WSIS: Whose vision of an information society?
First Monday

WSIS: Whose vision of an information society? by Ajit K. Pyati

The United Nations (UN) and International Telecommunication Union (ITU), in their development of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), are contributing to the on–going discourse of the "Information Society." This study analyzes how WSIS contributes to the on–going Information Society discourse, especially how it frames a vision of an Information Society and the global "digital divide." The methodology of this study is a broad, comprehensive, and critical content analysis of the two main documents of WSIS, its Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action. The content analysis utilizes discourse analysis and ideology critique, and quantitative and qualitative methods. The results of the analysis show that WSIS paints a wholly utopian, technologically deterministic picture of an "Information Society" that oversimplifies and generalizes a complex issue and phenomenon, about which no clear consensus exists.


Research questions
Results and discussion





The growing importance of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in human societies is undoubtedly one of the defining features of our present–day world. ICTs have become incorporated into all levels of human organizational endeavors, and have had a large impact on the ways humans communicate. The most obvious recent example of an ICT innovation’s enormous transformative power has been the development of the Internet and World Wide Web (WWW) over the last decade.

The prominence of information in today’s society has led various scholars and leaders to claim that we now live in a new "Information Society," a society where information dominates new modes of social organization. This movement to a "new society" is by no means a claim without debate, however. The shift to an Information Society has been framed by some in the context of a "continuity vs. discontinuity" (Schement and Lievrouw, 1986). In other words, debate exists between the notion of an Information Society that is a fundamentally new form of social organization, or is just a continuation of previous modes of social organization. The continuity/discontinuity argument, further articulated in the work Frank Webster, is an important one. This importance stems from the fact that the continuity/discontinuity argument opens up a whole new area of critical discourses on the Information Society concept.

This distinction in thinking over the creation of an Information Society is not quite a simple one, however. A wide difference in thought exists within each camp, as different theorists place varying degrees of importance on information technologies and activities in shaping the modern world. In addition, theorists are approaching the growing "informatization" in society from various disciplines such as economics, sociology, and communication, thus affecting how they view this societal transformation. Webster (2002) further elaborates on this distinction in Information Society theory by seeing it as a separation between those who endorse the idea of an information society, and those who regard informatization as a continuation of pre–established relations. Some of the major theoretical schools that advocate a new form of society are post–industrialism, postmodernism, flexible specialization, and the informational mode of development (Webster, 2002). On the other side of the debate that stresses continuities of established relations are theories of neo–Marxism, flexible accumulation, reflexive modernization, and the public sphere (Webster, 2002). All these theories provide a context for the understanding of the information revolution happening in today’s world.

Whether or not we are truly living in a new Information Society, however, the fact remains that ICTs and information–related work figure prominently in societal transformations. In addition to the social theorists, world governments and international bodies, such as the European Union (EU) and United Nations, have been involved in debate over and the development of the "Information Society." The EU has been involved with the Information Society concept for several years. For instance, in 2000, the EU created development targets for member countries, called the "Lisbon Strategy," which includes goals and strategies aimed at "preparing the transition to a knowledge–based economy and society by better policies for the information society and R&D" (Bogdanowicz, et al., 2003). Building the "Information Society" for the EU is directly related to the availability and affordability of ICTs to individuals, organizations, and society as a whole (Bogdanowicz, et al., 2003). The main focus for the EU is on ICTs and increasing infrastructure and connectivity to them. The EU has taken on the information society discussion as one of policies of infrastructural expansion and member states’ unity or cohesion (Lievrouw, et al., 2000).

The United Nations, through UNESCO, has been involved in the Information Society concept for several decades, most notably with the MacBride Commission Report in 1980. The UNESCO–sponsored International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, or MacBride Commission, published a report in 1980, entitled, "Many voices, one world: Communication and society, today and tomorrow." The report covers various topics, from censorship, concentration of media ownership, and freedom and responsibility of the press, to name a few. UNESCO, as the sponsoring agency, chose to highlight "communication" as a basic right, rather than focusing on "information."

Another attempt by the UN to highlight the importance of information and communication issues is found in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). WSIS can be viewed as an expansion and continuity of the EU idea of the Information Society, as it is using this idea for the larger "world community," and is focusing on ICTs and infrastructural expansion. This Summit, co–sponsored by the UN, in conjunction with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), is taking place in two phases. The first phase took place in Geneva in December 2003, and the second phase will take place in Tunis in November 2005. Among the stakeholder groups attending the Summit are members of government, the private sector, and civil society participants. The first phase of the Summit set forth a Declaration of Principles and a Plan of Action of the "Information Society," both standard documents of UN–sponsored conferences. WSIS is part of the ongoing Information Society debate, as it is structured on the UN summit model, a post–Cold War phenomenon first inaugurated in 1992 with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The second phase of the Summit will take place in Tunisia in November 2005, where it is hoped progress on meeting their first phase goals and follow–up will take place. WSIS is the first UN summit that is taking place in two phases.

