The Internet alleviates rural isolation
MetadataShow full item record
CTA. 1997. The Internet alleviates rural isolation. Spore 72. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/48903
Internet URL: http://spore.cta.int/images/stories/pdf/old/spore72.pdf
Cheap and efficient communication aids development. Urban centres have grown out of people's need to be able to communicate with each other. From this congregation and communication spring self-perpetuating economic activity and development. Rural...
Cheap and efficient communication aids development. Urban centres have grown out of people's need to be able to communicate with each other. From this congregation and communication spring self-perpetuating economic activity and development. Rural areas have been left behind, but with better telecommunications and wider access to modern electronic information technology they will have a chance to catch up. Imagine a world-wide road network. The 'roads' have fast-moving traffic, safely carrying important 'packages' to their destination. Business is flourishing. Raw materials are ordered on time, manufacturing and service industries run efficiently and manufactured goods and other products are priced competitively and delivered to satisfied customers around the world. Every single individual, whether a farmer living at the end of a track (which disappears in the rainy season), or the sales manager of a big commercial enterprise close to the international airport, could be linked to this network. That, at least, is the theory but, in practice, it seems that there is a big diversion sign around many of the ACP States. If the diversion signs were removed, what impact would that have on rural development? The 'road network' is the internet and the fast-moving traffic are packets of information data. The major advantage of the internet over other means of communication is that people can 'speak' to each other, no matter who they are or how far apart they may be. Their communication is cheap, quick and two-way, unlike radio, TV and print, and the quantity and variety of information that can be instantly transferred is staggering. When two people speak by telephone, a part of the telephone system is entirely dedicated to the call, which means that when many people want to use the telephone system at the same time its capacity is quickly exhausted and no line is available. When two people use the same lines to communicate by internet, the information is broken down into small packets of data which then flow like a stream of traffic across the network. The packets of data, which get mixed up with everyone else's data, are routed through junctions. Even though a single communication may be broken into separate data packets which follow separate routes, the receiver gets the complete, reconstituted message. As long as senders and receivers have a computer, modem, appropriate software, a telephone line, and an understanding of how to use the equipment, they can exchange information. However, users also need to know how to make good use of all that the internet can offer. The internet offers access to information. The type of information required will obviously depend on the user. A farmers' cooperative may want to know what price could be obtained for their crops if they were exported rather than sold in the nearest market town. They may want to know what transport will be available to move the goods, how much that would cost and whether, therefore, the venture would be profitable. In any business transaction, the better informed the seller, the better the chance of a fair price. A fruit grower may want technical advice to help judge the perfect time for harvesting the crop (see box). Agricultural researchers may need information which relates to their work and which they know will be available only from a major university on the other side of the world. University students returning from higher degree studies overseas may need to maintain contact with their tutors or supervisors in order to complete research work or, indeed, the university professors may wish to learn from their ex-students. The internet also provides access to distance learning, through which formal qualifications can be obtained by pursuing home study courses backed up by materials and tutoring accessed via the internet. Surf or sink The internet should be thought of as the infrastructure for communication; by using that infrastructure in different ways, various services can be obtained. The most well-known are the World Wide Web, e-mail and usenet or news (see box). The World Wide Web is the main service to use to undertake a search for information yourself. E-mail is used to contact an information provider directly, rather like a telephone call or fax which is addressed to a specific person or organization. Usenet is rather like a notice board that anyone, anywhere, can look at and to which anyone can pin their own notice. It is a way of asking questions and receiving answers from people who are interested in the same subject. This would be similar to CTA's Question-and-Answer Service but anyone could read both questions and answers and make their own contribution. Many individuals can gain the benefit of such a service if the organization that has access to the internet then distributes the information to those who have not by means of printed information sheets or even via local radio. The value of information depends on the relevance, and therefore the value, of the question to which it is attempting to respond. If the question has been correctly addressed, a response is little more than a mechanical process, which is why computers are so good at it. If you post a question into an inappropriate usenet discussion group, for example, you could wait for ever for a sensible answer. Asking the right question, therefore, actually requires more skill, understanding and intelligence than supplying the answer. For example, the secretary of a farmers' organization may be asked by the members to find out about applying fertilizer to the season's crop of maize. The