Digital Time in the National Culture: Underdevelopment.com.ni
Have the new technologies made us more human? And how are we Nicaraguans, notorious for idling and digressing, living in digital time, this moment in which the revolution is in communications rather than in politics?
José Luis Rocha
The first computers—enormous machines programmed by a series of perforated cards—arrived in Nicaragua at the end of the 1960s. Internet followed at the end of the 1980s, and the first surfers were state officials at TELCOR, the state telecommunications and postal service. Since then, visible progress has been made to insert our country into the Digital Galaxy.
The lowdown on servers, hosts and domainsThe history of the computer revolution in Nicaragua has its upside and its downside, both of which have often been influenced by the vicissitudes of national politics. Fastex was the first massive computer distribution company operating in Nicaragua at the beginning of the 1990s, when many institutions and professionals frantically started to acquire a PC, afraid of being left behind if they did not ride the wind unleashed by the cyber storm. Fastex was soon partially absorbed by Merinco, a company now in crisis because its main client—the Nicaraguan state—is buying from other distributors. Its problems are compounded by the legal embargo placed on the goods of imprisoned politician Byron Jerez, one of Merinco’s most powerful shareholders. Incidentally, just weeks before the embargo was applied, Daniel Ortega called Jerez a "prominent citizen," although whether this was motivated by moral affinity or some more virtual kind of link is not clear.
After computers came Internet. This service was pioneered in Nicaragua by Telematix and the main companies currently offering the chance to surf the Net in Nicaragua are IBW, Cablenet, Ideay, Telematix, Alianza, IFX, Datatex, Teranet, GBNet, Netport, Interlink, Alfanumeric and Guegue. These are the servers with a satellite hookup, so they connect the other national servers or hosts, plus their own individual subscribers, to all of the links in the great planetary network. There are such 18 servers in Nicaragua. The hosts, further down the digital hierarchy, are servers that can connect as many users as their particular capacity permits but do not have their own satellite hookup, hence their name, taken from the fact that they act as hosts to the surfers. In Nicaragua there are 2.76 hosts per 10,000 inhabitants but only 19.1 users per host.
A step further down are domains. Having a domain means having a site on the network, providing the user with virtual citizenship in the Digital Galaxy. An example of this is the Central American University’s home page, www.ns.uca.edu.ni, which provides access to several connected web pages, envío’s included. There are 1,756 domains in Nicaragua, 69 of which belong to governmental organizations. According to a Harvard University study, many of these domains are not functioning.
How many people access the Internet? Although the Internet has already become an extension of many people’s phenotype, connection to it has become an indicator of a country’s development level and thus represents another form of inclusion or exclusion. In 1999, the UN Development Program’s Human Development Report revealed that the most powerful 20% of the world’s population controlled 93% of Internet access. Meanwhile, 80% of the world’s population had no access whatever to the new information technology. Although the globalization of knowledge could be one of the most significant effects of such technology, this is not automatically happening with its increasing deployment. For every individual in the globalized world who has access to the Internet, there are five who cannot even read or write.
How many share each connection?
According to US Central Intelligence Agency estimates available on the Internet, some 20,000 Nicaraguans were connected to the Internet in 2000. Two researchers from Harvard University—Tariq Mohammed and Carlos Osorio—calculated in 2001 that Nicaragua had fewer than 8 computers and only 4 Internet users per 1,000 inhabitants, a figure that coincides with the CIA’s figures. In 2001, Nicaragua’s 18 servers claimed a total of 25,000 subscribers, including both individuals and hosts, which in turn provide their services to a reported 26,538 computers. It can thus be assumed that no more than 0.53% of Nicaraguans have direct computer connection to Internet. The real number of national surfers, however, includes more sporadic and occasional users such as those who use their friends’ or families’ computers or go to cyber cafés or other establishments that trade in this service. The access of university students alone must multiply this figure considerably. The Central American University, for example, has over 5,000 students, all of whom have regular access to the Internet and can make various visits as long as they pay the established monthly rate. Obtaining an approximate number of real users would involve multiplying the number of Internet connections by an as yet unknown factor: the average number of people who use those connections.
Despite the obvious modesty of the above calculations, we can compare the CIA’s figure of 20,000 users in Nicaragua in 2000 with the figures for other nations from the same source using an identical means of calculation. Except for Cuba, where the Internet is incidentally under state control, the population figures in the following table were taken from the World Bank’s 2000/2001 World Development Report. The figures on Internet users were taken from The World Factbook 2001, the most complete geographical manual published by the US government and kindly placed at our disposal on the Internet.
