Development experts have long argued that information technology empowers citizens of Third World societies by granting them access to new, unfiltered sources of information — thereby decreasing their dependence on the government — and by allowing them to connect to markets — thereby decreasing the economic power of middlemen.
This view treats information technology as pieces of hard- and software that can be “gifted” to human beings in poor societies. The gift will then alter the power struggles in which these persons are embroiled. Empowering Third World citizens is thus a matter of diffusing information technologies into poor societies.
Third World Citizens and the Information Technology Revolution challenges this way of thinking as deeply flawed. Being an empowered or autonomous human being means participating in making the rules that constrain one’s life. Empowering a person — respecting his or her autonomy — means involving the person in governance not only at the local or national level, but also the global level.
When the rules for the IT revolution were made, however, the opposite happened. Driven by economic interest, corporations and industrialized states usurped the rule-making process, excluding representatives of Third World societies and their visions of a global information society. Then development agencies helped impose the IT regime on poor societies, legitimizing this endeavor with narratives of development and emancipation.
Whether IT is empowering or oppressive depends therefore heavily on the intention that motivates its diffusion. There is no way around it: If we are serious about the idea that all human beings are created equal and free, we must involve them in developing a vision for our shared future. And this includes plans for the global communication infrastructure.