Santa Clara University

STS Nexus

Toward Global Knowledge Sharing: Examples from the Philippines

Sharing is Fun
STUDENT ART COMPETITION  - “Sharing Knowledge is Fun!”  By Sherrie Benjamin

Roberto Verzola

Introduction: Examples of Appropriate Technologies for Farmers in the Philippines

 

 To understand knowledge sharing from a global perspective, one must understand which Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are appropriate and available for specific political, economic, and cultural environments.  As an example, consider farmers in the Philippines.

A typical Filipino farmer might farm one half to two  hectares of land and earn one to five dollars of income a day to support a family size of five or more members. A few might be better off, but many have less land, and a significant number do not even have their own land. The latter become farm laborers, whose daily income may not even reach the rural minimum wage of around three dollars. Many farmers are perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy. A bad harvest, a serious illness in the family, or similar problems can easily push them over the edge, towards deep indebtedness and extreme impoverishment.

In this context, computers or Internet subscriptions are out of the question. Most of the farmer’s income goes to basic survival needs. Beyond this, their family’s priority is the education of their children—typically up to high school, but up to college if this can be managed.

Aside from the transistor radio (a one-time cost of 10 to 20 dollars, and a recurring cost of one to two dollars every few months for batteries), and television (about five times more expensive than radio), Filipino farmers have embraced two technologies for perceived usefulness: the mobile phone and the Video Compact Disk (VCD) player.  It is useful to examine the societal factors that have contributed to the adoption of these technologies.

First, a significant majority of Filipino families have an immediate relative working abroad. These Filipino overseas workers comprise around five million of a population of 84 million. Communication between these overseas workers and their families in the Philippines is of utmost importance to maintain family cohesion. Historically, telecommunications companies have balked at installing the infrastructure necessary for land-line communications. This has created a huge demand for mobile phones. Nearly four out of ten Filipino families now have a mobile phone. The figure is lower among farmers, but still significant. And a neighbor’s mobile phone is always accessible for urgent communications. This has made the mobile phone the most ubiquitous one-to-one communication tool in the Philippines.

The VCD adoption is related to the fact that Filipinos love to sing. The karaoke was actually invented in the Philippines, where the inventor called it a “sing-along system,” which became “minus-one,” and later karaoke, when the Japanese adopted the technology and popularized it worldwide. VCD  players make perfect karaoke systems. With VCD players costing as low as $30, and a karaoke CD costing less than a dollar, Filipino families have adopted VCD (and DVD) players en masse. Even in the poorest village, one can now expect to find a VCD player connected to a television set shared among many families. Karaoke singing is a social event; the system is often set up outdoors, neighbors join in, and the singing can last way past midnight.

In 2004, these two systems, together with more traditional methods of communications (radio, newspapers, and the printed primer), were used to popularize  a new system of rice growing among farmers called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). This system has been successfully tried in 17 countries; it not only increases yields and helps farmers phase out toxic chemicals from their fields, but also reduces water and seed costs. Traditional media like radio, television, and print were used to create the initial interest, making sure that a mobile phone number was always mentioned in the report. Within about three months, nearly two hundred farmers or their urban relatives contacted the SRI mobile phone (and less frequently SRI land line) to ask for more information. More than two-thirds of these sent in their mailing addresses, which enabled mailing them an SRI primer containing most of the information they needed to start an SRI trial. About half of these ordered the SRI-training VCD.

If “global knowledge sharing” is to include the poor farmers of the Philippines – and of the developing world – it is important to focus on the portions of the emerging ICT infrastructures that they can participate in, and to make sure that the cost of participation remains affordable to them. This is not usually the case in many ICT projects that rely on computers and Internet connections for implementation.

Another technology that may be appropriate for farmers in the Philippines is low-power FM stations. With the cost of such stations (which can cover a few villages or a small town) currently around the price of a laptop computer, low-power FM has become affordable for local governments, parishes, local schools and non-government organizations. The announcement by Free Radio Berkeley of a low-power television station that can cost below $2,000 is another exciting development. Unfortunately, in many countries today, one must go through a tangle of bureaucratic licensing requirements before such stations can be set up.

Another tantalizing possibility, should the hardware become available, is a VCD/DVD player that can also browse HTML files on a disk. Such a CD player/browser would expand the possibilities for knowledge sharing among farmers immensely, way beyond “karaoke” singing, enjoying movies, or watching training videos.

As these examples show, it is possible with the right approach, based on low-cost hardware, to extend the benefits of knowledge sharing through apprropriate ICT, even to the poorest sections of society.

 

Strategies for ICT in Developing Countries

As these examples indicate, we need to develop strategies for low-cost deployment of ICT.  Five core strategies proposed for developing countries are as follows.

