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Disconnected: Haves and Have-nots in the Information Age

Author: William Wresch
Publisher: Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996
Review Published: April 2002

 REVIEW 1: John Daly

I believe this is an important book, but one that has not been as widely read and discussed as it deserves. To badly paraphrase John Donne, William Wresch's thesis is, "Ask not who is disconnected, we are all disconnected." The book dramatically makes the case for improving information systems in developing countries, and raises larger issues relating to development of the global information infrastructure and the patterns of information dissemination and information use.

Wresch begins this book by describing his meeting with Johannes and Erastus on a street corner in Windhoek, Namibia. It is an effective narrative device. Wresch, the chair of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at a campus of a U.S. research-intensive university, is there as a Fulbright Exchange professor. Johannes and Erastus are from the north of Namibia. By the time of the meeting they have surely forgotten all that they learned during their formal educations -- learning gained in at most a few years spent in dismal schools. As teenagers they herded animals but have now been replaced in that role by younger siblings. They have seldom if ever made a telephone call, watched television, read a book or newspaper, nor perhaps listened to a radio. With no other employment available in their rural area, Johannes and Erastus have come to the city, but are unable to speak the national language, nor the languages of the commercially or politically dominant groups. They have no access to information, which we take for granted -- want ads, city maps, nor directories. Their friends are other young men as stranded as they. They spend their days hanging on street corners waiting for occasional odd jobs as casual laborers. While they may only work one day in five or six, this is better than any other alternative they know. Clearly Wresch lives in a very different world than do Johannes and Erastus!

Wresch was faced by a difficult expository problem in writing this book. He is writing for a rich, educated audience composed of people who have little understanding of or connection with Africans, and he must make that audience understand both the fundamental similarities between Americans and Africans and the pervasive differences in our information systems. He has chosen an expository mode for this purpose that combines features of a narrative chronicle of his experience in Africa with more typically academic discussions of the findings of other researchers. We relate to Wresch's Africans as people similar to our own friends, colleagues, and acquaintances because he presents Africans as his friends, colleagues, students, and acquaintances as well as his research subjects. Wresch also successfully describes an Africa victimized in ways too ugly to be fully covered by our media -- not only by poverty, but also by racist exploitation, colonialism and neo-colonialism, tribal conflict, corruption, and violence, sometimes even culminating in genocide.

For Wresch's readers, the dysfunctional nature of the ignorance and isolation of Johannes and Erastus will be readily apparent. Wresch goes further, however, and shows how educated, wired Americans too have been disconnected, and how our information sources have little prepared us to understand the reality of life for the majority in Africa. Wresch has written a short, readable book, incorporating data and examples from many specialized fields, and dealing with two critically important problems:

    The desperate lack of information faced by the majority of the people in the world, and the dreadful consequences of poverty, hunger, disease, misery, and early death that are too often the consequences of such ignorance;

    And the ignorance of the vast majority of people in rich countries of the desperate problems faced by their neighbors. (The alternative interpretation is that we stand callously by and watch our neighbors' children die needlessly.)

Wresch uses a simple model for expository purposes -- that of problems with information sources, transmission, and receivers. In crisp chapters he examines the problems with information sources, including media, personal information sources (dealing with a number of institutions such as family and community), organizations, professions, and commercial data sources. Similarly, he focuses not only on the problem of transmission of information to the unwired, but also on the problems in transmission caused by tyrants and criminals. (Surprisingly, given the interest today in B2B and B2C, he does not specifically deal with markets as information institutions.) In discussing receiver problems, Wresch offers a damning critique of educational systems, and also touches upon psychological problems that arise when a person is presented with discordant information, as well as problems of selecting the relevant and important from the flood of data. Wresch has read widely, and includes hundreds of references, but individual chapters are necessarily sketchy, given the range of subjects he confronts. The book is impressionistic, in the sense that it seeks to animate a big picture, not to precisely detail any of its components; it combines both anecdotal evidence and statistical data in a driving narrative to support the author's thesis. The book succeeds admirably using this approach.

