Challenges of a media-rich world
A century ago, in 1895, Marconi sent the first wireless message; two decades earlier Edison had invented the phonograph.
The nineteenth-century industrial age would soon transform humanity's ecology of communication, taking the world from the "Gutenberg Galaxy" to the threshold of an information revolution.
As the twentieth century unfolded, technical progress accelerated, with the invention of radio, then of television, and subsequently of broadcasting in both media. In the last three decades, however, humanity has taken a quantum leap. Technological advances have been breathtaking in their pace and exponential in their impact.
The first international satellite system, Intelsat, was put in place in 1965. Since then, space-age telecommunications, informatics, and optical electronics have converged with conventionally understood "mass media" to give people an unprecedented array of tools -- from the simple cellular telephone to the Internet -- to diversify their perceptions, to express their options, to interact with others, to understand and react to change, even to amplify human thought. While some of these tools are so expensive that they will remain the privilege of the few for many years to come, the unit-cost of much modern communication technology has plummeted. Lower costs, together with increased sturdiness and greater ease of handling, now put these capacities into the hands of local communities in ways that could not have been envisaged just two decades ago. And the fragmentation of application can empower every individual.
This new mediasphere has greatly enlarged our communication choices. It has already shrunk the world and dissolved its borders. Information drives the world economy and allows new ideas to be shared world-wide in a single instant. It multiplies opportunities for inter-personal encounter, giving those in the remotest places access to sound and images from other places throughout the world. Cyberspace eludes territorial jurisdiction and creates instant links for intellectual co-operation, for the exchange and sharing of data and experience. It broadens access to educational opportunity.
It is promoting freer flow of information. Expanding distribution capacities are ushering in new and increasingly diverse services. "Narrowcasting," interactive, educational and other networks are among delivery systems that now respond to hundreds of different needs, tastes and interests. By the same token, the ease of reproduction and transmission has made it much more difficult for any government to control -- let alone censor -- the information people receive or send. The media of today are helping sustain people's movements as well as create a better-informed citizenry. By enhancing public access and participation in democratic life they are contributing to human development.
They are also strengthening the sense of global solidarity, without which no global ethics could begin to crystallize. "Media images of human suffering have motivated people to express their concern and their solidarity with those in distant places by contributing to relief efforts and by demanding explanations and action from governments." It is no longer possible for oppressors to conceal acts of repression from the world at large or for the privileged to avert their faces from natural or man-made disasters in distant lands.
Multimedia are broadening the horizons of artistic and intellectual creativity. New techniques have inspired creative minds to invent video art, holography and virtual reality. Electronic images are replacing traditional means of recording and sharing memory.
These are consequences to be welcomed. The Commission is aware, however, that there are negative aspects as well.
Many people still remain voiceless or unheard. Control of the most powerful new media tools is still concentrated in the hands of a few, whether nationally or internationally, in private ownership or under governmental monopoly. Such dominance raises the spectre of cultural hegemony; a fear of "homogenization" is widespread. It is expressed everywhere, not just in the developing countries. A linked apprehension is the raising of unrealizable expectations among people now widely exposed to the lifestyles and languages of the affluent, while the pace of material progress in their own environment is painfully slow.
The world has transcended the mindsets that spawned the strident debate over a "New World Information and Communication Order" over a decade ago. Yet the questions that set off that debate are still valid. What is to be done when information flows from and within the developing world are so meagre and the concentration of power so strong? And in the industrialized and information-sated nations, transnational concentrations of ownership impel many people to demand a balance between market freedom and the public interest, to expect government to define public policy to attain social goals the market fails to achieve.
There are serious questions about media content. Gratuitous violence and pornography are pervasive. The sounds and images carried by the transnational media in particular may offend certain deeply held beliefs and sensibilities. What kind of world do they portray to the younger generation? Such questions are not asked in "traditional societies" or by developing country governments alone. It is not just a question of fearing the impact of "the West" As the British film producer David Puttnam has put it, "someone has to say, 'Enough' - because this is disaster, we are destroying ourselves. It's bad for us, we're damaging ourselves. We are untying the fabric of our society." The question is, who will say "enough" and when? How to find the dividing line between desirable freedom and unacceptable licence?
A final but vital set of questions concerns the availability of means. How can the communications revolution reach the billions without electricity in hundreds of thousands of human settlements in the developing world? They are still the have-nots of the information revolution. The haves are a minority, mostly in developed countries, and urban residents elsewhere, who can hope to be connected to satellite television or the international information networks. 45 of the 52 African countries - with a combined population of over 600 million - have national broadcasting services. These enjoy a combined viewership of more than 90 million. In Asia, however, eighteen per cent of some 386 million households now have access to cable or directtohome (DTH) satellite services.
For developing countries, the weak link in the infrastructure chain is often the "last mile" from the local exchange to the household. Some African countries are indeed so poor in telecommunications that there is less than a single line per 1000 people. Or, to put it more starkly still, there are more phones in Tokyo or Manhattan than in the whole of Africa.
But technology is not everything. However marvellous and compelling, it only provides the tools for human communication, that courses through and provides the motive force for all human endeavour, now and since the beginnings of society. The tools it makes available today are revolutionary because they provide "instantaneous global access both to other people and, in the end, to the totality of mankind's knowledge." In this sense, communication in all its forms, from the simplest to the most sophisticated, is a key to people-centred development. Rural newspapers may be more important than the information superhighway. Yet at whatever level the issues of communication are envisaged there is a shared challenge. This is the challenge of organizing our considerable capacities in ways that support cultural diversity, creativity and the empowerment of the weak and poor.
We can meet this challenge by finding the right checks and balances, the best possible mix between rights and responsibilities. Both nationally and internationally, this search is now under way. Its success will determine how well cultural and human development capabilities can be maximized.