1.     Use an appropriate (i.e., intermediate) technology, which may not be the latest or the most advanced, but still improves significantly on the current ways of doing things and is much more affordable to those who will use it;

2.     Use free/open software (e.g., Linux/GNU, OpenOffice, etc.), to drastically reduce the cost of software and to invite deeper knowledge about the technology through the availability of the source code;

3.     Where commercial software must be used, encourage the government to apply genuine compulsory licensing;

4.     Deploy pay-per-use public access stations which do not require users to pay fixed monthly charges (the public phone booth model); and

5.     Explore community/public ownership mechanisms to minimize private rent-seeking.

 

With these strategies, low-cost knowledge sharing is even more feasible, because of the nature of information itself.  However, the low cost of global knowledge sharing presents some difficult issues for developing nations.  These issues must be addressed for the proposed strategies to be effective.

 

The Low Cost of Reproducing Information

The marginal cost of reproducing information is nearly zero, especially with new technologies. From the altruistic perspective, the very nature of information itself encourages further sharing. The free sharing of books, CDs, videos, files, software, and data among users is bound to become even more widespread as the marginal cost of information reproduction approaches zero. This will lead to the growth and expansion of the digital commons.

From the profit-maximizing perspective, however, the same low marginal cost of information promises very high rates of return if a high price can be artificially maintained while the cost of reproduction approaches zero. This is achieved through a mechanism called Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). IPR includes copyrights and patents, which allow holders to exclude others from using, distributing or making money from the information covered by the IPR. IPR are a form of rent, extracted by their holders from users in exchange for the privilege to use the IPR-protected item.

 

The Conflict between Two Value Systems

As IPR owners accumulate significant wealth from the increasingly higher profit margins, it becomes very attractive for IPR holders to turn this economic power into political power that can prevent further sharing and can artificially maintain a scarcity of the information commodity. This leads to the perpetuation of the digital divide, as copyrights and patents are used to prevent information and knowledge from spreading freely, and to strengthen control and monopoly over various forms of information.

Some now argue that the increasingly draconian measures employed to enforce IPR have tilted the balance between information users and producers too much in favor of the producers. So, that balance must be restored. This might be called the “IPR minus” argument.

Others go further, and argue that current IPR regimes are monopolistic and therefore go against the very nature of information. So, according to this argument, the solution is not just to balance the interests of information owners and information users, but to phase out monopolistic ways (like IPR) of rewarding intellectual work and find non-monopolistic ways of doing so. This might be called the “IPR not” argument.

IPR was originally based on the argument that if we don’t want intellectual stagnation, we need to reward intellectual work, and IPR provides this system of rewards. However, IPR is only one of the ways to reward intellectual activity. IPR  belong to what may be called monopolistic rewards for intellectual work. The other ways of rewarding intellectual work are non-monopolistic ways, in cluding salaries, bonuses, awards, and all those other reward systems that do not give exclusive rights to the creators but instead free the created information for unlimited sharing. Thousands of programmers are paid a regular salary; this does not make them any less creative. In fact, the emergence of the free/open software movement is testimony to the continuation of intellectual work even without immediate monetary rewards at all, an argument for “IPR not.”

These arguments between sharing and monopoly reflect how the fundamental nature of information itself reinforces two contrary value-systems—one value-system oriented towards sharing and building the digital commons, and the other oriented towards monopoly and maintaining the digital divide. Contrary value systems create a core conflict in an information economy. Users will continue to share (even if it has to be done clandestinely, because altruism will not disappear). The biblical miracle of the loaves, for instance, is an argument for altruistic information sharing. The IPR holders’ high rates of return, on the other hand, will accumulate more economic and political power. They can be expected to use these powers to prevent this sharing from going on and to maintain a monopoly over the “miraculous loaves” of information that multiply themselves at no cost.

 

The Rentier Class of the Information Economy

A new class of property owners is emerging from the information economy. Because the emerging information economy is a rent-seeking economy, and the property owners are rentiers, is accomplished  by simply controlling a resource and charging rents for the use of this resource.

Where this resource is information, protected from uncontrolled abundance through IPR, the rents take the form of IPR royalties (including technology fees for crops and genetically-engineered food products). “Rents” can also involve control over such things as the assignment of IP addresses or domain names, or the use of Internet standards and formats.

Where these resources include hardware or infrastructure, such as servers, communication lines, and other physical facilities, the rents take the form of subscription fees, access fees, entrance fees, usage fees, and similar charges.

In a way, these property owners are a new type of landlord. They are the landlords of cyberspace, cyberlords. The best example of an emerging information economy, where the information sector has become more dominant than the industrial or the agricultural sector, is the U.S. economy. The demands of the dominant property owners of the U.S. economy therefore now reflect more and more the demands of a modern, high-tech, rent-seeking class.

As cyberlords compete with each other and try to draw more people into cyberspace, the cost of software, hardware, and connectivity is bound to go down further, making the Internet and other ICT more accessible to the poor. The five strategies for low-cost deployment suggested above will likewise help bring ICT within reach of even more people.

The widespread use of these new technologies will, however, bring additonal issues to the forefront.

