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The World in the Information Age

Han Reichgelt
Department of Mathematics and Computer Science
University of the West Indies
Mona Campus, Kingston 7
Jamaica

There is no doubt that the world has changed radically over the last few years because of dramatic improvements in and the integration of computer and telecommunications technologies. Perhaps, the most visible example of a change made possible because of these technological advances is the Internet, a world-wide network of interconnected computers which make it possible for anybody with access to a computer anywhere in the world to retrieve information (and misinformation) from any computer anywhere else in the world. Thus, it is possible to retrieve text, video or audio material which is physically stored on a computer in, say, Japan from a machine located in Jamaica, and indeed vice versa.

Another example of a change which is currently taking place, is the increasing use of electronic money. In Belgium, there are some 14 million electronic purses in circulation, cards which use chips to store digital money and which can be used to pay for everything from parking meters to baby outfits and which can be "recharged", i.e., have more money loaded into them, at any automatic banking teller machine.

Moreover, as the world becomes more familiar with the power of information technology, there is a growing realization that many problems which were hitherto considered as primarily requiring physical resources for their resolution, have in fact an important information component. Horticulture is a good example. Flower growers in Holland make extensive use of computers to ensure both quality and quantity of their products. Another example is Singapore, a country that has substantially increased its Gross Domestic Product by forging a position of strength for itself as a trans-shipment port. It achieved this through the introduction of a sophisticated information system which enabled the port to monitor container ships coming in and plan how and where to unload and load any ship well before it enters the port. Thanks to this creative use of information technology, turnaround time for container ships is well under 24 hours, and as a result Singapore is now the largest trans-shipment port in the world.

While there is no doubt that the world has changed dramatically due to the emergence of information technology, it is much harder to predict what the world will look like in 10 years time. However, it is more than likely that, if anything, the pace of change will quicken. Already, we are seeing major re-organisations in the structure of the international telecommunications sector. The recent inclusion of telecommunications services in agreements reached under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation 'will mean that we will see. greater competition in this sector, and many international telecommunications companies are jockeying for position to take advantage of these increased opportunities, and newspapers are full of stories of telecommunication companies merging or forming strategic alliances.

It seems also likely that the world will see further improvements in telecommunications technologies, hence making the sharing of information between computers easier and faster. For example, there are at least two consortia planning to set up networks of communications satellites to deliver high-speed access to Internet. Similarly, a number of well-established Information Technology companies are staking their future on so-called network computers, cheap computers which will not contain any hard disks but. will retrieve all their programs and data from networks they are connected to, such as the Internet.

Finally, the trend to automating existing procedures within an organisation, and the use of information technology to do existing jobs better or indeed to do jobs that currently are not done at all, will continue. More and more commercial transactions will take place electronically over the Internet, thus leading to an ever increasing globalisation of the world's economies. Similarly, there is every likelihood that within 10 years electronic cash will have replaced the note-and-coin variety.

While most of the developed world has woken up to the importance of information technology, the developing world is rather slower in its reaction. However, there is no doubt that countries in the third world have to take information technology as seriously as any country in the developed world. Earlier, we mentioned the increasing use of the Internet for commercial purposes. Clearly, this means that any country that wants to participate in the new global order will have to make use of this technology, and it is obvious that this argument applies as much to the developing world as it does to the developed world. Although countries in the South may continue to ensure that agriculture remains one of the main stays of their economies, -marketing of their agriculture produce will have to be done electronically.

However, information technology should not be regarded as a threat to the developing world. In fact, it poses many important opportunities for the developing world. For example, Internet makes information globally available, and the information gap, which has always plagued the developing world in comparison to the developed world, has disappeared as a result, at least partially. The use of computer-based telecommunications means that expertise can be made available anywhere in the world, no matter where the expertise is physically located. Thus, tele-medicine in which a surgeon in one part of the world uses telecommunication facilities to oversee surgery performed on a patient located elsewhere, can only be of benefit to those countries that do not have the relevant human resources available locally. Another example is the use of Internet for educational purposes, and many countries in the Caribbean, such as Haiti and Jamaica, are implementing projects which aim to give every school access to Internet within the very near future.

Moreover, the increased integration of computer and telecommunications technologies provides economic opportunities to the poorer countries of the world. The speed of modern telecommunications means that many so-called back office operations can in fact be performed anywhere in the world. Indeed, many developing countries do indeed do so. For example, the Dominican Republic performs all ticket processing for a number of American airlines. Similarly, Ireland has successfully transformed its economy into one of the fastest growing ones in the European Union by providing back office operations, such as the processing of insurance claims, for many American companies, and using its position of strength in this area to also position itself as a provider of higher value-added information technology services, such as programming.

Moreover, even for countries poorer than Ireland, the economic opportunities are not restricted to low value-added services, such as data entry and data processing. India is a case in point. India has established a number of green field sites around the city of Bangalore in which it provides computer programming services to the world. In 1996, India stood to earn more than 1 billion US dollars from these activities. India is now one the five largest providers of programming services world-wide, and stands to increase its earnings even further.

However, in order for countries in the developing world to take advantage of these opportunities, the major decision makers have to promulgate and implement appropriate policies. This, in turn, requires that they be fully aware of the likely impact of information technology. One can only hope that a paper of this kind will prove one step in this direction.

 

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