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Nurturing the democratic debate.  
UNESCO promotes 'knowledge societies' to maximize the impact of communication technology
Editorial Contact: Roni Amelan, Bureau of Public Information, tel. +33 (0)1 45 68 16 50 - Email

02-10-2003 2:00 pm Two standard-setting instruments concerning information and communication technology are to be submitted to UNESCO’s Member States for adoption during the 32nd session of the Organization’s General Conference (September 29 to October 17): one on multilingualism in cyberspace and access to the internet and the other on the preservation of digital heritage. The two texts aim to increase access to information, promote the use of all the world’s languages on the internet, and promote cultural diversity and mutual understanding so as to favour individual and social development the world over. They are part of UNESCO’s drive to stimulate the emergence of “knowledge societies” in which the greatest number can benefit from the information and communication technology.

If adopted, the two texts will reinforce UNESCO’s contribution to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS, Geneva December 10 – 12), organized by United Nations agencies, including UNESCO, under the leadership of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). UNESCO is working to ensure that heads of state taking part in the summit agree on measures to increase the benefits of ICT for the greatest number.

A draft Recommendation on the Promotion and Use of Multilingualism and Universal Access to Cyberspace reflects the conviction that people must be able to use their language on the internet if they are to access and generate content that is relevant to them and their community. Today a mere 11 languages account for 90% of internet use, leaving many of the world’s thousands of languages, and therefore cultures, entirely unrepresented (see www.globalreach.com). The text reflects UNESCO’s belief that cultural diversity must be reflected on the world wide web to enable people to find out more about each other, reduce the fear of individuals and cultures they do not know and foster mutual understanding.

The draft Recommendation contains principles and concrete measures, to be adopted nationally and internationally, aiming to promote multilingualism and expand access to cyberspace. It also seeks to strike a balance between the need to provide the widest possible access to content in cyberspace and respect for intellectual property rights.

The draft Charter on the Preservation of the Digital Heritage aims to help Member States prepare national policies for the preservation of, and access to, digitally produced material which is particularly vulnerable because of the ease with which it can be erased and the rate at which hardware and software used for preservation and access become obsolete. Digitally produced material is a valuable resource in today’s society and forms part of our heritage. By 2001, for example,** data sent back from Mars by NASA’s Viking probes in the mid-1970s was lost because the 25-year-old computer tapes were in a format that could no longer be read. Scientific information, research data, media output, digital art, are but some of the areas that pose new problems, requiring the preservation of original or compatible hardware and software alongside the digital files that are to be conserved. The sheer volume of data also poses a problem. It is estimated that the internet features one billion pages whose average lifespan ranges from 44 days to two years.

The two texts will be discussed by Commission V, the commission in charge of communication, during its meeting from October 6 to 8 (Room II). The commission’s recommendations will then be submitted to the plenary session of the General Conference.

On October 9 and 10, UNESCO will host a Ministerial Round Table Meeting (10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Room X) as part of the General Conference to enable ministers who will attend the World Summit to exchange views about the potential of ICT for development. The meeting, “Towards Knowledge Societies”, will bring together ministers in charge of, or interested in, communication and information, science and technology from all parts of the world. Sessions will tackle the following themes: Key principles of knowledge societies; The role of sciences in developing knowledge societies; Education in and for knowledge societies; Cultural policies in knowledge societies; Media in knowledge societies.

The potential of ICT was outlined on September 29 by the Organization’s Director-General, Koïchiro Matsuura: “We feel that the concept of knowledge societies is preferable to that of ‘information society’.” He went on to explain that “the plurality built into the concept of ‘knowledge societies’ is quite deliberate” for it stresses that there are many strains and layering of knowledge that contribute to making our world. “Furthermore technological changes do not dictate just one kind of impact on society or one form of social development. There may be commonalities, similarities and general trends, but there will also be diversity and divergence. The concept of ‘knowledge societies’ recognizes that human agency is creative and, in its varied expressions, generates plurality and difference.”

UNESCO believes that knowledge societies must be developed on the basis of four fundamental principles: freedom of expression, as defined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; recognition of cultural diversity; equal access to education; and universal access to information.

An exhibition “Building Knowledge Societies”, opened by the Director-General at Headquarters on September 29, presents some 280 projects, which illustrate what knowledge societies can be. It will remain at UNESCO until the end of the General Conference and will be brought to Geneva, for the WSIS. A virtual version of the exhibition is accessible on the internet at www.unesco.org/confgen/exhibition2003.

The exhibition postulates that knowledge exists and develops in a cultural and community context; that it is most efficiently shared among people with similar concerns and objectives. The Human Genome Project (www.doegenomes.org) and the links it established between researchers around the world allowed for remarkable progress in determining the complete sequence of the human genome. The project is one of many examples from all over the world of how information, with the added value of ICT, is transformed into knowledge. The exhibition is organized around four themes (each of which features a great many projects, the examples below are not exhaustive):

Creating knowledge: The Digi-Arts, web portal, (http://portal.unesco.org/digiarts), is an examples of the use of ICTs in artistic creation, it is also a platform for the exchange of information among artists, scientists and technicians from different geo-cultural regions.

Transmitting knowledge: The Indira Gandhi National Open University (http://www.ignou.ac.in), a pioneer in distance education, has been able to democratize higher education providing cost-effective, quality education to large sections of the Indian population including people living in remote areas.

Sharing knowledge: IFEX, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (http://www.ifex.org/) operates the Action Alert Network (AAN) through which member organizations report abuses against freedom of expression. Action Alerts help turn spotlights around the world squarely on those responsible for human rights violations.

Preserving of knowledge: UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme (www.unesco.org/webworld/mow) seeks to preserve exceptional documentary heritage, notably through digitalization and sharing of expertise. The programme established a Memory of the World Register featuring outstanding documentary heritage pertaining to all areas of human activity and all types of support, be they books, manuscripts, films, prints etc.

Speaking about the construction of knowledge societies, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, Abdul Waheed Khan, said: “ICT can make a huge difference in improving the quality of life of people if Member States develop appropriate policies and strategies for the use of new and traditional technologies, are prepared to invest in human resource capacity to create local content, and if they will ensure access, particularly community access, to those who are most in need”

* Reuters, July 27, 2001
** The exhibition is organized with the support of the Cité des Sciences (Paris), Hewlett-Packard, the Paris City Hall, Worldspace and the government of Japan.

Source Press Release No 2003 - 69

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