In the case of WSIS, the ITU has taken the lead in organizing the Summit, and has placed "information" over "communication" in having primary importance. WSIS can thus be seen as a movement away from an international community focus on "communication," to a focus on "information." In addition, WSIS is a much larger and more ambitious project, as it is the first major summit of its kind dealing solely with issues of information.

The ITU is currently the most inclusive international ICT governance forum, including country governments and private sector and civil society organizations in its membership (MacLean, 2003). The ITU also has the widest range of ICT governance functions for an international organization, including regulation of satellite orbital positions and regulation of the radio frequency spectrum (MacLean, 2003). In the theoretical framework of international regime theory, the ITU also has been the basis of the formation of a highly successful international telecommunications regime (Cogburn, 2003). This regime has helped create the "rules of the game" for telecommunications, as well as the mechanisms for collective decision–making and enforcement of rules (Cogburn, 2003). The ITU’s move to sponsor WSIS can be seen as a chance for it to influence debate on a wider set of issues regarding ICTs and development. Transformation in the world, in terms of globalization and the growing awareness of an "information age," are challenging the ITU’s regime, as the movement to a Global Information Infrastructure/Global Information Society (GII/GIS) regime is taking place (Cogburn, 2003). It appears that the ITU is using WSIS as part of an ongoing effort to define a new information regime, and to give it a new relevance in a rapidly globalizing and information intensive world.

In the case of the UN, its role is that of a facilitator in the creation of a "people–centred, inclusive and development–oriented Information Society" (Declaration of Principles, 2003). The theory behind the Summit is to make information technology work in furthering human and social development, as well as to achieve the UN’s Millennium Goals. The UN and ITU, in sponsoring this Summit, are acknowledging that a new form of information society currently exists. How their "Information Society" concept fits into the theoretical frameworks discussed earlier is analyzed in this study.

The project of this paper will deal with the framing of the Information Society and digital divide debates by WSIS. WSIS is part of the on–going, decades–long debate over the Information Society. This exploratory study will analyze the main documents of WSIS, the Declaration of Principles, and Plan of Action. Now that the first phase of WSIS has concluded and the second phase is about to begin, it is crucial to place the Summit’s declarations and plans under a critical light. WSIS must be understood in a critical, theoretical framework for it to have meaning as an event in both shaping the "Information Society" and the new paradigm of using ICTs to alleviate problems of the developing world. An analysis is needed of how WSIS defines the emerging "Information Society" and how it develops plans to address the digital divide and issues of information access for developing country populations. In addition, the Summit must be placed in a proper socio–political context, as processes of globalization are transforming economic and social conditions throughout the world. For UN summits such as WSIS to have relevance, their goals and assumptions must be scrutinized, and their viewpoints analyzed, to help ground them and give them a sense of what is realizable and attainable. This preliminary, pilot project will begin this process of critical analysis, and can help develop future directions for research in addressing the global digital divide and strategizing international information development policy.

This preliminary research, however, is part of a much–larger on–going project and agenda. This larger project entails situating WSIS in the on–going debate of the Information Society, as well as providing a larger critique of discourses and ideologies of the "Information Society." A larger view will incorporate critical approaches to the Information Society debate, will add to the critical discourse on this topic, and will question the UN’s role in linking the "Information Society" with "development." A critical approach will create openings for more emancipatory conceptions of an Information Society, and will study the significance of the naming of this "society." This larger project will include a focus on questioning dominant "universalist" discourses, and providing alternate imaginative possibilities that contest "visions" from above.



Research questions

The research inquiry for this study is the World Summit on the Information Society, and its implications for addressing the global digital divide. The analysis consists of two explorations: 1) An interpretation of WSIS’s significance as an event in shaping the "Information Society" debate and creating an agenda for addressing the global digital divide; and, 2) An analysis of the viewpoints, recommendations, and solutions that WSIS proposes in its main documents. The research questions that follow are based on these two main areas of analysis.

  1. What is WSIS’s understanding of the term "Information Society?" How does WSIS frame the "Information Society" debate?
  2. How does WSIS frame the global digital divide?
  3. What is the nature of agency and implementation (in addressing Information Society and digital divide) in the WSIS documents?
  4. What is the level of technological determinism in the solutions that WSIS proposes?




The methodology of this study is a broad, comprehensive, and critical content analysis. The content analysis will incorporate critical discourse analysis, ideology critique, and political semiotics. Both qualitative and quantitative approaches will be taken. The documents that form the main object of analysis are the WSIS’s Declaration of Principles, and Plan of Action, both developed during the first phase of the Summit in December 2003 in Geneva. These documents were the main products of the Summit, as they aim to set the agenda linking information and international development. The authors of the documents are the representatives of country governments, and the process of drafting the documents took place in preparatory (PrepCom) meetings before the Geneva Summit meeting. Civil society organizations had some input in influencing the language of the documents; for instance, the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) and other non–governmental organizations (NGOs) lobbied to have language that reflects the importance of libraries, archives and museums in the documents (Shimmon, 2004). However, the final say in writing the documents was left to the official government representatives. This fact will be important in analyzing the recommendations and principles contained in the documents, as it is debatable how "universal" these principles are if government representatives are their main authors.