Plugged in, unplugged, under-plugged The significant differences among our countries highlight a most novel facet of underdevelopment. People now talk of citizens who are either plugged in or unplugged. It is also possible to talk of countries that are plugged in, semi-plugged in or under-plugged. The latter could be amended to "plugging in," a suitable parallel to the politically correct euphemism "developing" that is used for countries to avoid either the pejorative connotations—or the uncomfortable truth—of the phrase "undeveloped." People consequently also talk of the "info-poor" and the "info-rich." There is, or course, no shortage of comments or even parodies of such terms. It can be seen from the table on the next page that only Honduras, our immediate neighbor to the north, is less plugged in than Nicaragua and that Costa Rica, our immediate neighbor to the south, is nine times more plugged in than we are. In addition to the number of users, another indicator of a country’s "plugged-inedness" is the number of domains it has. Examining domains also allows one to discover the digital existence of trade unions and associations, political parties, businesses, governmental and nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions, etc.
and in the process of plugging in
Spanish journalist Juan Luis Cebrián, in his very complex report to the Club of Rome on the impact of the computer revolution, later published in the book La red ("The Net"), comments that the Internet’s democratizing potentialities are undermined by its many facets of exclusion. Among them are that "over half of the computers connected to the system are in US households, over half of the world’s population has never used a telephone and fewer lines are installed in all of Black Africa than in the city of Tokyo."
The telephone’s to blameThere are limits to the infrastructure needed to access the Internet, which will continue to be the case as long as the technology depends on telephone lines or other low-coverage networks. Given the bombardment of publicity about the universal nature of the Internet boom, who would believe that almost six million people in the United States are without a telephone? Nicaragua suffers even more from the limits caused by the inadequate extension of the telephone infrastructure, not to mention that most households cannot afford phone service. Figures from a September 2001 report of Nicaragua’s National Statistics and Census Institute show 141,233 telephone lines in 1998, for a density of only 29.4 lines per 1,000 inhabitants.
This average figure—like so many others—hides enormous inequalities. Region III, otherwise known as the department of Managua, has a density of 71.24 lines, while the eternally neglected Caribbean Coast has a density of just 5.36. Despite the strong growth in the telephone network, which by 1998 had increased 67% over 1990 and 32% just since 1995, the telephone network in Nicaragua only covers 18% of the households if we take the country to have an average density of six people per household. Furthermore, this calculation assumes that all of the telephone lines are installed in private homes, none of which has more than one line, which is obviously not the case. A high percentage of the lines are connected to public and private institutions, with a concentration of lines among certain users with a high economic level. It is therefore valid to assume that the real coverage is even lower than the figures suggest. There is thus a material limit to the advance of the Internet, which like so many other attractions of modernity constitutes an additional incentive for migration to the cities, where there are more telephone services and greater access to the magic of the digital network.
Material and educational limitsThe material limit imposed by the shortage of basic infrastructure needed for Internet operations is no worse than what we could term the cognitive limit. It is obvious that education levels are determining factors in the benefits that can be reaped from this technological tool. What benefits can the government expect from the Internet in a country in which the Inter-American Development Bank reckons that almost 9% of municipal employees are illiterate? A country that some calculate as having a functional illiteracy rate of no less than 60% is in no shape to use even a reasonable fraction of the Internet’s potentialities. Many habitual Internet users see computers as little more than fancy typewriters, and most only know how to use a word processing program and then often no more than 10% of its functions. The limitations of Internet’s democratizing potential are clearly appreciable even in very developed countries, so in a country like Nicaragua its tendency to heighten structural inequalities and reveal the weaknesses of our superstructure is more than evident.
Internet is a communications instrument and also a tool for doing business, exporting images and ideas, processing knowledge, entertaining people in their spare time, studying, researching and establishing commercial links. Given Nicaragua’s cultural baggage, however, the Internet is still more of a decorative object. It resembles a business that is functioning way below its installed capacity. One notable fact in this respect is that cyber sales in Nicaragua have been increasing their market share and their efficiency, yet in this area, as in all others offered by the Internet, the established businesses that already have the infrastructure, the intangible assets and the brand identification have the competitive edge.
