Thursday, September 2, 2010

Information Wants to Cost What the Market Determines

When I am not ranting about the extent to which the information-wants-to-be-free crowd is downright delusional, I try to dig up evidence to support the claim that the world the Internet has made has turned information into a marketable commodity, making it fair game for economic study in general and price analysis in particular. Of course, because of the Internet, information is not only marketable but also marketable on a global scale, which is why my use of the noun "world" is far more than metaphorical. Thus, one might say that the Internet is facilitating the transformation of the entire world into a single market-driven culture.

Unfortunately, the history of market-driven cultures reveals that a focus on values concerned with the accumulation of wealth and other factors of economic growth tends to carry the corollary of willful neglect of poverty, if not downright refusal to acknowledge that such conditions exist. At the level of individuals, there will always be exceptions, the most notable currently probably being Muhammad Yunus through the theory and practice of his Grameen model of banking. However, when we consider the extent to which Yunus has been consistently ignored at more established gatherings, such as G20 meetings or the self-satisfying gatherings of the rich and mighty under the auspices of the World Economic Forum, we see that he is the exception that most convincingly proves the rule.

In this context there is something heartbreakingly quixotic about the Millennium Development Goals effort by the United Nations, particularly in light of the extent to which Internet technology may be both facilitating and thwarting this effort at the same time. This paradoxical situation has come to light in a story by Jonathan Fildes, Technology Reporter for BBC News, which appeared on the BBC News Web site this morning. Consider first Fildes' below-the-fold explanatory background:

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are a set of targets intended to reduce global poverty and improve living standards by 2015.

Specific goals target education, fighting disease and promoting gender equality.

Access to communications technology is a part of one of the targets.

There is probably not an Internet evangelist on earth who has not, at some time or another, trumpeted the power of the Internet to make the world a better place consistent with the vision of the MDG (whether or not that evangelist had ever heard of the MDG, or, for that matter, the UN). Unfortunately, the reality of that globalized market-driven culture enabled by the Internet has revealed a perspective that may be politely called counterproductive to these goals:

The global disparity in fixed broadband access and cost has been revealed by UN figures.

The Central African Republic is the most expensive place to get a fixed broadband connection, costing nearly 40 times the average monthly income there.

Macao in China is the cheapest, costing 0.3% of the average monthly income.

Niger becomes the most expensive place to access communication technologies, when landlines and mobiles are also taken into account.

It is realities such as these that make the whole MDG effort so quixotic. We have to consider the extent to which, regardless of what Internet technology can do, the uses to which it has been put have done more to increase the exploitation of the poor than to reduce global poverty. Now, as I have previously asserted, this is not an invitation for all of us to throw our wooden shoes into the Internet infrastructure. It is just a plea that, if we are to take MDG seriously (a premise that, "With the Rich and Mighty," is probably not valid), we need to approach the endeavor with a sense of reality that places people and their cultures before any utopian visions grounded in scientism and new technologies. Needless to say, those who profit from market-driven thinking will apply the full force of their "consciousness industry" to undermine that sense of reality; but that consciousness industry can itself be undermined by those clever enough to use the Internet to do so. All is not lost; but it will be unless a new generation of what I have called "sustainable activism" emerges from grass roots efforts on a global scale, transforming the Internet from an instrument of economic domination to the new medium of communication envisioned by those who first conceived it.

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