The critical discourse analysis will focus on how the documents shape the meaning of the terms "Information Society" and "digital divide." The discourse analysis will draw upon theories of the politics of language, most notably articulated by Herbert Marcuse and George Orwell. Marcuse uses the term "Orwellian language" to describe roles and characteristics of dominant discourses within contemporary post–industrial societies (Kellner, 1990). Marcuse’s analysis is most pertinent in relation to this analysis in how he argues that language shapes public thought and discourse, and simultaneously prevents critical thought and discourse (Kellner, 1990). This hermeneutical perspective will be used to analyze the use of language in the WSIS documents, specifically in how the "Information Society" and "digital divide" are framed. On another note, it is understood in this analysis that concept definitions and language are left vague and open to interpretation deliberately, for various reasons. In particular, they are often left open to reflect a wide range of shifting meanings. Therefore, the focus of the analysis is on the domain of meanings surrounding the terms "Information Society" and "digital divide." The qualities and values most associated with these terms will be highlighted for interpretation.

Studying the documents of WSIS is important, as they reflect the overall "vision" and guiding framework of the conference. The emphasis on "vision," however, often makes Statements of Principle and Plans of Action all–encompassing and often very general (Klein, 2003). Despite this generality, these documents can shape policy discourse, as Summit documents can affect policy debates by getting new terms into circulation (Klein, 2003). With these facts in mind, analyzing the viewpoints, values, and recommendations contained in these documents can be crucial in pointing out possible policy implications. Specifically, this content analysis will look at how WSIS documents frame and shape the Information Society and global digital divide debates. These debates have the potential to have a powerful effect in shaping global thinking on these issues.

The content analysis of the Summit’s two main documents will shed light on the Summit’s prescriptions for tackling the digital divide. The goal of the content analysis is to critically analyze the viewpoints, recommendations, and solutions that WSIS proposes in addressing the digital divide. The content analysis will include a review of the subject matter, direction, values, and goals presented in the two main documents.

The content analysis serves to address the research questions in a consistent and systematic way. The content analysis is divided into two parts: the first part deals with the Declaration of Principles, and the second part deals with the Plan of Action. The analysis of the Declaration of Principles is focused on identifying the values, goals, and visions of the "Information Society" as viewed by the UN and ITU. A major part of this analysis focuses on the use of the terms "Information Society" and "digital divide" in the Declaration of Principles. How these terms are defined will be important in analyzing the viewpoints and values of WSIS. Language is a powerful conveyer of biases, viewpoints, and values.

The analysis of the Plan of Action focuses on analyzing agency and implementation. More specifically, the nature of agency, implementation, and recommendations will be examined. The Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action of WSIS form the basis of the analysis. These written statements are important, since they are one of the main tangible results of the Summit, setting goals, guidelines, principles, and visions of what the UN’s vision of an Information Society looks like for the world community. The basis of the Plan of Action (POA) is the Declaration of Principles (DOP), a document developing shared values for an Information Society. While the Declaration of Principles sets the broad guidelines of WSIS, the Plan of Action seeks to put these principles into practice.

The main focus of the analysis is how WSIS frames the Information Society debate, addresses the "digital divide," and promotes values and recommendations. The goal of the content analysis is to critically analyze the viewpoints, recommendations, and solutions that WSIS proposes in addressing the digital divide. The content analysis will include a review of the subject matter, direction, values, goals, and actors presented in the two main documents.

1) Content analysis of the Declaration of Principles

Categories for analysis:

  • Use of the term "Information Society"
    • Frequency of use
    • What is it in reference to? / How is the term defined?
    • Adjectives used in its description, common words associated with term
    • Who is defining the term?

  • Tone/Values
  • Use of the term "digital divide"

2) Content analysis of Plan of Action

Categories for Analysis:

  • Agency
  • Implementation



Results and discussion

Given that the term "Information Society" is part of the name of the Summit, it is not a surprise that this term is used frequently in the Declaration of Principles. What is of interest to this analysis, however, is how the document defines the term, and what adjectives, goals, and objectives are often associated with it. The term "Information Society" itself is used 63 times in the Declaration of Principles. The importance of this term to the overall theme of the document is highlighted in its use in the document’s subtitle, and all three major subheadings. In addition, the term is used in 44 of the 67 paragraph "mini–statements" that comprise the document.

The derivation of the term "Information Society" is not explained anywhere in the document. It is assumed that the reader is already aware of the meaning and importance of this term to the modern world. The closest definition of the term comes from the first paragraph of the document, as it states that "We, the representatives of the peoples of the world ... declare our common desire and commitment to build a people–centred, inclusive, and development–oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize, and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life." It thus appears that an "Information Society" as defined by WSIS is based on some notion of sharing of knowledge and information to achieve development goals.