The US cultural seal: Multilateral agencies do have projects aimed at extending Internet use among underdeveloped countries. It is thought that cultural particularities could make positive contributions to this technology. Some predict, for example, that the orientation of African culture toward more communal activities—collective work—will have a multiplier effect on community employment of the new technology, while for most users in the rest of the planet, digital surfing is quite the opposite: it is solitary work.
English spoken here
Yet these cultural expectations cannot erase the most crushing fact: Internet is a tool with the US cultural seal. The Digital Galaxy is not detached from its origins. According to studies by the Internet search engine Altavista, English accounts for 89% of the web and German and French less than 3% each, while Spanish has an even smaller presence. The digital era is enthroning English. Its increasingly universal nature has received a definitive slap on the back from the computer world. We have witnessed the emergence and universalizing of terms now familiar to all Net surfers that could be understood no better if they were written in another language, even the person’s native tongue: file, cpu, pc, bites, www (World Wide Web), web site, chips, software, hardware, email, zoom, zip, bookmarks, attachment, forward, messenger, on line, inbox, log in, password, host... Many Spanish speakers do not know and will never know the meaning of the word attach or what an attachment is, but from a very early age they will be consummated virtuosos in the art of sending attachments. Internet has also generated a cohort of Hispanicized cyber-verbs. cliquear, chatear, sorfear, atachar, forwardear are just some of those now officially paraded in our language, while many more are waiting in line for acceptance from the Royal Spanish Language Academy. Something similar, although of more limited cultural importance, happened in Nicaragua with baseball terminology.
From the Gutenberg galaxy What is for sure is that our gradual, sometimes abrupt, immersion in the Digital Galaxy brings with it changes that are much more significant than the adoption of certain terms. The world of the printed letter, the Gutenberg galaxy, broke the information monopoly of ecclesiastics and nobles and democratized knowledge, multiplying books and libraries, lowering their cost, preparing the way for the Enlightenment’s challenge to tradition through the idea of daring to think and making possible the creation of different hierarchies. Now, the digital revolution is placing even more information in the public arena and, some say, threatening to erase the hierarchies. It is introducing us to another reality, virtual reality, which according to Juan Luis Cebrián is located outside of our current reality: "It’s not that it doesn’t exist, nor does it exist just because we imagine it; rather it simultaneously belongs to the world of the imagination and the real one, eliminating the physical and even temporal distances between them, as it transports information at the speed of light."
to the digital galaxy
The most updated versions of the computer science biography quickly become obsolete. "Moore’s Law" postulates the rapid increase in microchip performance, which at the same time speeds up the fall of costs and prices. The average price of an integrated circuit fell from $50 in 1962 to $1 in 1971. According to Catalan sociologist Manuel Castells, the most significant steps that led us to a new socio-technical paradigm were taken during the Second World War and the period just after with the assembly of the first programmable computer and the transistor, which represented the origin of microelectronics and the nucleus of the 20th-century information technology revolution. But not until the sixties was it was possible to disseminate this technology following advances in three closely related technological fields that came together with synergistic effects. These fields were microelectronics, computing and telecommunications. Nowadays, universities that do not include computer engineering courses at least offer brief training courses in certain software. The reading of the human genome is just one of the applications, although perhaps rightly the most acclaimed. Operations that would previously have taken thousands of years to perform can now be done in seconds.
The Net Generation: One writer repeats to me almost daily, "I won’t abandon my Underwood typewriter; it never lets me down." While most people continue evading the new technology or reluctantly and fearfully confronting it, young people move to the rhythm of electronic impulses and never feel better than when wallowing in a pool of bites. In the Digital Galaxy, the Net Generation is a young one. Young people have created it and are its main consumers. The first successfully commercialized computer, the Apple I, was built in the garage of the parents of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. In 1976, these two college dropouts launched Apple Computers onto the market with just three partners and $91,000 in capital. By 1992 the company’s sales had hit the $583 million mark. Even more overwhelming was the success of two other young men, Bill Gates and Paul Allen. After abandoning their studies in Harvard and designing advances that substantially improved the possibilities of existing microprocessors, they founded the software giant Microsoft, which extended its empire from operating systems to the computer market as a whole.