Built-in Biases with ICT

It was the economist E.F. Schumacher who warned that importing a technology also brings in the ideology that comes with it. Indeed, ICT, such as the Internet, contain built-in biases, deeply embedded within the technology itself. These biases include:

¥                    English. Even a Chinese-language Web site is written in the hypertext mark-up language (HTML), and this language is based on English words. Practically all software is written in programming languages that use English command words.

The languages of the machines of computing—the assembly languages specific to each processor—are also English-based. At the deepest levels of the silicon chip, the micro-code that controls the various processing units, registers, and external memory  are also English-based codes. Thus, true mastery of the technology requires a familiarity with English. To learn English, of course, is to become familiar with Anglo-Saxon taste. One cannot learn a language without absorbing, at least in part, the messages, and the dominant culture, that it carries. Thus, the built-in requirement to learn English for full mastery of the new ICT tends to draw the technology user towards Anglo-Saxon culture and, consequently, expands the market for that culture.

 

¥                    Automation. The new ICT carry even further forward the idea that people should be replaced by machines. In the industrial economy, physical work is replaced by machines. In the information economy, mental work is replaced by machines. Automation is a major paradigm of the new ICT, replacing workers, employees and even lower- and middle-level management with automated machines and computers. Automation may also create new jobs, but the displaced workers may not be qualified for them, and these new jobs may not last, because they will also be targets of the same automation paradigm, as management tries to approach the paradigm’s ideal: fully-automated operations. This ideal is practically a reality now in much of the Internet infrastructure, which runs twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, requiring only occasional human attention. The automation paradigm may be appropriate for high-tech countries, but it makes less sense for labor-rich countries, because it shrinks the labor market while expanding the high-tech market.

       The technofix. A more general expression of the automation paradigm is “technofix thinking”—that for any human problem, a technology exists or can be developed to solve it. “Technofixers” often ignore social solutions to social problems, preferring instead the technological solution. The problem can be hunger (technological solution: genetically-modified food; social solution: improving the income of the poor), election cheating (technological solution: computerized counting; social solution: punish the cheaters severely), or infertility (technological solution: test-tube babies; social solution: adoption). The technological solution is often something for sale, while the social solution is usually something we simply need to do together. Early societies, including those that have survived until now, have evolved social solutions to most human problems. Unfortunately, even if they may still be relevant under modern conditions, these solutions are giving way, often under pressure, to expensive high-tech solutions sold by industrial and information economies. In effect, technofix thinking supports the market expansion of the economies that sell these technologies.

¥                    Subsidizing the global. The Internet has a built-in bias that forces local players to subsidize global players. This forced subsidy can be seen clearly by comparing the charges and actual costs of sending a big file – first to a local contact, sub scribed to the same Internet Service Provider (ISP) and next to a contact on the other side of the globe. Under most Internet charging schemes, the charge will be the same, whether the file is to a neighbor subscribed to the same ISP, or to a foreign contact on the other side of the globe. Yet, a file sent locally uses fewer network resources than the same file sent to a distant ISP. From the sender’s mailbox, the local file will simply be moved to the receiver’s mailbox, probably on the same hard disk. But the file sent distantly will have to go through a number of hubs, routers, and communication channels, including undersea cables or satellites, before reaching the distant receiver’s mailbox. But they will be charged the same. In effect, local communications pay much more, per unit resource, making them subsidize global communications. This built-in bias in the Internet is the opposite of the old bias by telecommunications companies who made international calls subsidize local calls.

 

Conclusion

                Fortunately, not all new ICT contain these biases. Low-power radio and TV stations, for instance, will create an opposite bias in favor of the local language, given the limited coverage of such hardware. They also will not contain the built-in subsidy for global players. If VCD/DVD players/browsers had the ability to write information as well as to play it, they would reinforce the natural desire of users to share useful information with others. 

                It is indeed a major challenge to redesign technologies or use existing ones in ways that cost less and are more accessible to the poor. A bigger challenge is to redesign technologies so that they reinforce value-systems more compatible with a socially-just, culturally-diverse, and ecologically-friendly world.  But the biggest challenge of all is to change our own mind-sets so that we do not become dependent on technology fixes to solve our social problems.    

About the Author

Roberto Verzola

Roberto Verzola is an advisor on sustainable technologies for the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, a major NGO in the Philippines.  He is also the author of Towards a Political Economy of Information (2004), which provides a framework for analyzing recent developments in ICTs and how these developments relate to other issues.  Previously Verzola held positions with the University of the Philippines, Philippines Development Alternatives Foundation, and Soljuspax, a foundation that advocates for safe and renewable energy sources.  He currently serves on the board of PABINHI, a network of farmers, academics, and other groups practicing and advocating sustainable agriculture; the Center for Ecozoic Living and Learning, a demonstration farm and educational center; and the FNS Bulletin Board.  Verzola has a degree in electrical engineering from the University of the Philippines.

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