The Rise of the Information Society

Information and communications technologies are making the 'global village' a reality.
A wave of change is sweeping through the world that has come to be known as the Information Society.

Two years ago, people were very worried about the Y2K bug. If computers stop operating properly, all telecommunications would cease, airplanes might crash, people could not draw money out of their bank accounts, trains would stop, etc., and catastrophes would be inevitable. Fortunately, it did not happen, thanks to our careful planning and precautions. International Telecommunication Union (ITU) worked hard to tackle this problem.

The advantages and benefits that the Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) can bring in education, commercial, medical and governmental activities are too numerous to mention. They are making the \"global village\" a reality. Yet, many of the world\'s inhabitants are still excluded.

Take, as an example, the telephone: 83 countries still have a teledensity below 10 lines for every 100 inhabitants; 25 countries still have a teledensity below one per cent. The situation is even worse for Internet access. Some 61 countries have less than one Internet user for every 100 citizens.

Furthermore, the services are often prohibitive to use due to high prices. A call from Geneva to the United States costs less than five US cents a minute, using the newest technologies, which is the same price as a call to neighbouring cities in France.

However, a call to many parts of Africa from Geneva costs over one US Dollar per minute, or twenty times more. If the price came down, African citizens would better be able to join the international community.
This is the reality.

Bridging the Digital Divide

In the yesteryears of our parents, it was a luxury to have a telephone at home. But in today\'s world, telecommunications is a necessity. Without it you cannot work efficiently, you cannot be part of the modern world and you cannot participate in the benefits of a prosperous economic life.

Of course people cannot live on information alone, but it is quite obvious that humanity, for better or worse, is now entering an age where information-oriented activities are a major part of GDP. Information is a key to competitive advantage both for businesses and modern states.

Therefore, it becomes all the more urgent to build the basic telecommunication infrastructure, to develop capable human resources and to make the best use of information technologies for every aspect of human activity.

We must extend the benefits of information and telecommunication technologies to every citizen in the world. We must bridge the digital divide and turn it into a digital opportunity. This is in fact the specific mandate of the International Telecommunication Union as the UN specialized agency responsible for telecommunications. Since its establishment in 1865, the Union has been working hard to achieve precisely this goal.

Information-oriented Society

An earlier stage of economic development was the passing from an agricultural economy to an industrial one. If all countries must follow the same stages of development, the developing world will never close the gap. However, many recognize that ICTs may help countries to leapfrog this development process by moving directly to an information-driven society, if they take the proper steps.

To build the information-oriented society we do not necessarily require those pre-conditions that helped to create the industrial revolution such as the accumulation of wealth to be able to invest in the facilities for mass production. What you need is creative individuals and a comparatively smaller amount of investment in ICT infrastructure. Anyone can work and provide a product to the global market, even from a remote corner of the world if the means of communication are readily and cheaply available.

In the information society, large organizations, which benefit from economies of scale, are even becoming a hindrance. In an industrial economy based upon mass production, companies typically expand both their own organizations and their markets as much as possible to gain the benefits of economies of scale. However, in the information society, most of the actual work is carried out by individuals, using computers and networks, so that the power of scale economies loses relevance.

A complex distribution system, or many layers of middlemen, or a rigid hierarchical structure, will be useless or even an obstacle. Therefore, at the threshold of the information society, the developed and developing worlds are standing at the same starting point.

Taking the Right Actions

There are already success stories showing how to make the best use of information and communications technologies for development. These include the software industry of Israel or Bangalore in India; the Asian hubs of Hong Kong and Singapore, or even a small mountain village of Peru that has succeeded in selling its agricultural produce to New York via e-commerce, and has raised household incomes fivefold in the process.

The transformation to the Information Society will be every bit as profound as the movement from agrarian to industrial societies. In the past, such changes have led to winners and losers. Some countries have prospered, while others have fallen behind.

It could happen once again and, if we do not take any action now, existing gaps may be widened. No, we must not make the same mistakes for the coming information society.

World Summit

By taking the right decisions, world leaders must shape the direction of the Information Society and create a more just, prosperous and peaceful world. It will not be an easy task. But I am confident that we can work together to gain the proper understanding of political leaders on the Information Society and establish a global strategy to create a win-win situation. This is the objective of the World Summit on Information Society.

To create a win-win situation at the Summit, it will be first necessary to elaborate a vision of the Information Society that will enable us to anticipate and embrace the positive benefits it will bring.
Secondly, the Summit should draw up a concrete and clear action plan for improving access to ICTs, by converting the digital divide into a digital opportunity that can be implemented by all stakeholders.

Thirdly, the Summit should look beyond technology and focus on applications. The real goal is not just to get more computers or more telephones, but rather to extend access to information, to guarantee the right to communicate and focus on how ICTs can be used to achieve the broader social and economic goals, such as the eradication of poverty.

In order for the Summit to be a milestone in the Information Society, it must be a true meeting of minds, bringing together all stakeholders, from both the developed and developing world. It must provide a unique opportunity for Heads of State, UN agencies, regulators, industry leaders, NGOs and civil society, to gather together and discuss all relevant issues in the Information Society.

The first phase of the World Summit will take place in Geneva, hosted by the Government of Switzerland, on 10-12 December 2003. It will debate all themes related to the Information Society and adopt a Declaration of Principles and related Action Plan addressing the entire range of topics.

The second phase of the World Summit will take place in Tunis, hosted by the Government of Tunisia, in 2005. Development themes will be a key focus of this phase and it will assess the progress made and adopt any further Action Plan deemed relevant.

The Summit is being designed to ensure the active participation of all concerned stakeholders. Other UN agencies have been closely involved in the preparation through the High-Level Summit Organizing Committee. The UN-ICT Task Force can also make an important contribution, both through written input to the Summit and in assisting in preparations at the regional level. It is hoped that this process will avoid duplication among the efforts of different initiatives that are now being carried out by many international organizations and other stakeholders.

(*Extracted from the United
Nations General Assembly,
New York, 17-18 June, 2002)
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