Curious, innovative, adaptable
Many enterprising young people think that the generations that preceded them went little further in their dalliances with the computer world than a few cosmetic touch-ups, using the computer as a super typewriter, minimally exploiting the software potential. Greater dynamism is therefore expected from the more profound assimilation achieved by the younger generations. Such predictions have generated an optimism shared by Don Tapscott, president of the Alliance for Convergent Technologies and a world authority on the digital media’s impact on business and society. Tapscott has stated that the mentality of the Net Generation will transform the nature of business and the way of creating wealth as its culture turns into a work culture: "The Net Generation’s mentality is ideal for the creation of wealth in the new economy. This generation is exceptionally curious, independent, challenging, intelligent, motivated, capable of adapting, with great self-love and a global orientation. It loves collaborating and many consider the idea of a boss outlandish. Their first reference point is the Internet. They feel driven to innovate and their idea of immediacy demands quick results."
Surfers or youth gang members?Without entirely abandoning this positive characterization of the Net Generation, it is worth questioning it given the existence of hundreds of thousands of European youngsters living on unemployment benefits in a work lethargy that dulls many of their initiatives. The situation is even more dramatic in Nicaragua, where young people are the majority of the population. According to the last national census carried out in 1995, over 65% of Nicaraguans are under 25 and 25% are between 13 and 24. Furthermore, it is the youth, those most likely to make the most audacious surfers, who are most affected by unemployment in Nicaragua. The motivation, independence, curiosity, self-love and collaboration that Tapscott sees as characterizing this generation are not being channeled into Internet surfing, but rather into the violence of youth gangs.
What will happen in a country where young people are those most affected by unemployment? Will the skills that at least some of them build up in the computer world give them advantages over the older workers who wouldn’t know a bite if it bit them? Such a vision is not very likely in a country in which very few jobs demand computer skills. Even so, we can expect a challenge to emerge along the way. Maybe candidates for mayor in the future will no longer propose that well-worn political promise, the building of sport facilities. It is not preposterous to imagine that the new proposal will be the multiplication of cyber libraries and cyber cafés for young people in cities and rural districts. As presidential candidate, Enrique Bolaños already led the way by turning his promise to fill the marginalized neighborhoods of Managua with "technological kiosks" into a campaign slogan aimed at the youth. It remains to be seen, however, whether these kiosks will end up as just another forgotten promise.
The risk of cybercretinismIn his book Modernity and Self-Identity, Anthony Giddens recalls Innis and McLuhan’s theory that the degree to which a medium serves to modify spatial-temporal relations does not primordially depend on the content of the messages transmitted, but rather on their form and modes of reproduction. "The medium is the message." How does the Internet influence the transformation of social relations? On the positive side, it multiplies the frequency of communications, facilitates low-cost relations with members of other cultures and facilitates interactivity. On the negative side, however, it produces light conversation for a light culture. It doesn’t even produce a conversation, just a chat. This allows the production and reproduction of what Ignacio Ramonet calls "the interactivity of cybercretinism."
In fact, we are witnessing the beginning of the era of the succinct and the direct. Never has Baltasar Gracián’s principle of the Golden Century of Spanish literature been so obsessively or so massively applied: "The good, if brief, twice as good." Often, however, the principle that not everything brief is good is often ignored along with the idea that brevity can end up devoid of charm and grace. Electronic literature crosses space with greater celerity than the printed word, but a great part of it is of very limited permanence. Electronic messages are more ephemeral than traditional letters, and while they are also more frequent, they tend to be shorter and opt for a more relaxed and light tone.
Changes in the tone, form and Some have warned that there is a danger of messages substituting letters. Or is it just that the electronic messages are the only suitable form for the era of electronic speed? The tone, form and content of the written message are being affected. The resulting displacement is comparable to the substitution of hand-made pottery by the industrial-scale production of plastic dinnerware that Saramago describes and laments in his latest novel The Cave.
content of communications
And just as the protagonist of The Cave, Cipriano Algor, whose reputation and trade are in danger of extinction, put his heart into each piece he made by hand, there were not so long ago true letter-writing virtuosos who produced exquisite works in this genre. Possessing the correspondence of Freud, Van Gogh and Madame Sevigné is still enough to bring a smile to the lips of literary collectors. Meanwhile, Choderlos de Laclos’ excellent novel Dangerous Liaisons was built out of an interweaving of letters to produce a literary reflection of the cunning web of intrigue concocted by the protagonists. Will relations be more superficial now? While they won’t necessarily be, it is not out of place to sound an alarm bell, even if it seems like the typical nostalgia of old people who repeatedly remind us that things were better in their time.