This loose definition of the term is framed by the "representatives of the world." These representatives, in fact, are representatives of country governments that participated in the document–drafting process. This authorship is demonstrated by the use of the words "we" and "our" in relation to the "Information Society" in question. For example, 17 of the 18 statements in Section A, "Our Common Vision of the Information Society," contain the words "we" or "our" in boldface type. Given that the responsibility of drafting the documents was left mainly to country government representatives, the "inclusiveness" of the word "we" in this document is debatable. In addition, the word "common" is used to describe the vision and goals of WSIS. The use of this word implies values that are shared amongst all peoples of the world. The use of phrases such as "common vision" and "inclusive" serve to frame the Information Society debate in a new direction. Debate about the nature of an "Information Society" becomes stifled in the international community when broad declarative terms such as these are used. Any dissent directed towards this "common vision" of the Information Society presumably puts one into a category outside the realm of the sanctioned space of the international community. A narrow, wholly positive view of ICTs as tools of development now appears to be the official stance of the UN and world community. The technological utopianism and technological determinism that permeate this UN idea of the Information Society will be discussed further when analyzing the nature of agency and implementation in the Declaration of Principles.

What does WSIS mean by the word "inclusive" when government representatives had the main responsibility in drafting the documents? And, for that matter, what does "people–centred" mean?

Analyzing the key adjectives used to describe the "Information Society" gives an insight into the values and viewpoints of WSIS. The first paragraph of the Declaration of Principles gives us a description of a "people–centred, inclusive and development–oriented Information Society." The adjective "inclusive" is used a further nine times in describing an "Information Society." The adjective "people–centred" is used two more times in the description of an "Information Society." These two words are the main adjectives used to modify the term "Information Society." An Information Society, as defined by WSIS, must be "inclusive" and reflect the needs of the "people." What does WSIS mean by the word "inclusive" when government representatives had the main responsibility in drafting the documents? And, for that matter, what does "people–centred" mean? How do we know when ICT development projects in the developing world are people–centred or not?

In addition to modifying adjectives, various verbs are used to "act" upon the "Information Society." Noting which verbs are acting upon the term gives an idea of the "state" and "condition" of the "Information Society." In 12 of the cases where "Information Society" is mentioned, the words "build" or "building" are associated with the term. In four instances, the word "development" is used in reference to the "Information Society." The use of the words "build," "building," and "development" imply an Information Society that is in flux, and is not yet fully formed. The character and "state" of the "Information Society" as described by WSIS has consequences in how to implement the vision of the Declaration of Principles. It thus appears that we are living in an Information Society, but at the same time, are also building it. This vision of an Information Society as a dynamic process fits in with the working definition of the term. This Information Society, however, is one that has a focus on "development." In addition, the "common vision" of all governments have framed this society, and it is unclear how flexible this framing of the Information Society is to critique and debate.

In relation to WSIS’s naming of an "Information Society," the end of the Declaration of Principles adds a term that has not been mentioned previously, but bears import on the entire document. The last sentence of the document reads, "We trust that these measures will open the way to the future development of a true knowledge society." The key question here is, "What is a knowledge society?" How is a knowledge society different from an information society? The Declaration of Principles does not have any answers. Is there an implication that a "knowledge society" is somehow better than an "information society?" The implications of this term are left for the reader to decide. Understanding that the term "knowledge society" has been drawn up as an alternative to the "information society" by civil society organizations, it appears that civil society voices have had an impact on the Declaration of Principles. However, by adding this term without any clarification, it merely serves to confuse the message of the document.

The next part of the analysis will explore some of the values associated with the term "Information Society," and its associated relationships with institutions and groups. The following analysis will exhaustively list the important values, concerns (including affected groups) and principles associated with the term "Information Society" according to the Declaration of Principles. The following values are described as key components of the Information Society: 1) Communication; 2) Human dignity; 3) Central role of science; 4) Women’s empowerment; 5) Marginalized and vulnerable groups of society, including migrants, internally displaced persons and refugees, unemployed and underprivileged people, minorities and nomadic people; 6) Indigenous peoples, and preservation of their heritage and cultural legacy; 7) Improving access to ICT infrastructure, information and knowledge; building capacity; increasing confidence and security in the use of ICTs; creating an enabling environment at all levels; developing and widening ICT applications; fostering and respecting cultural diversity; recognizing the role of the media; addressing the ethical dimensions of the Information Society; and encouraging international and regional cooperation; 8) Role to play for UN, governments, private sector, and civil society; 9) Connectivity; 10) Universal, ubiquitous, equitable, and affordable access to ICT infrastructure and services; 11) Utilization of post offices, schools, libraries and archives as ICT public access points; 12) Rich public domain; 13) Ability for all to access and contribute information, ideas, and knowledge; 14) Affordable access to software; 15) Literacy and universal primary education; 16) Partnerships between and among developed and developing countries; 17) Increased capacity building in the areas of education, technology know–how and access to information; 18) Information security, network security, trust; 19) Enabling environment; 20) Rule of law, pro–competitive and technologically neutral policy and regulatory framework; 21) Basis for economic growth; 22) Intellectual property protection; 23) Standardization; 24) Respect of international law; 25) International management of the Internet as a core issue; 26) Respect for cultural identity, cultural and linguistic diversity, traditions and religions, fostering dialogue; 27) Creation, dissemination, and preservation of content in diverse languages and formats accorded high priority; 28) Preserve cultural heritage; 29) Freedom of press, freedom of information; 30) Respect peace and uphold values of freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, shared responsibility, and respect for nature; 31)Ethics, fostering justice, and the dignity and worth of the human person; 32) Against abusive and illegal uses of ICTs; 33) Intrinsically global in nature; 34) Regional integration; 35) Core competencies of ITU; 36) Cooperation; 37) Follow–up and progress in bridging the digital divide; and, 38) Shared knowledge, founded on global solidarity and a better mutual understanding between peoples and nations.

