mandate includes education, science, culture and communication. Its constitution stresses the need for education for all, the free exchange of ideas and knowledge, the spread of culture, the co-operation among the nations in all branches of intellectual activity, including the international exchange of persons active in the fields of education, science and culture, the exchange of publications, and the initiation of methods of international co-operation calculated to give the people of all countries access to the printed and published materials produced by any of them. This mandate, conceived right after WWII, is indeed still at the heart of the emerging knowledge society. UNESCO pursues four main objectives within this framework:
-Agreeing on common principles for the construction of knowledge societies;
-Enhancing learning opportunities through access to diversified contents and delivery systems;
-Strengthening capacities for scientific research, information-sharing and cultural creations;
-Promoting the use of ICTs for capacity-building, governance and social participation including empowering women and youth.
To accomplish these objectives, the most important factor of success is the political will. In other words, we also need a political and legal globalization to help “govern” it. The technological and economic globalization imposes as well the need for a “world rule of law”, and a political definition of the global common good to guide the elaboration of this world rule of law. But in order to avoid the risk of a world Leviathan, or of some sort of tyrannical and global Titan, this also implies to take into account the cultural specificities of the many “knowledge societies” around the world. It is an urgent task that will be possible only through the rise of a global civil society, fully conscious of its historical and political role.
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