Fast and new is coolSpeed demands immediacy and immediacy changes the notion of obsolescence. Everything is getting old more quickly. Information circulates in vertiginous spasms. Everything new and recent is extolled, is cool. People are falling prey to a virus that produces an excessive desire for streamlining, for better management of time. That is why articles are being written for the consumer on the run to read at a glance, texts that can immediately capture your attention and then finish just as they are losing it.
The problem here is the risk of suffering from the journalist’s syndrome, in which the who, where, what and when are sought with precision, but not the why. There is never any time before deadline to reflect, to link events, to systematize and to compare theories. In underdeveloped countries, where we tend to forget what happened yesterday and there are no means to order what happened the day before, this is a very dangerous tendency. More dangerous by far, however, is the stagnation affecting Nicaraguan institutions, which would have much to gain from being infected by a desire for things fast and new.
The tropical pace of Slowness is just one of the weaknesses affecting our institutions, though it seems more striking when they are up against the digital era. Most of our institutions display a predictable and historic laziness when it comes to keeping their web pages updated.
Nicaragua’s institutional web pages
Let’s look at a sample of this country’s institutional web pages. In June 2002, the latest Central Bank Economic Bulletin available on the Internet was dated July-September 2001, while the last of its Economic Letters dated back to August 1996. In the news section of the Supreme Electoral Council’s web page, the most recent information was dated October 3, 2001, and told of the Backpack Plan promoted by the CSE and USAID during the past elections. The most recent activity recorded in its calendar section was the session of the Central American Parliament in which Nicaragua’s newly elected representatives took their seats, between January 15 and February 15, 2002. The publication section is even more lamentable. It unfortunately is no surprise that the most recent "news" was a speech by CSE president Roberto Rivas on September 4, 2001. Nor is it that the CSE’s notification that it accepted Noel Vidaurre as the Conservative Party’s presidential candidate is still there in attention-grabbing type; the page makes no reference to the fact that the Conservatives ultimately presented a different ticket for the elections held over seven months ago. The Office of Bank Superintendent is still displaying its management report for 2000, dated May 9, 2001, but there is no sign of the eagerly awaited report for 2001.
Researchers will find no up-to-date mine of information on Nicaragua in the governmental domains. The same tropical pace of life found in beach resorts, eateries, restaurants and other recreational places where the same songs play year after year is even preserved on the Internet. Eyes are turned to the past, anchored in the kind of paralysis produced by nostalgia. Is it impotence? Idleness? The heat?
Real life doesn’t exist in the virtual caveJuan Luis Cebrián compares surfers with the inhabitants of Plato’s cave, those chained prisoners enslaved from birth, who can only see the shadows of people and objects outside projected onto the cave’s wall. Meanwhile the people outside move in such a way as to deceive them into thinking that those shadows are the only reality. The problem is even greater for today’s surfers, who play the role of deceivers and deceived at the same time and only live for the spectacle represented in virtual reality, where they know they are both observed and observers.
Surfers are loners, which can exacerbate their individualism and distort their vision of reality. It could be that on returning to reality having becoming accustomed to the world of shadows they would cling to the shadows as the only reliable vision. Plato describes how one of the slaves is taken out of the cave and led along the rough and steep path until he reaches the brightness of the sun. The philosopher wonders what torture it would be for the man to see himself dragged in this way. How angry he would get. And if they made him look at the fire, would it not hurt his eyes? Would he not look back to the shadows where he could gaze without straining his eyes? Would he not think he could find more distinction and clarity in the shadows than in anything he is now being shown? Immersed in their bites, cyberspace surfers run the risk of ignoring what is going on around them. Total immersion in the Internet could lead to the absorption of virtual reality.
Between those who travel by bus and those who take better means of transport there is an enormous range of divergent experiences that shape people’s different perceptions of Nicaragua. There is a great difference between those who have never been to the countryside and those who live there, or between those who need to swim across a river every day to reach their school and those who only see rivers on their computer or television screens. This array of voids between experience and non-experience of things necessarily implies an epistemological and emotional limit to understanding and feeling certain realities. That is the root of our different conceptions of risk, confidence, challenge and success, basic categories of the branch of sociology that deals with the problems of modernity.
A two-track country: That lack of essential experience has another edge in a Nicaraguan society that tends to separate social groups to keep them blind to each other. In a society with as many traditional aspects as ours, Internet tends to create a kind of enclave. We will never be a nation of two countries, but could easily become a two-speed country in which 26% of the population is illiterate and living wall to wall with the 0.5% that enjoys the latest in technology. In this kind of country there are not two social classes that can eventually fight each other over their share of the cake, but rather different economic sectors of consumption and production that barely come into contact with each other. One of them is presented with a variety of opportunities to climb aboard one of the most comfortable carriages in the globalization train, producing for or consuming from the international markets. This is the "plugged in sector" that ignores the poor children at the street corners and what is going on in poor neighborhoods and rural districts.
