In Bangladesh, less than 15 percent of the population has electricity - a reality that confirms the 'Digital Divide.' But Dr. Activist Shahidul Alam argues that technology in itself is not the answer.
The largest European Internet conference, re:publica, in Berlin may have seen many international speakers before, but surely never a bearded Muslim from Bangladesh, who challenges the meaning behind the term "third world" and gives an alternative of his own.
This time, it did. His name is Dr. Shahidul Alam, a photographer, writer activist and intellectual from Bangladesh and a jury member for the 2012 Best of Blogs (BOBs) competition.
In his keynote lecture on "The Borders of the Global Village," Shahidul talks about the problematic of the expression "third world" and says, "I do not want to be third anything." Instead he wants to remind the "first world" countries that the G8 nations constitute only 13 percent of the world's population. "When 'they' take decisions which affect 'our' lives and use words like 'democracy' and 'freedom,' it does not represent the people of Bangladesh."
Instead, Shahidul prefers to use the terminology "majority world" and says the use of technology and the power of culture put together provide a very strong mix.
Shahidul then talks about the Internet, which is in his mind, can be a subversive tool. It remains the only medium which - relatively inexpensively, and without the support of the gatekeepers - can make lone voices be heard everywhere.
The 'majority world's' advantages
In his opinion, the "majority world" has the power to take this technology and use it in creative and innovative ways with very limited resources. "In fact, what one calls the 'development campaign' can be done through this technology. And it is this unique characteristic that we have to nurture."
The bigger players have the money, the clout, the physical strength and the social control to bludgeon their way through, says Shahidul, but they do not have the flexibility, the ability to pop up and disappear at will, the speed of action or the elasticity to slip through the holes, that the well trained individual has. Given the important proviso of access, the net is fast, cheap, and difficult to stop. And that is why it is the "net that we must use to fight its own dominance."
At the same time, he is aware of the divisions within Bangladeshi society. Shahidul knows that the urban elite in Bangladesh is distanced from the rural poor. So he talks about how they can ensure that this technology does not only benefit the privileged in his country, but also those who are being deprived at many different levels.
In his opinion, "'digital Bangladesh' is an election promise and certainly this was one of the tickets with which the government came into power. There are a bunch of fossils trying to grope with a bunch of words that they don't really understand. The actual work is done by the private sectors, by the young kids who have taken this technology and really run with it." Looking forward, he says, "I think Bangladesh is going to do extremely well in the digital sector, with this technology. Not because of the government, but despite it."
As Edward Said would argue in his Culture and Imperialism, "The new media have the power to penetrate more deeply into a 'receiving' culture than any previous manifestation of Western technology." And that is why Shahidul thinks, "What Bangladesh needs to do is to open up this technology. Rather than trying to kill the golden goose, ensure that it is nourished and nurtured, so the golden nuggets are shared by all."
Flexibility and creativity
In Shahidul's words, "At re:publica, I saw that there is a WiFi signal. I wanted to connect to it. They were very helpful, but they could not give me connectivity in less than 24 hours. In Bangladesh, someone would have done it in 5 minutes."
According to Shahidul, there is a wide range of areas where the "majority world" moves faster, is more flexible and more creative. "And because we are used to working with limited resources, we can actually make those resources work far more effectively than some organizations can. I think in some ways they have been spoiled by their complacency."
The abundance the so-called "first world" has "has removed their ability to work with limited resources."
Thus, "We must stare this dual dominant hegemony straight in the face, but we cannot, dare not, let this technology pass us by. To find creative routes to turn this technology to our benefit is our greatest challenge." As an African saying goes: "Until the lions can tell their own stories, stories about hunting will always glorify the hunter."
Author: Debarati Guha
Editor: Sarah Berning