Can ICT help save the Philippines? Reflections on the International Conference on ICT Day 2

The second and last day of the First International Conference on ICT gave me a number of learnings and reflections on how ICT can really help the Philippines as far as genuine development is concerned.

China was the most dealt with based on the sessions I attended. I guess the reason behind is that the country has got great figures as far as ICT usage is concerned, e.g., 44.25 million Internet users and 290.6 million mobile phone owners. One presentation bragged about the government-funded satellite-based information system that targets rural folks. A number of receiving stations are installed around Beijing and rural folks get the chance to go there and watch videos on which experts tackle specific topics. As of 2006, there were a total of 3,500 courses given out benefiting 1.5 million Beijing people, half of whom were farmers. (I saw Fedora Core workstations in one of the presentation slides. Cool!)

That’s one side of China. All three other presentations dealt with two main issues, namely: a) State repression on ICT and using ICT and b) individualism/selfishness. Dr. Jack Qiu gave a clear picture of how the State managed (or mismanaged) the boom of the ‘working-class ICTs’ (Internet cafes and inexpensive mobile phone services, etc.) that is only accessible to the “information have-less”. The State’s paranoia over civil disobedience or rebellion extends to the working-class ICTs, thus, a number of incidents of human rights violations have been reported arising from raids, illegal detention, and fires. (I remember Dom Cimafranca wrote something about bloggers being suppressed by the State.) The presenter also emphasized the digital divide that exists in China, the “dual city”: urban cities are globally connected while rural cities are locally disconnected.

Another issue is the pattern of ‘individualism’ or self-centeredness specifically among urban young Chinese with personal content published on the Internet. Bloggers, for one, hardly talk about political or social issues, just about themselves. (This is simple logic, I guess. Bloggers don’t write politics because the State tells them not to.) Dr. Jack reacted to this ‘self-centeredness’ point of view, saying that the working-class ICTs as used by the information have-less are a proof that there is popular interest in political and social issues.

I was struck by the presentation about the ethnographic study on internet cafes in Tuguegarao City, a second-class city in Cagayan, Philippines. Based on the study of a number of respondents frequenting two representative internet cafes in the city, the presenter argued that ICT is in general the extension of one’s senses or body. An internet cafe user uses the tool to express him/herself. She lists down the values of the Internet, namely: a) cafes as liming spots. b) strengthening diasporal family, c) facilitates intimate relationships, d) use for public advocacy, e) good for the deaf.

A presenter from TXTPower’s Ronald Molmisa bragged about his group’s success (with an admission of a few sad stories, of course) in mobilizing people around political and ICT issues using ICT, mostly mobile phones and Internet. True to form, he spoke about the “Hello Garci” ringing tone campaign, which helped propagate to the whole world about the issue of electoral fraud involving Gloria Arroyo herself.

With all the inputs force-fed to my brain, what lessons or insights did I gain?

  1. Satellite-based information system, in general, might work in the Philippines. I wonder if government can maximize the Agila satellite to the benefit particularly of the rural folks. Well, it worked in Beijing because government has intervened for funding. But I don’t mean that use of the satellite must be considered and implemented immediately. That can wait until there’s a new and better government in the Philippines. Otherwise, corruption and ineptness would mark it and worsen the situation.
  2. How about farmers’ children having access to ICT? Will that help the rural folks’ situations? Why not? I imagine these youths attending online livelihood courses right in the barrio or nearby ICT center.
  3. I agree that ICT is useful as a tool for political mobilizations. But nothing ever supplants offline organizing as a way to change society. We’d better integrate the two effectively. I’m imagining podcasts featuring stories right from the very voice of the farmers.
  4. There’s an emerging ‘working class ICTs’ in the Philippines, to pick up from the Chinese experience. It’s a great challenge how social movements can maximize these ICTs to their own advantage, I mean, for the advocacy purposes. Personally, I really feel sorry for young people who spend money hard-earned by their parents gaming or ‘friendstering’ in the internet cafes. I’m not being killjoy here. I just wish they do something more valuable than just those.

Can ICT help advance genuine development? Can it help save the Philippines? Yes, in time, when we’ve got a new, better government. Yes, in time, when intermediary groups, being part of the social movements, are ready for it, like being able to integrate online and offline strategies in their respective fields. Without these two important factors, ICT “investments” and “funded projects” will just go down the drain. Illusions of change brought about by the ICT will prevail.

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