Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Information Divide, Information Flow and Global Justice

Soraj Hongladarom
Department of Philosophy and Center for Ethics of Science and Technology
Chulalongkorn University, Thailand

Information has become a precious resource. It is commonly known that today's economy is being driven by knowledge and information, and that today's advanced technologies in many fields are deeply infused with information. However, it is also well known that this type of information lies mostly in the hands of those in the highly developed western countries, who generate the information to serve the needs of their industries and enterprises through basic and applied research. These industries in turn feed the economies of these countries, which come back to provide more funding for further research. Thus a cycle has developed whereby the industrialized economies are able to sustain their pace of economic progress.
On the other hand, the countries and economies in the developing world do not seem to fare as well. What is happening is that the same kind of virtuous cycle that has already taken place in the developed world has largely not found its way to get started yet. And the key to this non-starting is the apparent lack of information. Without effective research and development facilities and infrastructure, the countries in the developing world seems to lack a mean of generating information and knowledge that is necessary to fuel their own industries. Without these industries there is little that these countries can rely on in order to provide their own funding for research and development.
I would like to call this situation an 'information divide.' It is broader than what is commonly known as the digital divide in that the latter is focused more on the actual access to information technology and the global computer network, whereas the information divide here is more a matter of a society's capability of generating their own information that could be harnessed in their economic development. The digital divide as commonly known is then only a part of the wider information divide. What I aim to do in the paper is to lay out a conceptual map for the whole issue, firstly by outlining the ethical issues involved, then providing some conceptual clarifications—it is clear that the very concept of information needs to be clarified—and concluding by suggesting some concrete means by which this information gap can be reduced.
As for the first part on the ethical conception, I argue that the disparity in information between the developed and developing world is not simply a matter of one side having more information than the other. On the contrary it is actually a matter of the capability of 'harvesting' or 'mining' the information that is already there everywhere. This capability has in fact spilled over from the territorial confines of the developed world when, for example, biologists and pharmacologists from the West come to countries like Brazil or Thailand searching for biological samples that could be developed for new drugs. The information is already there, but some expertise is needed to extract it. This issue, known as 'biopiracy' or 'bioprospecting', has created controversies and protests from those in the developing, and developed world, who see that this is an injustice since the drugs that will be developed will often be catered to the interests of the rich consumers in the West only. Hence, sharing of information has become a crucial issue in the relations between the developing South and the developed North. The issue that needs to be ironed out is how this sharing of information should be spelled out in detail in practice, not only about sharing of information gleaned from biological resources, but other kinds of information also.
Talking about sharing of information implies that one also talks about flow of information from one region to another. To think that the problem of information divide could be solved by simply letting information flow from North to South does not work, because that would mean the information that is already there in the South is not put to use. Another reason is that this presupposes that the South has nothing to contribute, and all the information is there in the North. This may sound quite obvious, but in fact the one-way information flow has been the norm in developing countries for decades, as it is believed that information (which for our purpose here includes knowledge and expertise) needs to flow from the North in order to help strengthen the South. It also represents a colonial mindset in that it implies that the South will be always dependent on the North for information.
Hence, I propose a system of flow of information that better reflects global justice. Instead of the one-directional flow, information needs to flow in and out in both directions. It is also important that information needs to flow from one developing nation to another, and not only between the North and the South. In order for the South to be actually strengthened, information needs also to be able to travel from one part to another all within the South itself. This, unfortunately, is not happening on a significant scale, as developing nations still look toward the Western countries for models and for knowledge and expertise.
For that to be possible, there has to be a network of Southern, developing countries with one another. This is not as easy as it might look, because there are a number of obstacles that need to be overcome, such as differing language, cultures and perhaps more significantly the idea that there is nothing to be learned from one’s counterpart in another developing country. Another important point is that there has to be an effective way of ‘mining’ or ‘extracting’ information so that valuable information in the South is not lost to the whole world. This also involves looking toward the traditions of the cultures of the South (and indeed at those of the North) in order to find insights and even expertise in dealing with contemporary problems.
An advantage of focusing on intra-southern information sharing is that it dissolves the global/local dichotomy that is prevalent in today’s discourse about information flow. Based on a conception of information which will need to be fully developed in another, more philosophical paper, I propose that information is neither global nor local, or to put it in other words it is both global and local at the same time. This is possible because, as I shall point out, the boundary between the global and the local is a constructed one and once we find that its presupposition is wanting, the whole edifice comes crumbling down. The usual understanding is that the West (or the North) represents the ‘global’, and the East (or the South) the ‘local.’ But this means that the West is the hegemonic force that is capable of dominating the world, becoming the global in the process and thereby marginalizing non-western cultures to be the local ones. In the proposal to be developed, everywhere is a global and a local at the same time, or nowhere is exclusively a global or a local. This is possible because the South does have its store of information that is ready to be shared for the benefit of the world. The challenge is only how to bring that out in such a way that does not require being dependent on the North.