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Long lunching Luddites show world how to do IT

Vive La France!

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There is something about the nature of the "information revolution" that allows big business and elites to see it as a win-win. The fact that networked technologies operate in a decentralised fashion allows telecoms companies and governments to claim that they must therefore benefit the small guy.

Magazines such as The Economist and Business Week are keen to point out that mobile phones and laptops, built by US, Japanese, and Scandinavian countries, are the great hope for development in Africa.

Now it transpires, thanks to development experts, that the country of long lunching luddites actually does more for the developing world in this area than any other. The win-win of the information society isn't so obvious after all.

It's what you measure

One lesson that emerges is that these ranking exercises have politics and values built into them. The French government may simply have a different set of priorities than the World Economic Forum, or indeed the European Commission. There are many outside of France who might share them.

But there is a more general theme here as well. Despite the valorisation of "flexibility", "innovation" and "creativity", and the constant refrain that the future is "uncertain" and "change" everywhere, our passage into the digital future tends to be unpleasantly pre-ordained.

Conventional bench-marking exercises are one particularly explicit example of this, as they work by codifying priorities in a particularly rigid way. Choice over which model of digital society is selected or which path into the future is taken, is delimited. Governments or cultures that seek to adopt their own priorities or form their own value judgements are frowned upon.

Until the French can drag themselves into the higher echelons of the more established e-tables, the expert observers will portray them as backward and conservative.

But perhaps instead, innovation should mean the opening up of social, cultural and political possibilities, rather than the narrowing of them. Flexibility should mean multiple ways of adopting and using technology, rather than one way.

And amongst such a plurality of technological policies, some might deem aiding the developing world a particular valuable one.

Just don't go and rank it in first place. ®

William Davies is a sociologist and policy analyst. His weblog is at Potlatch

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