Illiterates alongside surfers
Internet can help ensure that these two sectors do not come into contact with each other and while one of them is in daily contact with death, the other has little more than antiseptic electronic experiences of that reality. Internet is just one of the mechanisms that mark out the separation. Managua’s new configuration—with its great avenues that connect residential areas with shopping malls and pleasure centers—is perfect for allowing surfers not to feel the least exposure to danger. When the main risk is catching an electronic virus, the vital challenges can be reprogrammed and take on electronic dimensions.
Knowing how to produce and how to liveInternet is an instrument and cannot replace vital experiences. The means must not become the end. Aristotle distinguished three kinds of knowledge: productive, practical and contemplative. Productive knowledge is identified with technique, because it involves knowing how to make, produce or manufacture according to rules and principles. Medicine, architecture and shoemaking are techniques, as is everything that is adjusted to explicit rules and is not mere empirical routine. Internet, of course, is a technique and is based on techniques.
Practical knowledge is knowing how to act, how to behave in an optimum and suitable way. This knowledge is not aimed at producing an external object; it is an end in itself. It’s not a question of producing something good, but rather of acting well. Phronesis, which some translate as prudence and others as rationality, is a form of practical knowledge. Millions of bites of technical knowledge, an enormous advance in telecommunications, a substantial increase in bandwidth and the virtues of software cannot automatically produce the prudence needed for the wise employment of technologies, let alone for evolving in life.
Intelligence tests increasingly measure skills related to digital technology. And that is perfectly in line with considering the skills necessary for achieving success in these new times. Fortunately, however, another tendency also gaining in importance is the one toward emotional intelligence, which seeks to measure the characteristics involved in phronesis. Phronesis is linked to how Internet is used and the contents being disseminated through its veins. While the Internet can be filled with contents that increase our prudence, the mere use of technique does not guarantee this. In any event, this work is not only up to the Internet because in principle it is not the only arena for human development and also because previously-formed criteria are needed to stop the avalanche of information available on it from producing mental chaos or promoting cyber cretinism. In this respect, the Digital Galaxy is not distinguishable from the Gutenberg galaxy: without previous orientation, today’s adults could have been satisfied with reading the Reader’s Digest or Cosmopolitan, as happened with many before them. In both galaxies, the best seller always has been and always will be what is most offered and publicized and what most satisfies the natural tendency of human beings to think as little as possible.
A business culture still We need a lot of prudence in Nicaragua if we are to get the most out of the new technologies. With few exceptions, only minimal benefit is being obtained. It’s not just a matter of being able to buy the technology, but also of using all its mechanisms, even those that have an impact on the professional and business culture, with greater agility and efficiency. The digital economy also helps underscore the contrasts in the assimilation of technology: while automatic tellers and Internet shopping are on the rise, the accounting departments in most private and state businesses take weeks to issue a check and, more to the point, inevitably require the filling out of a whole range of forms.
based on the foreman model
Some feel quite at home with statistical packages like SPSS, while others cling to their abacuses. In one institution where I worked, four signatures were needed to authorize travel expenses over $50 (only three if the amount was under $50). If the travel expenses being claimed were for just one day, the amount of time wasted trying to obtain the reimbursement instead of working most likely represented a greater monetary value for both the employee and the institution than the expenses. This situation had developed less to prevent embezzlement than because the administrator and accountant were being continuously changed and the new occupants of the posts decided to put their own "personal seal" on the process by demanding more signatures and/or new and more meticulous forms. It didn’t occur to any of them that simplifying the process would be a magnificent contribution.
When the usual problems with that same institution’s Internet server meant that it lost its connection for three weeks, the administration decided to inform all of its counterparts that we would return to the primitive fax for the said period, thus imposing additional expenses on both itself and its counterparts. Nobody stopped to think that sending a 20-page document to Europe by fax costs about the same as a month’s subscription to a back-up email service. All the technological advances in the world cannot make up for pound wise penny foolishness.
