John McAdam is the President and CEO of F5 Networks and is, as well, a member of its board of directors. Prior to joining F5, Mr McAdam served as the General Manager of the Web server sales business at IBM. He was President and Chief Operating Officer of Sequent Computer Systems, Inc., a manufacturer of high-end open systems, until it was sold to IBM in 1999. Mr McAdam holds a BSc in Computer Science from the University of Glasgow, Scotland.
Information and communication technology, ICT, is one of the most powerful tools we have for economic, social and human development. ICTs already play a vital role in meeting such United Nations Millennium Development Goals as: the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger; ensuring environmental sustainability; achieving universal primary education; reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; and, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. Unfortunately, only 20 per cent of the world’s population has access to the Internet. International cooperation can make access a universal right.
We live in interesting and exciting times. Perhaps never before in human history has the global population been more aware of, and connected to, each other regardless of political, economic or geographic differences. Much like community gathering in the past - the dances of post-World War I in the US, the churches, coffee shops and university classrooms of yesteryear - today, information and communications technology bring us, and our ideas, together - and more easily than ever before. Much as the steam locomotive and jet airplane shrank our immediate world and made it possible, with less effort, to see a world beyond our neighbourhood, the Internet and ICT (information and communication technology) in general, has brought the world to our doorstep. We need not travel further than our computer screens to connect with and interact with people from around the globe and get a peek into their cultures, their feelings and their lives. Never before, too, has the use of technology been in such a position to help bring the UN Millennium Development Goals to fruition. The first Millennium Development Goal is to “eradicate extreme poverty and hunger”. The use of ICT has created new possibilities in agriculture and to fight the war on hunger. Today, it is possible for agricultural specialists to instantly share their knowledge and expertise throughout the developed and under-developed world alike about the latest advances of agricultural science. ICT allows the nearly instantaneous collection of terrestrial and geosynchronous satellite data to provide real-time analysis of remote agricultural projects and nearly real-time modification of those projects to promote efficient management and successful outcomes. ICT, in this manner, helps bring about bountiful harvests in even the most difficult and remote regions of the world, and afford a brighter future to the peoples of those regions. Finally, with the correlation of this data and the end-results from around the world, ICT can also significantly help to define and disseminate knowledge and practices that balance the need to feed people and yet maintain globally sustainable systems that help all the people of the world. “Ensure environmental sustainability” is another of the Millennium Development Goals, MDG. The second MDG is to “achieve universal primary education”. Just as ICT makes it easier to promote successful and sustainable food production around the world, ICT also facilitates the production and delivery of cutting-edge educational tools and information. The most obvious benefit of ICT is the delivery of education with less infrastructure and cost to the poorest of nations and peoples. Even in first and second world countries, the use of ICT has also drastically increased the availability of advanced learning for working adults. Students now have a much better opportunity to continue their education beyond high school and secondary education. This creates a larger pool of educated and qualified people to continue the development and delivery of educational tools, appropriate local content and information. The universal education can only succeed when there are qualified educators to provide it. The Millennium Development Goals also include: “reduce child mortality”; “improve maternal health”; and “combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases”. Nowadays, one can rarely separate the delivery of medical care and information from the ICT that drives it. Today, diagnostic tools and services used to treat patients are often located far from the patients, at times even in other cities or countries. Doctors can treat and diagnose patients in even the most remote areas without having to forgo the technology needed to make quick and decisive, life or death, decisions. Instead of having to travel to where the knowledge and technology is located, or bring it all with them, physicians can travel to wherever the patients are and know that ICT will connect them to the needed services. In addition, ICT can drastically improve the dissemination of critical healthcare and preventative information and change the tide, treating communicable diseases and changing community sanitary habits. ICT significantly reduces the cost of delivering these services and, as a result, helps achieve the Millennium Development Goals. These short examples show how ICTs can help to solve many of the issues specifically targeted by the Millennium Development Goals. If our current efforts were enough, though, there would be little need to establish these goals. The question, then, is - what more can we do? While there are numerous answers, and a thousand tiny steps, there are a few that might make an immediate impact. First, recent reports suggest that less than 20 per cent of the world’s population have access to the Internet. This is a concern from many perspectives. The Internet is perhaps the most ubiquitous and readily available means to disseminate the information and tools mentioned above. Although other means are available all of them require rebuilding and replicating much of the existing Internet infrastructure. The 20 per cent Internet penetration figure shows that the great majority of the world’s people still lack ICT and Internet access, especially in regions with limited infrastructure. If ICT is to help address the issues targeted by the UN, investment to build the necessary infrastructure will be needed. The situation is improving, but not quickly enough to attain the MDGs by 2015. A concerted effort is necessary to guarantee backbone connectivity to each nation and make sure that the backbone is extended within their borders. This infrastructure is the key to propagating ICT and the benefits it provides. Second, while the world is increasingly converging, there still exist issues with the translation and transmission of information in the myriad languages around the world. ICT has not, as of yet, been able to provide for the consistent and reliable, real-time translation between the languages of the world. While we have certainly come a long way with services like Babel Fish, the literal, word-by-word translations they provide often are far from providing a true, idiomatic, translation of the language as spoken. For the most part, translation programmes are not nearly at the level needed to provide much of the understandable information people need. A universal, easily teachable language for all aspects of life would be ideal, but this is obviously impractical and would require an even greater number of translators than exist just to teach it. It is possible, though, to develop and implement practical ICT-based universal translation systems. ICT-based translation can greatly reduce the complexity, time and cost of developing and delivering information, and people need to address many of their problems and build better, more productive lives. It will be difficult, but much of the technology already exists. Finally, while rational and civilized human beings can generally agree that the feeding, educating and caring for all the people of the world - all ideals supported through ICT - are noble ends, the functioning of international politics is seldom as rational or civilized. Despite all our efforts, what is required politically and economically to meet these ends are often the roadblocks to success. If ICTs are to help achieve the UN goals, access to information and tools must be designated as a basic, ‘inalienable’ human right. Since access to information provides a foundation for other human rights, this access itself needs to be treated as an extension of those human rights and protected through treaty and/or international law. International mechanisms must be developed that effectively guarantee the inalienable right of each and every person to information that, at the same time, balances the sovereign rights of states to control access conditions for specific types of content and information. Without international guarantees, we cannot assure that those who need information will be able to access it. We live in interesting and exciting times. ICT is driving the development of our global economy and delivering on the promise of the global community. However, without continued development, investment and international support that community will, effectively, consist only of those people with the economic wherewithal to access information, that have the education to understand the information and live within sovereign states that do not restrict access to the world’s community. It is not a global community, unless it is an all-inclusive community.