A new library building was recently inaugurated in a public high school in the quaint town of Mauban, Quezon. During the ribbon cutting ceremonies, the mayor proposed to use the facility as a Community eCenter. He added that PLDT, which has a signal tower in front of the school, might be persuaded to provide an internet connection to the center.
The lack of internet access in the school highlights several things. First, a telco investment doesn’t necessarily bring IT-related benefits to the community. It’s quite similar to the situation in other communities where the presence of a coal or geothermal power plant doesn’t bring down the cost of electricity in the area. Second, the virtual connectedness of cyberspace communities needs real and hard infrastructure investments. To go wireless in one community requires the planting of wires in another community. When we connect online, we are actually linked to some tower or cable unit in a remote location.
Assessing the initial IT investment in San Remigio in Cebu, the DOST noted the following: “At 25 kilometers apart, the (cellphone) towers are expected to provide only partial connectivity to several barangays but the wireless signal is expected to be clearer when more towers are installed.” The solution, then, to end ‘digital isolation’ is to send more broadband signals through the building of more cables and wires in the islands. Indeed, wireless seems an inappropriate word to describe the general IT process.
It must be emphasized that IT is more than just a fancy idea concocted in a controlled laboratory or happy workplace by some geniuses and geeks. To make it work in real life and in the real world, it has to undergo some messy and complicated processing. The shaping of the IT environment in a specific territory is not determined by software developers alone but also by politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats, and the media consumers. In other words, IT is just an Interesting Thesis sans political economy.
The pleasure and luxury of accessing the web wirelessly is made possible through the brilliance and labor of IT workers. They are, among others, the engineers, animators, undersea cable technicians, handset makers, electricians, and factory workers in the assembly line production. The current trend of mobile internet affirms that intelligent techies are creatively and tenaciously at work in Palo Alto and China. The amazing speed of the internet today (compared to the dial-up era of the 1990s) is the fruition and fusion of theory, experiment, and practice. The slow and meticulous bundling and unbundling of wires, cables, power circuits, transistors, chips, and codes gave us the hyper and hybrid virtual reality which we call the internet.
But there is a clarification to make: IT didn’t make labor redundant. On the contrary, its successful and widespread diffusion in society necessitated the continuous hiring of a new army of workers and e-workers. But alas, IT workers and their contributions are made invisible through advertisement alchemy and media spin. What is mostly recognized by society is the so-called pioneering work of IT CEOs and their hired scientists. These IT stars and billionaires are worshipped by the public as the new heroes and icons of our age. As a result, netizens want to be as cool as the IT marketer and they have become instant though unpaid preachers of the supposed benefits of a connected cyberworld.
But what is lost in the online conversation and technical translation is the embedded legacy of labor in every IT product, process, event, and phenomenon. We are constantly reminded of the amazing power of technology in solving the problems of man without recognizing the role of labor. Distracted and overwhelmed by the bits and bytes of data that feed our timeline, we are seduced into overestimating the influence of technology in our lives at the expense of recognizing man’s original and most precious asset: labor. Mental, Manual labor.
As we lose grip of what really counts as real in life, it gets reflected in our political priorities. We immediately and easily see the relevance of advocating for better digital infrastructure but we fail to appreciate the connection of improving the welfare of IT workers (those who install towers, cables, wires; and the minimum wage earners in manufacturing enclaves) and higher IT literacy and IT efficiency in the country.
But telcos and their money are not the essentials in fixing the digital darkness in society. A remote barrio in Aklan which established an e-center made this conclusion: “It only takes one boat and the collective bayanihan spirit of a community to bridge geographic and digital divides.” A boat? And bayanihan? – How traditional, how undigital, how simplistic. Yet, how very true.
IT is not a specialty of mentally gifted individuals. IT is not merely a business venture. IT is not a political goodie to be distributed by inept politicians. IT is a social process which requires social action and commitment.