Towards Digital Inclusion: Gathering, Digesting and Creating ICTs
‘Problems are not a monopoly of the South and solutions are not a monopoly of the North’. Particularly the latter part of this quote struck me, since within many studies on developmental aid and ICT4D (Information and Communication Technology for Development) prevails the idea that the solutions will come from the north, that is, from the developed countries. However, the (technological) inequality, often called the digital divide, is a consequence of the increasing (digital) technologies in developed countries. Ironically we are now trying to solve this problem with the same technology that has caused the inequality in the first place, upholding the idea that ‘our’ western solutions are the most appropriate.
The problem is that the digital divide is not only a matter of unequal distribution of technology; it is a complicated economic, social and political issue, whereof the rules need to be changed before actual development and the fight against inequality can be accomplished. ICTs do not play a determining role in this process. To my opinion we should move beyond the idea to use ICTs for societal and economical development and first start to focus on its potential to locally improve the lives of excluded and on how it can bring about social transformation for a particular user. Thereby we should rethink questions such as ‘what does it mean to be digitally included and what are the advantages for the to be included?’ or ‘to what state of being should we strive in the process of digital inclusion?’ and it is of great importance and interest to observe how cultural and social values and characteristics are reflected in the local appropriation and use of technology, instead of simply overloading the excluded with the newest (western) ICTs.
In Brazil, a country that has embraced FLOSS and adapted government policy on copyrights (see RIP, a Remix Manifesto), many projects and initiatives (governmental and non-governmental) aim at digitally and socially including marginalized groups by offering them access to digital technologies, e.g. cybercafés, school labs offering free computer access, etc. Several projects based on the same principle, which are widely spread throughout the country, use alternative technology to achieve social transformation for marginalized groups and minorities whereby digital inclusion goes beyond simply providing access to excluded groups, but tends to ‘improve’ the quality of their lives.
Those initiatives work from a bottom-up process, encouraging the excluded to develop their own ICTs independently from western interests. An example is the project called MetaReciclagem, which teaches and stimulate users to remanufacture hardware and garbage to create appropriate technology that runs free and open source software, pursuing a participative methodology for education, social engagement and innovation. They argue that digital inclusion does not consist of simply providing access to the Internet and it, in that manner, will certainly not enhance social engagement and innovation; neither does it close the digital divide.
Instead of teaching a user how to co-op with basic ICTs, they rather stimulate the formation of people who can create technologies that are appropriate to their values, norms and cultural beliefs, and which improve the quality of their lives and the life within the local communities eventually.
One of the basic principles of the initiative is the stimulation of entrepreneurship, self-management and the creation of mini-companies and corporations, thus encouraging autonomic communities. The use of alternative appropriated technology and FLOSS should encourage and complete this process. They learn how to create something they actually ‘need’, something that fulfils their needs, based on the philosophy of the ‘free movement’; creating free technologies and software, independent from western hard and software companies and their licenses on intellectual property and in a sense circumventing the capitalist logic of the Internet. Therefore, the (re)use of garbage and hardware and FLOSS play an essential role within this project and thus distinguishes the initiative from many other attempts to achieve digital inclusion.
The project is broadly applied in Brazil for over five years now, and I think it is time to answer the above questions in order to move on within the general debate on digital inclusion, which has, to my opinion, come to and ever repeating ‘everybody needs to be connected’, and for those who claim that digital inclusion is nothing more then ‘digital capitalism looking South’ the main argument remains that ‘FLOSS is the solution’. However, there is a lack of case studies done on the appropriation of alternative technologies and the way in which social transformation and self-autonomy is achieved within the process of digital inclusion. It is, therefore, of great importance that we reconsider the above questions, locally, instead of speculating how to bring those excluded into ‘our space’, that is, the space of the included. A case study on one of the bases of the MetaReciclagem project, called Projeto Puraqué, located in the south of the Amazon, will hopefully bring me new perspectives on the digital inclusion debate.
 http://firstname.lastname@example.orgKNPcBfe85q@.598d3322!discLoc=.598d54eb, accessed on 29/11/2009