The future is not what it used to be

OUR PLANET 9.1 - The Way Ahead

The future is not what it used to be


examines the role of new information technologies
in changing environmental attitudes

woman This autumn the world will mark the 40th anniversary of a major milestone in environmental affairs. On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik satellite. Its replica - suspended by wires from the ceiling of the lobby of the United Nations General Assembly building - now seems as antique as Marconi's first radio or Bell's first telephone. But our psychology has never been the same since. With this pioneering device, we took our first step off the planet, and looked back.

For the first time, we realized that the Earth is small, finite and fragile. This was reinforced many times over through photographs from other satellites and, most indelibly, by images of astronauts on the moon. Almost overnight, 'ecology', 'spaceship Earth' and 'the global village' became household currency.

At the same time, other new communications technologies - radio, television and even the first computers - were fuelling major social trends in the industrialized world as the baby boom generation came of age. Youth, as we know it in the industrialized world, is a post-Second World War phenomenon. The young were universally educated and empowered to scream and yell whatever they wanted through the new electronic media and post-war music industry. One of their primary messages was a populist ecology symbolized by 'put on grandpa's overalls, head back to the land'. This same confluence of technological and social forces was reflected in institutional environmental responses, from the Stockholm Conference of 1972, through the Brundtland Commission, to the Rio Earth Summit.

New information technologies continue to contribute to a growing sense of connection and world community in the 1990s. Millions of people can now communicate directly and cheaply through computers and the Internet, sharing access to the same information simultaneously. As a result, it is widely predicted, civil society will be dramatically strengthened at the expense of institutional authorities which can no longer control or monopolize the collection and management of information.

So, communications technologies are critical players in environmental perception in themselves, quite apart from the messages they convey. The 'global village' is being realized in ways even Marshall McLuhan would have found hard to imagine - and it is a village its denizens increasingly understand and care about.

Yet the primary purpose of the content of our most dominant popular media is consumerism - especially in the industrialized world. This is anathema to environmentally balanced consumption. We face a dichotomy where we can apprehend a strong social impulse on the importance of sustainable development yet still accept wall-to-wall mass media commercial promotion as normal.

Since profit is the dominant purpose of market-driven mass media, it is not surprising that the advertising base of commercial television causes uniformity of content. Diversity is accepted only if it produces a profit. Disneyfied, industrialized and commercialized fare increasingly presents what is often viewed as a benign normative view of society. This is the 'hidden curriculum' of television described by the American educational theorist Neil Postman in the 1970s, a force as powerful as the oral and poetic tradition of preliterature cultures. Whether we like it or not, all television is educational. The question is: what is it teaching?


Challenging the messages

We can accept the inevitability of technological development, and attend to the social impact of the new media. But we must not accept the messages conveyed as inevitable. If there is resolve, partnership and innovation, these tools can be harnessed to purposeful and 'public' ends - as well as commercial ones.

Expression is central to all forms of human development - and humans and their cultures are diverse. This diversity can be expressed either healthily and dynamically or in the aberrant way associated with Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Zaire. It is time to realize that cultural diversity is akin to, and as important as, biodiversity. Both need care and attention.

Full self-expression requires access to the new technologies of communication that are shaping the world view. Although there are more televisions than toilets in the world, what is viewed on their screens is controlled by a very few people, primarily in the so-called developed world. Although the Internet is increasingly important, half the world's people are so out of range of telecommunications that they never make a phone call.

Access and self-expression are integral to sustainable development. So is direct, global communication on these issues; 'Countries in cooperation with the scientific community should establish ways of employing modern communications technologies for effective public outreach,' says Agenda 21.

All electronic media provide a new opportunity for United Nations, governmental and independent agencies to inform and communicate better. But partnership and new innovative mechanisms are needed. Development agencies and governments must recognize more fully that we are in an information and communications age. Media technologies are part of our environmental landscape and are as important as agriculture, health and other sectoral matters. Support and expertise in this sector, as the World Commission on Culture and Development has pointed out, is at the heart of modern empowerment.

These considerations have been at the root of the formation of WETV, The Global Access Television Network, which has convened over 20 international agencies and the private sector to seek a new mechanism to provide more access, particularly in developing countries. WETV has developed as an alternative communications platform employing the experience of new speciality television services thriving in many countries, using cost-efficient approaches based on new digital production and distribution tools.

WETV is a partnership including international development agencies, non-governmental organizations, independent producers and broadcasters around the world, particularly in developing countries. A special United Nations Inter-Agency Committee, chaired by Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the Executive Director of UNEP, has been formed to explore with WETV the best communications options for the new millennium. WETV was previewed in over 40 countries - first in association with the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and then in association with the United Nations 1996 Habitat II Conference in Istanbul where, in partnership with Apple Computers, it complemented its broadcasts with an interactive site on the Internet.

In October 1996, it began regular programme distribution in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, starting with 35 broadcast affiliates primarily in developing regions of Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean and the Asia-Pacific region. Much of its programming comes from independent producers in developing countries and from its partners. It has formed an association with Global Exchange International to create a permanent WETV-promoted website, It seeks to provide a local, regional and global critical mass of communications in the public interest - through its partnerships and programmes - that no one agency or enterprise could create on its own.

Embracing exploration

As new communications technologies emerge, we must ensure that they do not exacerbate the North/South gap, and that there is access to them. We should not fear the exploration of new approaches to better communications and 'knowledge brokering' on those things that are part of our sustainability.

'The future just isn't what it used to be,' says Derrick de Kerckove of The McLuhan Program in Culture Technology at the University of Toronto. Our creative response must change with the times for a new millennium of human development.

Dr. David Nostbakken, Founder of Canada's Vision Television Network, former Director-General of Communications for the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), is President of WETV.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Terrell J. Minger and Meredith Miller:
From hydrocarbons to bits and bytes (Looking Forward) 1999
Don de Silva: From bypass to superhighway
(Culture, Values and the Environment) 1996

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