The Role of Science in the Information Society
by Judy Jackson
The computer that Ms. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, now president of Latvia, and her husband donated to the University of Latvia while in exile in Canada during Soviet rule is now at work creating an electronic archive of the thousands of folksongs that are central to Latvia's cultural identity.
Dr. Onno Purbo of Indonesia and his students are on a mission to create a national network of Internet cafes to bypass government inaction and bootstrap access to the Internet for citizens of Indonesia.
Dr. Nico Stehr, Center for Advanced Cultural Studies in Essen, Germany, doubts that the Internet will prove a panacea against government corruption and exploitation. Dr. Folaju Olusegun Oyebola of Lagos, Nigeria has created the West African Doctors' Network, an online resource for physicians faced with some of the most daunting medical challenges on the planet. Dr. Esther Dyson the founding chair of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, wants individual scientists to get involved with ICANN but cautions that the organization has limited ability to bridge the digital divide. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, thinks it is useful to take time out now and then to think about where the information age is headed.
CERN Director Luciano Maiani told delegates that the organizers felt that the voice of the scientific community should be heard at the World Summit for several reasons. Basic science made possible the technologies that gave birth to the information society, Maiani said, and scientific research will influence future developments of the information society "from new electronic devices to the future architecture of the Internet, for example through the sharing of distributed computing resources via the Grid." Finally, the scientific community has the potential to empower scientists from regions hitherto largely excluded from scientific research, to create a "science sans frontières," or science without borders.
But what, if any, is the role of science in bridging the widening information and knowledge gap between the developed and developing world? A recurring question at the conference concerned the potential of information and communication technologies, or ICTs, themselves to address social, economic, educational and information inequities that divide rich and poor nations. Will it be possible, for example, asked Essen's Stehr, for developing nations to "jump the queue" and enter the information age directly, without passing through the stage of industrial development that has characterized the history of developed countries?
Summing up the conference, Maiani told delegates that "several general themes have emerged as guidelines and have received clear support at RSIS: that fundamental scientific information be made freely available; that the software tools for dissemin-ating this information be also made freely available; that networking infrastructure for distributing this information be established world-wide; that training of people and equipment to use this information be provided in the host nations; that general education is an indispensable basis for the Information Society."
As for predicting the future of the information age, Berners-Lee pointed out the near impossibility of making accurate projections for information technology. Will science make Dr. Mbananga's dream of medical kiosks in Africa a reality? Bring cheaper bandwidth to Indonesian students? Help West African doctors fight AIDS or shine light on government corruption in former Soviet republics?
"It may be that a breakthrough by a couple of unknown high-school students will have more influence on the future of ICTs than all the conferences put together," Berners-Lee said. Nevertheless, he concluded, "the fact that we're all thinking about it together may mean this conference has succeeded already."
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|last modified 12/31/2003 email Fermilab|