Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/10/26/will_davies_/

Long lunching Luddites show world how to do IT

Vive La France!

By William Davies

Posted in Media, 26th October 2007 07:02 GMT

Column Last week, a report emerged with one of the most unlikely conclusions in the short history of digital policy. The report was built around yet another ranking of the technological performance of different countries around the world.

Its main finding was this: "France, which spends a substantial one per cent of GDP on government R&D, takes first place.”

You might want to read that again.

Or to put it another way: "France, the country that the information society prophets and competitiveness gurus have long considered to be a complete basket-case, takes first place."

In 2005, France, the country with the sixth largest economy in the world, was lingering in 22nd place in the World Economic Forum's "network-readiness" rankings. In 2006, they dropped a place.

The Economist Intelligence Unit's global "e-readiness" rankings have only marginally better news for the French, putting them in 19th place.

Within the European Union, France is considered even more of an embarrassment. European Commission officials despair about a people who seem bizarrely more interested in wandering down to their local shops to buy whatever's on offer, than feverishly purchasing things online like the British now do.

On any index of national competitiveness, high-tech up-for-it-ness, e-this or i-that, France sits there, like the fat kid on sports day, being overtaken by both the new kids from Eastern Europe who desperately want to impress, and the heroic athletes of North America, Scandinavia, and the far East, who pride themselves on leading the pack.

Value judgements

So what of this latest index? Well, here's the rub. The index comes from a less well-known source, a US think tank called The Centre for Global Development.

The technology index is just one component of a wider Commitment to Global Development index, that ranks countries in terms of how their actions benefit developing countries.

As the report explains: "The Technology Index rewards polices that support the creation and dissemination of innovations of value to developing countries. It rewards government subsidies for research and development, whether delivered through spending or tax breaks."

It also penalises countries such as the US, who it considers to be promoting intellectual property practices which restrict the flow of benefits to developing countries.

It is worth stressing that all international rankings should be treated with a bit of suspicion. They are primarily developed to be eye-catching and to shame countries that don't appear to be playing ball.

It would be somewhat hypocritical if the French were to offer a Gallic shrug in the face of the endless criticism offered by the digital advocates, but then to suddenly shout about this latest scoreboard from the rooftops.

But nevertheless, policymakers might want to reflect on a few implications of this.

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