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La Educación
Número: (115) II
Año: 1993

Information Technology and the Growth of Popular Awareness

Possibly the single most powerful impact of technology on society is through the scope, reach, and substance of information and communication. From the advent of movable metal type, to radio and television, to electronic communication through space satellites, to the multiple functions of computers, the horizons of knowledge have been expanded enormously. These informational technologies transcend international borders. National apprehension regarding their subversive possibilities led UNESCO into the consideration of a New World Information and Communication Order—a proposition to control international communication that aroused international controversy.

This episode is cited merely to substantiate the latent power of information over popular beliefs and political options. The growth of a world-wide economic order facilitated by technologies of transportation and communication has been an important factor in the dissemination of scientific information. Applied science has had both positive and negative consequences, but perhaps its most significant effect has been to increasingly enlighten people regarding their situation on “space-ship Earth.” The globalization of the economy has brought people everywhere into contact; science has discovered the mechanisms and relationships that made the Earth a functioning self-sustaining biophysical system. Scientific investigation has also revealed the vulnerabilities of that system and the effects of human impacts upon it. Communication technologies have carried this information to all persons prepared to receive it. These events have been the context in which the so-called “environmental movement” arose and rapidly assumed an international character.

During the years since 1972 several studies of the relationship between environment, population, economic growth, and development have been published, making a case for the necessity of achieving environmentally sustainable development as soon as possible. In 1972 a team of MIT systems analysts published The Limits to Growth based upon a study of world dynamics by Professor J. Forrester.4 Although severely criticized by some economists, the study was sponsored by the Club of Rome—a group of scientists, business men, and public officials who became convinced that the world was moving toward a critical point in history which they identified as the “predicament of mankind.” In early 1992 an updated treatment of the 1972 study was published. This report—Beyond the Limits—emphasized the need for early action by governments on a broad range of issues many of which were to be considered at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development5 meeting in Rio de Janeiro in June. Meanwhile in 1991 the Council of the Club of Rome published a report by Alexander King and Bertrand Schneider entitled The First Global Revolution setting out the political consequences of a world increasingly interconnected by science, information, commerce, and technology.6 These are notable instances of a much larger literature which has had a significant impact upon the thinking of informed people throughout the Western Hemisphere as well as throughout the rest of the world.

Dissatisfaction with the Results of Development

The foregoing analyses, in addition to actual experience, have led to a general disappointment with the results of the U.N. Development Decades. Nor have the assistance programs of the United States appeared to be more successful. These efforts were largely conceived and administered by economists and were based on a perception of need that was essentially economistic and technocratic. The poor and ex-colonial nations were first patronizingly described as “underdeveloped,” but the sensibilities of “Third World” nations were assuaged by euphemistically renaming them “developing.” The tacit assumption was that these countries should become “developed”—economically, technologically, politically; that is, they should become like the “advanced” industrial democracies. Cultural and ecological differences generally were discounted or overlooked. Few if any efforts were made to ascertain the full impact of introduced technologies.

The consequence was frequent failure. Case histories of more than fifty such failures—a number from Latin America—were analyzed and documented by a conference on ecology and international development convened in 1968, at Airlie House, Virginia.7 Dissatisfaction over “foreign” aid was paralleled in many “developed” countries by disillusion over environmentally destructive projects at home and by apprehension over the deployment of new and powerful technologies, notably nuclear, chemical, and biological, for which no assessment of impacts had been undertaken. One historical reason for the failure of some development efforts in Latin America has been a lack of knowledge (and possibly of interest) on the part of public officials. A significant contribution to sustainable development in Latin America generally would be an upgrading of science and development policy studies in the universities and an extension of their findings into public policy and decisionmaking.

Not all social or ecological effects of technological innovations are readily apparent. Some, such as the adverse consequence of the Green Revolution, the risks to health from PCBs and DDT, or from the introduction of genetically altered life forms (e.g., patented plant hybrids), were not immediately apparent. Discovery that well-intended technological development was not wholly beneficial brought about, in both more- and less-developed countries, reaction against its uncritical acceptance. One consequence was the search for and adoption of science-based methods of environmental impact analysis and technology assessment. Initiated in developed countries, these analytic techniques were carried around the globe until today they have become subjects of international concern and cooperation.