answer could come back as, 'N50kg/ha, P25kg P2O5/ha, K50kg K2O/ha', when in fact the information actually required is, 'Three weeks' time, 100 shillings a bag'. Computers are very good at supplying answers but very bad at guessing questions. In an attempt to find the question, the World Wide Web, for example, will provide so many answers, or so many options for finding answers, that the task may become so tedious that it is abandoned. With access to a telephone line, which is, in any case, necessary in order to access the internet, the secretary would have been better advised to telephone the local agricultural store and ask when the fertilizer will be in and what it will cost. As with any other form of communication it is important to know how to define what information you need and how to communicate that need. Then comes the problem of knowing how to use the information received. The better the first two tasks are done, the easier is the third. Precise, accurate and free of bias? Another point which is related to the importance of being precise when seeking information is the need for that information to be accurate. In this respect the internet has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand it allows the user to access information from many different places, some of which may be a great distance apart; this could permit a degree of comparison and potentially a lack of bias. On the other hand, all information has, at some stage or another, been made available through the activity of a human being and human beings wittingly, or unwittingly, often give inaccurate information. There may be a temptation to feel that because information has come via a medium of sophisticated modern technology, it must be valid. A conversation on the internet may be as informal as a conversation with a stranger in a bar or at the bus stop. Who would place great confidence in such a casual exchange of information? This is not to say that such information should be mistrusted, but that it should be subject to the same level of scrutiny and judgment as any other information source. It should be remembered that in addition to its undoubted advantages for accessing information that is worthwhile or even essential, the World Wide Web provides commercial suppliers, not all of them totally honest, with a wonderful, world-wide shop window. The same level of judgment needs to be applied to these suppliers' beguiling advertisements on the internet. There are disturbing stories, for example, of unscrupulous operators selling spurious AIDS cures via the internet. Inducements to buy additional computer software or more sophisticated hardware in order to use the internet ever more efficiently are likely to be more tempting. A cynical observer might suggest that these products have built-in obsolescence, for this is how the service providers make their money. Nevertheless, new products are constantly becoming available and to be able to identify a potential crop pest from the scanned image of its wing sent from a remote location in Africa to a London-based institution may be deemed a very cost-effective piece of technology. Cost before benefit Apart from the potential benefits and drawbacks of using the internet, there are technical challenges which, until now, have limited its use in many ACP States and which largely remain to be overcome. The most significant of these is the telephone system. Many ACP States have inadequate, obsolete telephone systems that cannot satisfy the demands of social communication, let alone commercial development. Although radio or satellite links can overcome shortcomings in land-based telephone systems, these also require investment and any commercial investor or service provider will need to be confident of a return on their investment. This confidence is in part dependent on economic and political stability. Furthermore, a population that needs basic education and better health care is unlikely to press for a better telecommunications network, even though the opportunity of being able to communicate cheaply and efficiently may be the most effective means of stimulating economic development which may, in turn, provide the best hope of acquiring better health care and education. In addition to telephone access, users of electronic information technology must be able to purchase suitable computers, modem equipment and software. The setting up and use of these will almost certainly require, at least in the early stages, back-up services from the suppliers and training. The equipment must be robust enough to withstand less than ideal climatic conditions and must be housed in a reasonably dust-free, dry atmosphere. Security for any portable, expensive equipment is always a problem as is ensuring that the equipment is used only by those who know how to operate it properly and who will pass on its benefits to others. There will be an initial investment required in equipment and an ongoing cost in telephone charges and subscription costs to the service providers who provide access to the internet. Most organizations find that by using e-mail instead of the telephone they reduce the cost per call. This is especially the case if international telephone calls can be replaced by e-mail, which usually requires only a local call to the service provider. However, the tendency is for the volume of communication to grow and, while this is desirable if it indicates that a previously unsatisfied demand for communication links is now being met, it also has a cost implication. The internet and the electronic information services to which it gives access have already shown phenomenal growth rates and have brought prosperity and economic development to users and providers alike. The ACP States should not be left behind. Some are already on-line and the chance is there for others to catch up. The internet, like information itself, should be available for all who need it, but it could be that many of the ACP States will be left further and further behind in a world that is accelerating fast along the world's information superhighways.