Wresch does not fall into the trap of discussing a "digital divide," but rather paints the picture of a diverse spectrum of information infrastructures and knowledge systems. There have been many information technology inventions, including writing, paper, movable type, the printing press, telegraph, radio, television, and computers. Similarly, there have been many social inventions dealing with information, such as schools, universities, learned professions, the industrial research laboratory, and tribal storytellers. Each society builds an information infrastructure utilizing these and other elements in different proportions and in different ways. The wealth and the openness of the society are somewhat predictive of the organization of its information infrastructure, but countries of comparable wealth and openness can have quite different infrastructures. Moreover, as Wresch illustrates, complex patterns of information infrastructure access and utilization exist within nations. In the face of this diversity, Wresch has chosen to emphasize the United States and Namibia: the choice is a good one, in that he knows both, and they are so radically different as to make abundantly clear the diversity and complexity that he portrays. He shows clearly how important the overall pattern of information distribution and use is in social, economic, political, and cultural development.

Perhaps the most important contribution of Disconnected is that it confronts us with a world in which nations and people have very different information, provided by very different information systems. Moreover, societies and their information systems are in an unprecedented state of flux. If the pattern of information, knowledge, and decision making is important within national development, so too must the international pattern be important in world development. We, as a society, do not begin to understand the implications of the diversity of the world's information systems, nor how to go about protecting ourselves from the dysfunctional aspects that must surely exist in those patterns.

Wresch's simple model of information transmission from a source to a recipient works best in areas such as political participation, where it is important for large numbers of people to share information. However, Wresch's model has some limitations; the book might have been strengthened looking at communication as a two-way process, and emphasizing the voicelessness of Africa's poor.

Similarly, Wresch's model does not emphasize the social differentiation of decision-making roles. Society's concern is that the right information is brought to bear on the right problem at the right time. Enough people have to have in-depth knowledge in each of a large number of specialized areas, and institutions have to allocate tasks to appropriate decision makers and then coordinate their separate efforts. It is not that the individual subsistence farmer knows too little, but that a society composed mainly of subsistence farmers collectively knows much less than a highly diversified society with its many kinds of knowledge professionals. As the concept of human capital importantly includes the education and training in a vast array of skills, so too does the concept of social capital include the development of institutions that allow for specialization and coordination of information and decision-making activities.

English gives two meanings of the word authority -- expertise and power -- reflecting the close relationship between knowledge and ability to command. As information technologies and infrastructures change, so too do patterns of authority. There appear to be systematic differences in levels of trust between developing and developed countries, differences that may be in part related to the social capital involved in information related institutions.

Small changes in social information systems can make big differences. The average African has no possible way to contact a specialized physician; the average American may never consult with a neurosurgeon, but means exist by which he or she might. For the individual with a brain tumor, the difference is between life and death; for society, the difference may be thousands of lives saved per year. Yet the difference in the societies' information systems is between the total lack of a communication channel versus a channel that is on the average used much less than once per lifetime!

Similarly, Wresch's model might have considered information embodied not only in communications and people, but also in equipment, institutions, and even supplies. The neurosurgeon will be of little use unless s/he has access to diagnostic devices and reagents, surgical equipment, and therapeutics (that are produced by other experts, and involve scientific and technological antecedents and processes which the physician may comprehend only superficially, if at all).

The book's model might also have attended more to the effects of what Frances Cairncross has termed "The Death of Distance." Financial crises in Asia or Latin America can cause financial downturns in Africa, and fewer jobs for Johannes and Erastus. Competitors in other African nations or indeed in other continents, who use the technology more efficiently to produce and market goods, may take market share from Namibia and work from Johannes and Erastus. Wresch makes a rational choice in not discussing such effects (perhaps for simplicity and power of narrative), but they are ultimately important to understanding the effects in Africa of the evolution of the information infrastructure.

