Arriving in Buenos Aires from the _pampa_ hinterland is like playing a simulation game called First World. The concentration of capital, concrete and a third of the Argentine population is dizzying for anyone approaching from the small farming towns of the province or from the far-flung villages of empty Patagonia and the northern _altiplano_.
Even starker is the contrast between the concentrated node of civic grandeur in the mid-town heart of the Capital Federal and the vast shanty towns on its semi-rural fringes, where millions of unemployed Argentines live without running water, basic hygiene or medical services.
The average salary in the ‘Paris of South America’ is around $1,200, while the poorest six per cent of Argentines earn under $100 a month. A new sushi restaurant opens in the centre every week.
This is not, as anyone will tell you, Argentina.
In early 2000, brash, flashy Buenos Aires went online and on the commuter artery hoardings began to promise virtual salvation, a thousand dot coms springing up overnight with names like yupi.com and dinero.com (_dinero_ meaning money). The ads were targeted at middle-class males speeding in from their secured _barrios_ in the affluent northern suburbs to work in the downtown skyscrapers occupied by multinationals.
No-one familiar with Buenos Aires’ history of following the fads and fashions of the northern hemisphere could have been surprised by the sudden explosion of websites. But with telephone and Internet Service Provider-connection costs among the highest in the world, cyberspace is firmly closed to pensioners, the unemployed, the poor.
‘If you haven’t got internet, you don’t exist.’ The Argentine ad-campaign, sponsored by Advance, the internet arm of Spain’s Telefónica – one of many international firms now running public services – says it all.
Aníbal Ford, Communications Professor at the University of Buenos Aires is author of a study of ‘identity, inequality and infotainment in contemporary society’ called _La marca de la bestia_ (The Mark of the Beast). Ford says: ‘The great mass of software, information and systems sold in the global marketplace excludes not only the cultures of poor countries – but also the very possibility that new technologies can be of use in the projects and lives of the poor.’ Only a third of the world’s population have electricity and, as Jubilee 2000’s African co-ordinator, Kewesi Ouwusu says: ‘We can’t eat computers. People are dying.’
Some years ago, the Argentine Government sent computers to schools in the very poor northern province of Jujuy. The schools in question had no electricity. Old ‘media’ – papers, pens, chalk, blackboards – are in short supply in many regions, but the official attempt to jump a few phases of development is telling.
NGOs in the G8’s DOT Force have outlined these communications priorities for the South:
• Community internet and telephone centres
Meanwhile, wiring the South is a priority for the G8 nations, and their Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT Force) is led by 34 blue-chip technology and media firms. Cynicism may be warranted if a similar enterprise, the Global Information Infrastructure Commission (GIIC) is anything to go by. The result of a World Bank meeting in 1995, the GIIC is a private initiative dedicated to selling the hardware and software manufactured by member corporations, opening up markets across the world, and dictating tax-free terms for a global economy without the obstacles of ‘restrictive’ governments. Among its commissioners are the CEOs and Vice-Presidents of Siemens, Oracle and over 40 other world-leading technology firms. And their focus groups, when not making overtures to telecom moguls or sweet-talking the telecom ministers who pave the way for netting whole societies, are so focused they never seem to ask who in developing nations will really foot the non-virtual bill.
Meanwhile, 70 per cent of all Argentine e-commerce spending goes direct to the US.
Argentina is often called the most _extranjerizado_ (‘foreignized’) country in the world. Any notion of internet as an egalitarian utopia is absurd when you glance at the telecoms buyouts and marriages. Major foreign players in Argentine media include multimedia giants like TCI, Franco-Italian group Telecom and Telefónica. AOL Time Warner arrived in Argentina in mid-2000 and launched its internet provider and portal with one of the biggest ad campaigns the city has ever seen. Cable is firmly in the hands of Time Warner, AT&T and TCI in Argentina, and the monopoly could seriously constrict competition and choice.
The merger between AOL and Time Warner carried a $165 billion price tag; the figures make little sense to non-bankers but Argentina’s foreign debt, currently 55 per cent of its GDP, is just a little less at $140 billion.
The deregulated Argentine economy looks well on the way to development in areas like banking, media and technology. But for those not in the employ of international companies, there is a sense of being plundered and colonized all over again. It’s not all bad news. Compared to TV and print media the Internet is able to carry many more independent and alternative opinions. But they remain on the periphery while giants like AOL carve up the Net.
And, as Bosbon Wong of the Digital Freedom Network says: ‘For most people in the world, the internet is too slow, too expensive, and too English. Many people in the world don’t even have direct access to a telephone, let alone internet access.’ English may be sold as the ‘world language’, but only eight per cent of the world population speak it.
Meanwhile, users grow, media merges and content shrinks.