This list gives a sense of the scope and ambition of WSIS. Everything and everyone seem to be covered. The immense scope of an Information Society that addresses the needs of the marginalized and also deals with Internet governance is almost too difficult to make sense of. The justifications for many of the principles and values underlying the document are references to the UN and other UN declarations, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This self–referencing to the United Nations and other summits and plans justifies the immense scope of WSIS’s view of the "Information Society." In reality, WSIS loses power as its goals and principles become more diffuse and "universal."

In the course of this analysis, it also appears that the coming of the Information Society is fundamentally about ICTs, and their uses and applications. This very fact gives WSIS a fundamentally technologically deterministic slant. For instance, the term "ICT" or "ICTs" appears 49 times in the Declaration of Principles, and in 30 of the 67 paragraph statements. Thus, nearly half of the principles have a focus either on ICTs or ICT–based applications. To be fair to WSIS, the Declaration of Principles does mention important values like utilizing and sharing knowledge, irrespective of ICTs. However, the predominant theme and value is that of ICTs as a tool for a UN–envisioned utopia. The main focus of the document is on ICTs, and how they can transform society for the better, and the "Information Society" for WSIS is fundamentally based on the role of technology.

The term "digital divide" is mentioned only five times in the Declaration of Principles, in contrast to the high frequency of use of the term "Information Society." The lack of usage of this term is surprising; however, given the exclusive focus on the Information Society debate, its lack of mention is understandable. The term "digital divide" itself is a problematic one, as it is a multi–faceted, rather than a binary issue; perhaps the writers of the WSIS documents themselves avoided its usage for this reason. However, upon closer inspection of the documents, this does not appear to be the reason, as a binary approach to the issue is taken.

What exactly is a digital opportunity?

The first mention of the digital divide is in paragraph 10, where it states that "We are fully committed to turning this digital divide into a digital opportunity for all, particularly for those who risk being left behind and further marginalized." Preceding this sentence in paragraph 10, we find the digital divide being defined primarily as a situation where "the benefits of the information technology revolution are today unevenly distributed between the developed and developing countries and within societies." This appears to be a reasonable understanding of the phenomenon, as the focus is on the benefits of the technologies themselves, rather than on the mere presence of the technologies. However, a peculiar part of the sentence in question is the use of the term "digital opportunity." In fact, this particular phrase appears in other parts of both documents. What exactly is a digital opportunity? One would assume that it is a positive; however, without being defined, it sounds merely like a cliché. The second mention of the digital divide is in paragraph 17, as it states that “bridging the digital divide and ensuring harmonious, fair, and equitable development for all” are goals of the Information Society.

The third mention of the digital divide is in paragraph 61, where it states that "We are convinced that the worldwide agreed objective is to contribute to bridge the digital divide, promote access to ICTs, create digital opportunities, and benefit from the potential offered by ICTs for development." Again, we see the mention of "digital opportunities," and in this case, we also see the familiar use of the verb "bridge" mentioned to overcome the digital divide. The fourth instance of the digital divide is in paragraph 64, as it mentions the importance of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in "bridging the digital divide" once again. The fifth mention of the digitital divide in paragraph 66 also mentions "bridging." The verb "bridge" is one of the more popular terms now used in addressing the digital divide. Bridging assumes a gap exists; in addition, it implies an action or process of "closing." In terms of our working definition, the notion of "closing" the digital divide is appropriate if it involves ideas of social inclusion and equity. How nuanced WSIS’s understanding of "bridging the digital divide" is will be better understood further on in the analysis, when the nature of agency is explored in the Plan of Action. Overall, however, it appears that the digital divide does not have a clear definition in the Declaration of Principles, and is framed more as a binary problem, rather than a multi–faceted one.

Having examined the use of the terms "Information Society" and "digital divide" in the Declaration of Principles, the analysis will shift to a more detailed examination of values, goals, and agency. This analysis will also be undertaken on the Plan of Action, as it will be useful to see the nature of implementation in this document as it relates to the "principles" in the Declaration of Principles.