In a country in which the agroexport system’s legacy is that the foreman is the model manager, we have not yet developed that innovative kind of businessperson who will supposedly usher in the improvements promised by the digital revolution. Bureaucrats build and live off cumbersome structures that discourage creativity. In Nicaragua, we are light years away from the decentralization advocated by the new business culture. All decisions are concentrated in the "boss." Management based on dependency perpetuates a stagnation that benefits only the bureaucrats who act as intermediaries between employees and managers, employees and accountants and employees and users of the services or consumers of the products. In some countries, the Internet is eliminating intermediaries, allowing remote localities to offer their products directly to big-city consumers. Will we reach that point here before the trumpets sound for the Final Judgment?
Three factors of backwardness: In many countries, the Internet allows certain employees to work hundreds of miles away from their immediate supervisors, thus providing the company huge savings in office rental or construction and maintenance. The Dutch insurance company Interpolis says that this practice has cut $25 million in new building construction. In the "alternative" institution where I work, the situation is exactly the opposite, with mounting controls and the time clock representing the very heart of the institution. Physical presence is essential to convince the directors that the employees are fulfilling the tasks allotted to them. Trust, worn down by various abuses, is a scarce commodity among the intangible assets of Nicaraguan businesses. Increasing that trust would streamline operations and reduce transaction costs and is a basic condition if Nicaraguan businesses are to get the most out of the Internet.
Subterfuge, distrust and controls
The limitations in this area have already been described by engineer and writer Cornelio Hoppmann: "The Internet is a means of communication based on mutual trust, trust in public and private institutions, trust in people who have never seen each other’s faces let alone physically met at some time. The kind of communication that counts in Nicaragua, on the other hand, is personal, verbal and direct. Who said it is more important than what was said."
Requiring a physical presence prolongs implementation time and impedes the hiring of many professionals whose particular capacities might make them ideal for a certain job. Many collaborations simply do not take place because of this desire to establish and maintain a relation based on physical presence. Unfortunately this is perpetuated by consultants in Nicaragua who often still fail to hand in their work on time or with the quality agreed, and respond best when pressured face to face. This feeds the tendency to want to send for them, to have them near by. As long as we continue to live in the kingdom of subterfuge, irresponsibility and lack of self discipline, there will be controls around every corner and many opportunities offered by the new technology will remain locked away in the chest of unattainable dreams.
The management of information and power: Information is the Digital Galaxy’s source of wealth. Internet is an opportunity to democratize access to information, but what chance is there of developing this potential in a society in which upper managers of every institution hog the key information? Neither government ministers nor NGO directors properly inform their subordinates or their beneficiaries about their institutional budgets, for example. The cost structure is information quickly hidden away. The institution I work for needed four days to decide to repair an air conditioner because the decision maker could not find out if the money was available. Thanks to the Internet, Nicaraguan managers can find out just how much money is being moved at any given moment on the Japanese stock exchange, but they haven’t a clue about the basic financial situation of the companies they are administrating.
Hierarchical, arbitrary and imprecise
The coffee crisis was partially due to failure to stay informed about what was happening in the international markets and about the expansion of the crop in Vietnam and Indonesia using high-yield varieties. Meanwhile, deficient information systems and the limited capacity (perhaps interest as well) of the bank boards to analyze available information correctly paved the way for the fraudulent maneuvers that finally led to the bankruptcy of three Nicaraguan banks in less than a year.
How is information managed in Nicaragua? The same way as power: hierarchically, arbitrarily, imprecisely and more on the level of gossip than in debates with consistent arguments. It is possible that over the long term the Internet will help democratize information, but if so, among whom? There will only be more democracy when information is really allowed to circulate.
A new national vice: Many other issues related to the use of the Internet could be examined. One, for example, is how our universities are failing to exploit the educational advantages of Internet and continue suffering from a harmful dependence on mediocre academics when they could use the Internet to access first-rate pedagogic resources—courses, books, documents, discussion groups. Another is the well-known tendency of Nicaraguans to be very generous when it comes to idling their time away. This is already happening, with the harmful effect that many hours are wrested from leisure activities, family life and above all work because they are being spent meandering idly through the labyrinthine Internet.
Idling on the Internet
Many questions are still floating around in all of the different galaxies. But the one with the most impact was formulated by Juan Luis Cebrián: "Although it’s still too early to reply to the fundamental question, it’s not too early for us to dare to raise it: are we more human thanks to this revolutionary technology?"
José Luis Rocha is a researcher for Nitlapán-UCA and a member of envío’s editorial council.