Ismail Serageldin


STS Plenary Session Summation

 13/09/2005 | Speech at Plenary Session “Summaries from Concurrent Sessions”, Kyoto, Japan

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and gentlemen,
In the last century, a poet remarked 

Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Falls from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts...they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun; but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric...

--Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

We devoted ourselves to a better understanding of that loom. How to organize data so that it becomes information, how to link and interpret it so that we gain knowledge, which hopefully, when refined in the crucible of experience, with insight and reflection, may lead us to wisdom. The wisdom to create that better world to which we are all committed.

The four sessions devoted to the ICT revolution were very rich in content and animated in debate. I will try to regroup here some of the salient points around six main issues, some of which recurred like a common thread throughout the meetings, others, which were the focus of a particular session.

First: A true revolution:

ICT technology is now moving from computer-centric to communication-centric platforms (mobile phones and PDAs) which are much more user friendly. With substantial expansion of broadband wireless, the poor can move to communications-centric platforms immediately.

Massive connectivity is here: There are two billion Mobile phones in the world, with 350 million in China alone.

The Internet, with its enormous positive impacts, floods us with too much data of variable quality.

Storage: is becoming easier and cheaper. Technology makes information more portable and more searchable and more accessible. Imagine, one Ipod can store 12 million articles!

All in all, the density and accessibility of information is increasing dramatically.

Second: Equity:

This information revolution will favor the rich, the powerful, the educated and the nimble. Thus it has the potential to aggravate the digital divide and increase the gap between the rich and the poor. But the new technologies also hold the potential to enable the poorer people in the south to “leapfrog” the development patterns experienced in the north. While it is not a silver bullet, there was a consensus that connecting all the schools was both desirable and feasible. Although it would not replace conventional schooling, it would revolutionize the possibilities available to both teachers and students. Thoughtfully deployed, the new technology can strengthen communities and empower the poor. For example, Vietnam is using digital libraries for rural development. These become hubs of villages turning them into knowledge communities, each having a multimedia computer, printers, camera and 200 digitized movie titles.

But the costs of the hardware and of proprietary software to the south are enormous. Brazil was spending more on licensing proprietary software than it does on fighting hunger, so now it is moving to open source systems.

Third: Interoperability:

The full impact of the ICT revolution will not be fully realized until inter-operability is achieved. Consider, for example, the goal of “50 by 15” to connect 50% of the world by 2015.

This kind of goal cannot be achieved without setting standards that will ensure interoperability.

Standards drive down barrier to entry, and more entrants means better products. But for many participants there was a preference for open industry standards rather than proprietary solutions. However, it was recognized that even proprietary systems have seeded the landscape with competitors and innovators.

Who sets the standards? Those who have that power often abuse it for national or commercial reasons, at the expense of the consumer, the user.

 The discussions were complex and would require lengthy reporting to do them justice. But in general, most thought that standards should be market driven, though governments have to provide frameworks for anti-trust and for public goods. Standards should also avoid the stultifying effect of blocking new technologies. What if there is a new and better music compression technology than MP3 ?

 Fourth: The management of our heritage:

 The digital libraries of tomorrow have the potential of archiving an enormous amount of data. Not only will books be available in digital formats, but films, images, video, music and much more. We have a dual responsibility to record and protect our heritage, including the folklore and traditional customs and oral traditions, and to make it available to all.

 This will not be the work of one institution. Collaboration and exchange is essential, but will it be on open source formats? How will we deal with technical and physical obsolescence of the material and the formats? Will we keep rerecording this enormous material every few years?

 Information and ideas are central for the development of humanity. But there are intermediaries between authors and readers: Libraries have a central role to play. Large digital collections of text, images, voice, music and video open amazing possibilities. Hypertext links, even fluid hyperwords, object repositories, and new search engines and gateways that add coherence and credibility. We can find origins, or do associative semantic searching, all unthinkable in the non-digital world.

 Specialized collections can add enormous impact. The Brazil-Chile-Argentina initiative of digitizing their journals made available specialized literature on health and agriculture.

 In short, the library of the future will not just digitize the old books and articles. It will give birth to the new, so much of which resides in the links between the old knowledge. It will give a home to materials that are born digital! The library of the future will truly be the place to find the lasting and the lost.

 Fifth: Privacy and security:

 After much debate, the participants opted for supporting “Privacy for citizens and transparency for governments”. National security may call for the executive to access the enormous data assembled on each individual by virtue of the way we live today. But this should be subject to judicial approval based on probable cause. Commercial use of data profiling would be subjected to informed consent by the individual concerned. The Privacy issue would be best addressed in a Human Rights framework that draws on the established formulations in the Universal Declaration and other documents, extending them from “papers and correspondence” to include e-mail and other forms of electronic and digital communication.

 Indeed the issue was seen to be central to democracy. In many cases this privacy made possible by the Internet was giving voice to freedom, and advancing the cause of liberty.

 Another kind of security issue was related to the protection of our enormous digital data bases, transactions and other information from attacks by hackers or cyber terrorists. Hacking should be criminalized and the public educated to the potential damage of taking lightly the risks that they pose. Stealing the information about millions of credit card accounts, identity theft and other risks show a dark facet of the rapid expansion of the technology.

 Finally: A call for new thinking:

 More useable real-time data than ever before is now available to the average person, and this is going to increase in both quantity and quality. For example Google earth, is soon going to come to 30 cm resolution. Can we bring into the public domain information and data that can be used for public purpose, but respecting the privacy of individuals? Help establish baselines for understanding our enormously complex societies?

 To tackle these questions we will need new ways of thinking, trans-disciplinary research, and a great deal of imagination. Thinking of the multiplicative effect of the new technologies and how they impact on the environment, and how the very nature of human interaction in our societies will change remains a daunting and very exciting challenge. 

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