From the introduction of the Plan of Action, we see that the goal of the document is to translate the "common vision" of the Declaration of Principles into "concrete action lines to advance the achievement of the internationally–agreed development goals, including those in the Millennium Declaration, Monterrey Consensus, and the Johannesburg Declaration and Plan of Action." Furthermore, this goal will be achieved by "promoting the use of ICT–based products, networks, services and applications, and to help countries overcome the digital divide." Thus, from the first paragraph of the document, we see the technologically deterministic view of using ICTs in and of themselves to "overcome" the digital divide. This notion of the digital divide is not dialectic in nature, is not based on larger socio–cultural contexts, and suffers from a binary structure that plagues most debates on the subject. It implies a simple provision of technology will alleviate the problem. In the next paragraph of the introduction, we get the fullest definition of an "Information Society" thus far, one that is "an evolving concept that has reached different levels across the world, reflecting the different stages of development." Although reflecting a process–oriented conception of the term, it remains a question as to what the different stages of "development" mean, and how to measure what "levels" particular countries are on with respect to the Information Society. Are all countries developing to the "level" of the developed world in their use and implementation of ICTs? One has to wonder what the inherent assumptions are behind this declaration.

Are all countries developing to the "level" of the developed world in their use and implementation of ICTs?

The final part of the Plan of Action’s introduction is a description of the roles of "stakeholders" in the Information Society. Governments have a leading role to play in developing "forward looking and sustainable e–strategies." The private sector is important in "developing and diffusing ICTs," but also is mentioned as having a role in a "wider sustainable development context." The third stakeholder group, civil society, is "equally important in creating an equitable Information Society, and in implementing ICT–related initiatives for development." The last stakeholder group, international and regional institutions, and international financial institutions, have a "key role in integrating the use of ICTs in the development process and making available necessary resources for building the Information Society and for the evaluation of the progress made." This last paragraph of the introduction is perhaps the document’s most important,as it spells out the nature of agency in the implementation of the Plan of Action. The document covers all the bases in mentioning these different stakeholder groups, trying to be as "inclusive" as possible. Governments have a role in "e–strategies" — a slick new word for ICT–related planning. It is interesting to note that the private sector is mentioned as a player in sustainable development. What this fact entails is not clear. The growing corporatization of the Internet is a fact in much of the developed world — how this plays out in the developing world remains to be seen. It appears, however, by mentioning this statement, the UN may be endorsing wider privatized, corporate control of content, infrastructure, and access in the developing world. The consequences of these actions on access issues are mixed; time will tell if greater privatization will result in better or worse access. What this statement portends, however, is the reluctance and inability of the international community to deal with issues of privatization and intellectual property rights that are at the heart of equity issues underlying the Information Society.

The mention of civil society participants as a partner in the development of the Information Society is an attempt to reach out to the large contingent of NGOs working on issues of equity and access in the Information Society. "Civil society" represents the voices of NGOs, which presumably are working on behalf of the "common people." Simply mentioning civil society as a partner was not enough to quell dissenting civil society voices towards WSIS. Grassroots movements are wary that WSIS’s conception of an Information Society is too narrow and technologically focused, without enough of an emphasis on human needs. The alternative Civil Society Declaration to WSIS addresses some of these concerns.

The last stakeholder group is perhaps the most important for the developing world, as it concerns the heart of implementation. The mention of "international financial institutions" is an euphemism for the two main financial institutions in the area of development, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These institutions are controversial, mainly because of a track record of "structural adjustment" programs that have had mixed, and sometimes harmful effects on developing countries. The main tools of implementation, in realizing an "Information Society" for the developing world, are in all actuality these two financial institutions.

The next section on "Objectives, goals and targets" spells out the objectives of the Plan of Action, and it mentions that "opportunity shall be taken in phase two of the WSIS to evaluate and assess progress made towards bridging the digital divide." How this assessment and evaluation will take place is unclear. Moreover, it is not known what tools of measurement and criteria for "success" will be utilized. In terms of implementation, the document mentions that "specific targets for the Information Society" will be developed as appropriate by national governments and in the context of national e–strategies. Thus, assessment is left for national governments to decide.

Some of the most ambitious goals of the Plan of Action mention specific actions to be achieved by the year 2015. The choice of 2015 is peculiar — other UN–sponsored projects, such as the Education for All (EFA) initiative, also set 2015 as a "magical" target date. To take an example, one of these ambitious goals is "to ensure that more than half the world’s inhabitants have access to ICTs within their reach." This is no doubt an admirable goal, but does not have any requirements for the quality of content, the nature of the technologies, or the potential use values. Once again, this language espouses values of technological determinism. The focus is on "connecting" people with ICTs, as if the only issue with addressing the digital divide is to just get the technologies to the people. In defense of WSIS, these goals are meant to be general and specifics are left to national governments. The next part of the analysis will address some of the more specific implementation recommendations. It appears, however, that much of the same technologically deterministic thinking plagues the rest of the document.