Perhaps the book might also have gone more deeply into issues of values. It seems obvious that different societies adopt and utilize technology in ways deeply influenced by their value systems. Indeed, poor countries emphasize meeting basic human needs, and often have been relatively successful in harnessing their scarce information resources to improve life expectancy, reduce hunger, and provide basic education. Rich countries, having more nearly satisfied basic human needs, tend to emphasize more advanced education, entertainment, and understanding of the world, and the gap between rich and poor countries in these areas has increased. However, there are many other value issues. Thus, people who live in a world without maps, directories, advertisements, and the other reference sources we take for granted, highly value information that we find pedestrian. A strong memory is valued in parts of the world without access to printed materials, much as we valued physical strength before the industrial revolution.

Wresch's critiques of the American educational system and media are insightful and probing. He also recognizes that all too often our ignorance stems not from our institutions, but from our self-absorption and lack of seriousness. However, I think he lets us off lightly: modern society is increasingly in control of power that enables us to conduct war with unprecedented ferocity and to degrade the earth's environment to an unprecedented degree. The greater the power controlled by a society, the more important it is that the society uses good information well, and the more important are constructive criticisms of its failures to do so.

Disconnected was published in 1996, but reflects the author's experience in Namibia in 1993. Is it out of date? I first read the book some years ago, and on rereading it I find it even more insightful and valuable. Certainly there have been major changes in that time, including the explosion of wireless telephony and the Internet and growth of community radio in Africa; AIDS has gone from just another catastrophe to a holocaust; a number of African states now participate in multinational wars within the continent. The book is dated somewhat in that it cites scores, perhaps hundreds, of examples in making its argument, and many of these were chosen to be very topical in the mid 1990s. The undergraduate college student of today will find them less familiar than their predecessors of the 1990s. Still, the central theme remains pertinent and timely.

Similarly, one may ask if the book is geographically limited due to the focus on the U.S. and Africa. Again, I think not. Certainly, readers in other OECD countries will find much in the critique of the U.S. that is relevant to their countries. Yes, there are major economic, political, and cultural differences, as well as information infrastructure differences, between Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. The real point of this book, however, is that societies are extremely diverse in their information infrastructures and their uses of information, that all are challenged by the rapid change in the technology, and that all societies have grave problems in building the right information infrastructure and using it well. Wresch has achieved an admirable balance between breadth of coverage, economy of style, and in depth focus in some geographic areas.

In his final chapter, "Reasons for Hope," Wresch gives some examples of ways that information systems are improving and people are providing leadership, and in so doing the chapter suggests that social processes and technological innovations will ameliorate the situation to some degree. I believe that society does have feedback mechanisms that do make such improvements. However, I would have wished that Wresch had also emphasized the need for vigorous action now.

First, there is a need for the academic community to expand and amplify Wresch's work, to clarify the problems involved in the diversity of information infrastructures, the diversity of social uses of these infrastructures, and the rapid rate of changes in both, and to disseminate this information to decision makers, opinion leaders, and the public. There is also a great need to increase development assistance, especially from the United States, and to make it more relevant to building knowledge based societies. There is also a need to revise policies in the U.S. and other developed countries in order to improve our own information systems and our capacity to bring complex, evidence-based knowledge to bear on development and other social issues.

Since this book was published, there has been an increasing realization that improving knowledge systems is critically important to the development of nations. However, the poor, who are most victimized by lack of knowledge resources, remain relatively voiceless in the halls of government. The rich, whose voices are heard, seldom fully understand nor empathize with those without information or voice. The pattern of information and ignorance in the world grows more complex and more worthy of concern, but is still far from the attention of our thinkers and leaders.

Wresch's book is a readable and useful primer to these critical concerns.

John Daly:
John Daly is a freelance consultant. His work focuses on science and technology in developing countries, and especially information technology. He began his professional career as a research engineer in the aerospace industry, but has worked in international development for 35 years, and taught part-time in universities for more than a decade. His Ph.D. is in operations research.  <dalyj@erols.com>

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