Information Technologies

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The use of information technology (IT) exploded in industrialised countries during the nineties and in developing countries from the year 2000. Between 2000 and 2005, IT expenditure increased by 5.6% per year globally, 22% per year in China, 25% in Russia and 23% in India. However, in 2006, three quarters of the world still had no access to, or could only access with difficulty, basic telecommunications.

In 2007, there were 1.25 billion Internet users (18% of the world’s population), 2.17 billion mobile phone users, and in 2005, the number of fixed telephone lines reached 1.3 billion. The number of Internet users throughout the world has increased by 245% since 2000.

This growth was accompanied by a significant consumption of resources: the manufacture of a computer requires 240kg of fossil fuels, 22kg of chemicals and 1.5 tonnes of water. Consequently, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), each year we produce between 20 and 50 million tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE).

Information and communication technology can be defined as the combination of technologies used for collecting, processing, modifying and exchanging information in numeric form. The main media are radio, television, telephone (fixed line or mobile), and the Internet. According to a broader definition, the IT sector brings together all activities that carry out the diffusion and exchange of information, and produce electronic and information-based goods: the creation and edition of software, use of telecommunication networks and services, as well as the commercial sector manufacturing electronic equipment.

Growing Connections

The growth in investment and access to IT is almost exclusively occurring in areas where there is already basic infrastructure, especially electricity. Yet, one in three people in the world are not connected to an electricity network. The disparities between the global North and South are significant: in 2006, developing counties had, relative to the number of inhabitants, four times as many fixed line telephones, three times as many mobile phone subscriptions and six times more Internet users.

In 2007, levels of Internet accessibility were 4.7% in Africa, 12.4% in Asia and 70.2% in North America. For around 30 countries it is less than 1%. In 1988, there were 100 computers connected to the Internet. Internet usage is increasing in every socio-economic sphere, but in terms of access, the gap has widened between men and women, employed and unemployed, high and low income earners, qualified and unqualified, the elderly and the young. According to the World Bank, the cost of an Internet connection in Africa is the highest in the world (250 to 300 USD per month).

In 2006, 239.4 million computers were sold, a 10% growth in one year, the largest increase occurring in China: + 27%. If this trend continues, there will be 1 billion computers by 2008, and 2 billion by 2015.

Globally, the annual growth in the number of mobile phone subscriptions has been 24% since 2000. The strongest growth comes from African countries – from 50 to 400% since 2005 – where the number of mobile phones has superseded the number of fixed line telephones (three landline phones for 100 inhabitants). 674 million mobile phones were sold in 2004, 30% more than in 2003. Radio and television are present in all societies; the only obstacle is access to electricity.

IT, Environment and Health

IT consumes 3% of the electricity and 1% of the total energy of developed countries, according to Gartner Group, and 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to the amount from aviation industry. Computers alone account for 1% of domestic energy consumption. With more and more external hardware being added to computers (external hard drives, webcams, microphones, etc.), computer related energy consumption doubled between 2000 and 2005.

The lifespan of IT equipment is short, a result of rapidly advancing technology, which increases the volume of waste, some of which is very toxic (lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, flame retardant bromine, etc). Mobile phones become obsolete within two years in developed countries and recycling rates vary from 2 to 15%. According to the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME), 1.7 million tonnes of electronic waste are thrown away each year in France, which is about 14kg of waste electrical and electronic equipment, or ‘e-waste’ per person, and this amount increases by 3 to 5% every year.

China, where the cost of recycling the glass from computer screens is six times less than in the United States, is responsible for 90% of the global market for recycling electronic waste, followed by India. These countries do not have in place the appropriate rules to protect the environment and people from the toxic substances in this waste.

The indirect positive impacts of IT on the environment have been less significant than hoped: IT development has not led to a reduction in the amount of paper used, and videoconferencing has not decreased air travel.

Electromagnetic pollution from wireless networks (mobile telephones, WiFi) the effects of which upon health are currently the subject of numerous studies, add to the pollution that already exists in the air, soil and groundwater.

IT and Development

According to the GSM Association, which brings together 700 mobile operators, a 10% increase in mobile phone coverage induces an annual GDP growth of 1.2%. After poverty and violence against women, the United Nations lists lack of access to IT as the third most serious problem facing women worldwide. International organisations express hope for IT in the following ways:

– facilitate access to knowledge and information: e-libraries and databases (PubMed, a site which brings together 17 million citations from science journals), distance learning, search engines, Internet based encyclopaedias, distribution of medical knowledge to improve practices, networks, etc;

– Accompanying public decisions with spatial remote sensing: using data from satellites monitoring the earth for a better management of the environment, transport, better urban planning etc;

– Increasing commercial trade, especially in poorer regions;

– Anticipating or preventing natural disasters;

– Favouring targets of participative governance with the creation of interactive and user-friendly tools.

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