Using terms prefixed with "e–"only serves to "fetishize" ICTs and their potential benefits for societies.

On the role of governments in promoting ICTs for development, the development of "national e–strategies" is mentioned. The use of the term "e–strategy" is an attempt to make the endeavor appear cutting–edge and technologically savvy. What an e–strategy is, however, is not apparent at first glance. Later on in the Plan of Action, we see the mention of various ICT applications in different parts of life. For example, "E–government" and "E–health" are specific examples of "e–strategies" applied in the real world. The argument proposed in this analysis is that using terms prefixed with "e–"only serves to "fetishize" ICTs and their potential benefits for societies. This is not to say, however, that attempts to transform and enhance existing disciplines through the utilization of ICTs is a bad thing; rather, the critique is on the use of language in constructing and perpetuating technologically deterministic thinking.

National governments have the central role in developing the Information Society, as many of the recommendations for building the Information Society and using ICTs for development rests on national e–strategies and national action plans. The other main actors in implementation, however, must develop "partnerships" with each other to achieve the development of the Information Society. In addition, "national, regional and international cooperation" is needed at all levels for implementation of WSIS goals. "Cooperation" of all stakeholders will make the dream of a utopian "Information Society" a reality.

Although identifying the important players in the "Information Society," and some of the roles they can play, it is unclear how "partnerships," "cooperation," and "solidarity" will take place. WSIS proposes these actions within a framework that is not original, and relies on rhetoric and tried–and–true phrases of international conferences. Much of the onus for implementation rests with national governments, who often do not have a great incentive or even the financial resources to implement this "vision." The entire endeavor rests on the "recommendations" and "suggestions" of WSIS, and nothing else. This fact is to be expected; an international summit like WSIS is not intended to have built–in implementation mechanisms. In terms of addressing the digital divide and improving information access for developing countries, however, it appears that the implementation rests on shaky notions of "cooperation" and "solidarity." In all reality, the implementation of many of these recommendations and goals for developing countries will go through the World Bank and IMF, which have a mixed record and reputation. The Plan of Action recommends that "relevant international organizations and financial institutions" such as the World Bank and IMF "develop their own strategies for the use of ICTs for sustainable development."

Now, after analyzing both the Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action. it is time to finish the analysis by returning to our original four research questions. In response to the first question of how WSIS frames the "Information Society," the preceding analysis has shown that the framing has been largely positive in nature, and has advocated a utopian view of ICTs and their effects on society. The very nature of WSIS has not been set up to question the benefits of ICTs, serving to further an agenda that sees ICTs as a an inherent "good" in the world. A utopian perspective in and of itself, however, is not necessarily a negative characteristic. However, the use of it in WSIS is problematic because of the legitimizing power of the UN and its ability to shape world public opinion on topics. The notion of a utopia is illusory in the contemporary world; however, it is a positive goal worth striving for. Ideals are necessary and should not be condemned, but the utopianism in WSIS is not constructive because it oversimplifies and generalizes a contested debate that can have significant policy consequences.

WSIS has framed an Information Society to be "inclusive" and "development–oriented." What these terms mean, however, is not entirely clear. By naming and giving values to this "Information Society," the UN has created a framework for propagating this idea to the international community at large.

To address the second research question regarding the framing of the global digital divide, WSIS’s framing has remained binary in nature, reflecting a view where a mere provision of technology will help alleviate this problem. The understanding of the digital divide as a multi–faceted phenomenon is not found in the WSIS documents. The importance of cultural diversity and capacity building in general for the "Information Society" are mentioned, but the framing of the digital divide still reflects an idea of technological determinism.

Implementation rests on shaky notions of "cooperation" and "solidarity."

The third question, concerning the nature of agency and implementation, helped to understand how WSIS could accomplish its vision. The four groups that must "cooperate" and work together are national governments, the private sector, civil society, and international and regional institutions, including international financial institutions. How these disparate groups can learn to work together is not explained, nor how these agencies can find the means to accomplish these goals, particularly national governments. The Digital Solidarity Fund is mentioned as a voluntary fund to help aid ICT development, but the future of this endeavor, and its potential effects remain uncertain. The private sector has been given a role in "development," and it remains to be seen what effects this will have on developing countries. The "international financial institutions" are unnamed, but are undoubtedly the World Bank and IMF. These institutions wield a great amount of power in affecting developing countries, and their track record has been mixed. It remains to be seen how ICT development will take place under the auspices of these two institutions.

Finally, to address the last question that regards the level of technological determinism, the WSIS documents resoundingly enforce this discredited mode of thinking. The excessive focus on ICTs, the use of the term "Information Society" repeatedly in relation to ICTs, and the overall positive tone of using technology to solve a whole host of human problems, all reflect technologically deterministic thinking.




