The Age of Information


A DIFFERENT DRUM

Dr. Malaya Santos

Dr. Malaya Pimentel-Santos is a long-time community health advocate, having worked with several non-government health organizations. She is a fellow of the Philippine Dermatological Society and a professor of microbiology at the St. Luke’s College of Medicine.

For comments, msantosmd@hotmail.com


“For we should not seek the true dimensions of information society within telecommunications or informatics, but rather in education, science, innovation, the (new) economy, content and culture” – Laszlo Karvalics

We now live in what has been called the ‘information age’, a reference to how gadgets, computers, the world wide web, and advanced telecommunications are embedded in practically every aspect of our day to day lives. Being in my forties, I consider myself to be a digital immigrant (as opposed to the ‘digital native’ millenials and post-millenials who were born into the world of digital technology).

I personally witnessed the evolution of the manual typewriter to the electric word processor, Wordstar on the PC-XT desktop computer, and finally to the current MS Office suite and its open-source alternatives. When I started searching through medical literature, there was no UpToDate or Ovid, only dusty volumes of Index Medicus. I was already married with a child when I created my first email account, in 1998. As a testament to the technophobic part of me, I have not switched to any of the newer email providers; I still use that very same email account today.

Fearing the unknown

Many digital immigrants – myself included – still see computers and information technology as mysterious, and anything unfamiliar can trigger fear (albeit sometimes irrational). In the early days of the internet, some predicted that it would lead to the demise of moral values. Science fiction movies like The Matrix and AI: Artificial Intelligence explore the idea that computers might one day develop into sentient beings and take over the world. Identity theft, electronic scams and swindlers continue to be valid and legitimate concerns.

On a more mundane note, I jokingly refer to myself as an IT (ignorant of technology) person, and often rely on my children, students and younger staff for technical support. While digital troubleshooting comes naturally to my younger counterparts, I experience considerable anxiety, stress and frustration when faced with an unexpected problem or a new platform or application. And note that my participation is strictly limited to utilizing technology. Coding, programming, and any type of software or hardware development are completely beyond me.

Having said that – and acknowledging that the learning curve was steep – I am now a pretty heavy user of information and communications technology (ICT). In the light of the unspeakable traffic conditions that now form part of the reality of living in Metro Manila, I embrace the efficiency and convenience of online banking transactions, shopping, travel bookings, and working from home. Mobile internet connectivity provides the ability to access email, information, music, movies and TV shows on demand. I regularly shop online for clothes, food, cosmetics, and household necessities. My refrigerator, air conditioner, mobile phone, television, laptop computer and several large furniture items were all purchased online and delivered right to my doorstep.

The digital divide

ICT has undeniably transformed our way of life. For many of us, it is an enabling force that allows us to work, engage in business transactions, and access recreational and leisure activities anywhere and anytime. While we are fortunate to be able to enjoy all the advantages of the information age, we must also recognize that the majority of Filipinos exist in a world that is very different from ours: across the proverbial digital divide.

Having worked in community medicine, public health, and medical education, I am fervent in highlighting the social determinants of health. In the same way that socioeconomic inequity affects the quality of health outcomes, non-inclusive socioeconomic growth and unequal dissemination of resources and access to knowledge, information and technology have collectively created a vast divide, between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.

American sociologist Daniel Bell described the current ‘post-industrial society’, which he distinguished from the preceding agricultural and industrial societies by the emerging centrality of knowledge and information, and the shift of the workforce from farming and manufacturing to services. While ICT and the ‘information sector’ are undoubtedly gaining importance in the Philippines, it is also quite clear that the gains of technology have not been distributed equitably.

According to a 2017 data from the International Telecommunications Union (www.itu.int), the Philippines ranked 101st in the world on the ICT Development Index (IDI), lower than most of our Asian neighbors. Our digital infrastructure has developed such that mobile cellular and data subscriptions predominate; there are only three fixed telephone subscriptions and five (wired) broadband subscriptions per 100 persons.

The Department of Trade and Industry (industry.gov.ph) reports that the majority of Filipinos are now employed in the service sector. However, a World Bank article Philippines Economic Update: Investing in the Future (April 16, 2018) also states that while country economic growth in recent years will likely translate to some reduction in poverty, a number of challenges remain: many of those transitioning to the service sector from agriculture or manufacturing end up in low-end jobs, and underemployment is still unacceptably high at 18-20 percent. Furthermore, a large proportion remain in the vulnerable informal sector, with poor pay and no social benefits. And while intellectual, human and information capital are certainly growing, the over-all proportion remains low, with only 189 fulltime researchers per 1 million population (UNESCO, 2013).

Moving forward, we need to carefully look into ways to bridge this digital divide, potentially by utilizing the very same technology that created the divide in the first place. In this time of rapid transition, one task we face as educators (and parents) is to be able to raise and educate the next generations to contribute productively in ICT-heavy professions that may not even exist yet. And as broader connectivity breaks down geographical and temporal barriers and we are ushered into a sphere of enormous socio-cultural diversity, the greater challenge is how to ensure equitable access to the benefits of progress: in health, education, economics and every other aspect of society.

July 2018 Health and Lifestyle

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