The Disjointed and Anecdotal ICT Policies

Small picturesque stores offered “National and International Internet Service” in northern Ecuador, while there was a case in Guatemala of a “Chapín” who denounced his Internet provider at the police station, as they promised him that he could communicate worldwide using the service, but he never got a dial tone when he connected the cable to his phone.

At the end of the 90s, a user contacted customer service by phone to inform that the cup holder of his PC had broken. When the support technician realized that the user had been using the removable platform of the CD-ROM as a “cup holder”, he was forced to turn off the microphone of his phone because he could not contain an attack of laughter that eventually infected all his fellow workers.

The Ministry of Public Works, Services and Housing in Bolivia announced a few years ago the advent of the Internet in a very poor rural area of the country as a great achievement, undoubtedly this would have been great news if there was electric power service in the place.

In Colombia, the massive damage to a significant number of digital tablets given away by the government in the Caribbean region was due to a baseball game, and it was not an app called baseball, but literally a game where children decided to use the tablets to hit the ball, faced with the lack of knowledge about the new device and the lack of bats.

In a small town in southern Chile, after the government announced the advent of the Internet, a Christian pastor mobilized the inhabitants to protest against this technology, which was an attack on Christian morals and values.

The governments of Latin America have implemented many and diverse initiatives to narrow the digital gap, most of them focusing on infrastructure issues, but reality shows that, although the continent is increasingly better connected, the digital gap continues to grow, as does the risk that the Internet will become the main cause of segregation between the poor and the rich.

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What do ICT social policies lack in LATAM to be successful?

Without a doubt, the key concept is: “Social Appropriation of ICTs”, that is, getting citizens to appropriate not only the concept, but also the logics of using technologies and implement them in their different daily activities, obtaining the best benefit and thus improving their quality of life. Although, it sounds very simple in theory, it actually represents a monumental challenge for governments, civil society, and educational institutions.

“Computers to store” is the nickname that has been popularly given to the program “Computers to Educate” of the government of Colombia and the main reason is that many teachers in rural areas have left their computers in storage due to their lack of knowledge about the use of technological devices, because as one teacher states: “there is a risk that the children could damage this expensive and sophisticated equipment” and “the children in these areas are very foolish and surely will damage these devices and then I will have to be responsible for it“. Under this logic, thousands of machines have rotted throughout the country, while official reports indicate that thousands of students have benefited from them. Something similar occurs with the “Vive Digital” network, a colossal fiber optic infrastructure installed throughout the Colombian territory, which theoretically benefits more than a thousand municipalities, but actually does not even reach 300 with connected users.

A successful strategy of social appropriation does not depend only on technology, it requires a comprehensive training that must begin with teachers. The State must invest a lot of time and resources to ensure that the staff of teachers, especially rural teachers, are trained to use the equipment and then teach their students, but undoubtedly the most important aspect is to make teachers aware that students must be allowed to experiment, since they learn only by experimenting in many cases and the presence of the teacher supports this process.

It is also important to make the population aware of the new ICTs and in order to achieve this, the best strategy is to use previous technologies, that is, devices the citizen is already familiar with and that serve as a tool of transition to the new devices. In the United States the radio was widely used in the 1960s as a means to massively sensitize the population about the benefits of television, a strategy that was replicated globally.

While I was waiting to be attended to at a service center, a salesman from a cell phone company told me that some elderly ladies often ask for a cell phone they can use to write to their children in the same way that the main character in the midday soap opera does.

The Internet itself can serve the purpose of appropriation, an example is Youtubers that have become the main triggers for technology purchase, as well as social media, but this is an excellent second step, since they first need to know how to access YouTube.

For many people, Digital Terrestrial Television is the only digital technology that they know how to use and that they feel comfortable and safe with. For this reason, DTT is the best tool to strengthen the appropriation of ICT, not only from the use of the devices, but also from the contents that pass through them.

The Argentine Public Television and its contents segmented in different population groups, have shown how it is possible to generate appropriation of the citizens towards the ICTs through the power of the stories, thanks to a determined public policy for the penetration of DTT and the creation of public, funny, educational and quality contents.

The search for and achievement of agreements with leading strategic allies in the digital content sector, such as the social programs of Google, Facebook and Microsoft, allows for the tropicalization of successful appropriation experiences in the region, while avoiding the wear generated by the design of appropriation models and subsequent verification. Therefore, the efforts that the governments of Uruguay have been undertaking over the last decade in this area are undoubtedly on the right track.

In conclusion, ensuring real empowerment of citizens, especially the poorest and most vulnerable ones, is the great historical debt in the region, since, given the delirious fetishism of government leaders for infrastructure and connectivity, most of the universal funds and budgets of the nations are spent investing in equipment rather than in audiovisual content, training and transition technologies, when resources should actually be allocated proportionally.

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The mistakes made in the past by our rulers caused literacy to be the greatest cause of inequality between the poor and the rich, unleashing a social gap that still remains today and is the main cause of underdevelopment in our region. A new social gap, technological literacy, would undoubtedly increase inequality, violence, poverty and inequity, and therefore there is an urgent need for a true policy of social appropriation of ICTs throughout the region.

By: Gabriel E. Levy B.