The UN’s efforts to sponsor WSIS and highlight the importance of ICTs and their potential role in development are admirable. On a positive note, the UN has helped bring attention to a subject that is of growing importance in the world today. In addition, attempting to create an agenda focused on using ICTs to help all segments of the world’s population, especially poor and marginalized peoples, is a noble endeavor. Despite these good intentions and efforts, however, WSIS Geneva leaves behind an unsatisfactory legacy in the Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action.

It is understandable that summit documents make large generalizations, and serve merely as "vision" statements to help inform policy. Despite this fact, however, both the Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action paint a wholly utopian picture of an "Information Society" that grossly oversimplifies and generalizes a complex issue and social phenomenon. WSIS is framing debate on an issue where no clear consensus exists; their vision of an "Information Society" is based mainly on ICTs, and is technologically deterministic in outlook. It is in general agreement that information industries and ICTs are important in today’s world, but the WSIS "Information Society" serves to "fetishize" ICTs and technology, promoting technological determinism, simplistic answers, and perhaps even wrong solutions. The road to the upcoming Tunis phase of the conference appears to be heading down this similar path.

A glance at both documents gives one the impression that ICTs have the potential to do away with many human problems and sufferings. This is hardly the case; however, if ICTs are used as one part of a holistic strategy of poverty alleviation, then an important step forward will be taken. WSIS even acknowledges that ICTs are one set of tools in development, but the impression created by their framing of the "Information Society" is that ICTs, if only implemented properly, will transform the world and bring peace and prosperity. If it were only that simple.

On a broader philosophical note, one can question what authority the UN and "world community" have in declaring that we all are living in and want to further build an "Information Society." In fact, whether or not we are indeed living in this new society, and its fundamental nature, are still being debated. But the UN has already decided on what this "Information Society" will be, and justifies the legitimacy of its framing and definition by referring to a "common vision."

The effects of WSIS in terms of addressing the "digital divide" will be seen in how national governments, and the World Bank and IMF respond to its recommendations. WSIS has made a positive step in raising the profile of ICTs in development, but its simplistic, technologically deterministic framing of the Information Society and global digital divide debates may have negative consequences down the road. End of article


About the author

Ajit K. Pyati is a PhD student at UCLA’s Department of Information Studies. His area of focus is on discourses of modernization and information.



Much of this work comes out of my master’s thesis at UCLA, and I am grateful for the help, guidance, and support of my three outstanding committee members — Clara Chu, Leah Lievrouw, and Doug Kellner.



Marc Bogdanowicz, Jean–Claude Burgelman, Clara Centeno, Elisaveta Gourova, and Gérard Carat, 2003. "Factors of regional/national success in Information Society developments: Information Society strategies for candidate countries," First Monday, volume 8, number 10 (October), at:, accessed 2 March 2004.

Derrick L. Cogburn, 2003. "Governing global information and communications policy: Emergent regime formation and the impact on Africa," Telecommunications Policy, volume 27, pp. 135–153.

International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, 1980. Many voices, one world: Communication and society, today and tomorrow. Paris: UNESCO.

Douglas Kellner, 1990. "From 1984 to One–Dimensional Man: Reflections on Orwell and Marcuse," Current Perspectives in Social Theory, pp. 223–252, and and

Hans Klein 2003. "Understanding WSIS: An institutional analysis of the UN World Summit on the Information Society," Internet and Public Policy Project, School of Public Policy, Georgia Institute of Technology, at, accessed 15 February 2004.

Leah Lievrouw, Erik P. Bucy, T. Andrew Finn, Wolfgang Frindte, Richard Gershon, Caroline Haythornthwaite, Thomas Kohler, J Michel Metz, and S. Shyam Sundar, 2000. "Bridging the subdisciplines: An overview of communication and technology research," In W. Gudykunst (editor). Communication Yearbook, volume 24, pp. 272–296.

D. MacLean, 2003. "The quest for inclusive governance of global ICTs: Lessons from the ITU in the limits of national sovereignty," Information Technologies and International Development, volume 1, issue 1, pp. 1–18.

Jorge Schement and Leah Lievrouw, 1986. "The fundamental assumptions of Information Society research," In: Jorge Schement and Leah Lievrouw (editors). Competing visions, complex realities: Social aspects of the Information Society.. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex.

Ross Shimmon, 2004. "Digital opportunity or flashy fizzle? The UN’s World Summit on the Information Society," American Libraries, volume 35, number 2, pp. 24–25.

Frank Webster, 2002. Theories of the Information Society. New York: Routledge.

World Summit on the Information Society, 2003. Declaration of Principles. Building the Information Society: A global challenge in the new millenium, at, accessed 12 January 2004.

World Summit on the Information Society, 2003. Plan of action, at http://www.itu/int/wsis, accessed 12 January 2004.

Editorial history

Paper received 27 March 2005; accepted 10 April 2005.
HTML markup: Kyleen Kenney and Edward J. Valauskas; Editor: Edward J. Valauskas.

Contents Index

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

WSIS: Whose vision of an information society? by Ajit K. Pyati
First Monday, Volume 10, number 5 (May 2005),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.