Friday, July 17, 2009

The “B” out of BRICs

There has been now a vast amount of ink and paper spent on arguments pro and against the BRICs idea (Brazil, Russia, India and China as the “big next” in world economic development), one of these buzzwords that from time to time supposedly make it easier for us to plan and make decisions in a complex context of networked uncertainties.

Other icons of simplicity in the management of risk and information systems have flourished in recent years, such as the “decoupling” hypothesis (less developed but populous countries in the periphery would withstand the global crisis and leapfrog to an early recovery) or the “deregulation” frenzy, which has led in some cases in Latin America to a swing of the pendulum back to equally emotional and oversimplified policies of hyperregulation, Statism and cronyism.

The vacuum of ideologies, either utopian or pragmatic, sometimes makes room for the appeasement of the will to change, evolve and face the threatening shadow of uncertainty illuminated by the cooperative understanding of challenges and means to overcome them.

The opportunity to address economic, political and policy related issues facing such an experienced audience of high level and thoughtful leaders in the creation, management and development of electronic infrastructure in favor of a sustainable, emancipatory and innovative human development is a privilege which entails taxing challenges.

First and foremost, we must avoid too publicitary a simplification when we actually need new forms of informed rather than demagogic publicity designed within a framework of scientific, technological and ethical values.

Taking the “B” out of BRICs, for instance, is an illuminating exercise insofar as one of the most striking differences between Brazil and those more Asian-bound Nation-States results from the totally different relation to territorial exclusivities, natural resources and military priorities in the history of public agendas among the Latin family (notwithstanding dramatic regional wars, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary incursions and nuclear, water and oil nationalisms that have oftentimes prevailed).

Except for the occasional Bolivarian conflict over the control of oil companies and an eventual default on BNDES operations in Latin America, there is nothing remotely comparable in Latin American and Brazilian agendas to the geopolitical economy of gas pipelines in the European-Russian conundrum.

There has been numerous social problems in the Latin American and Brazilian history of structural heterogeneity and income inequalities, but nothing in Brazil compares to the scale, extension and intensity of Chinese and Indian oppressive social orders engulfing their monumental workforces which, as a matter of fact, constitute an unsustainable competitive throng only partially matched by Western sometimes spurious efforts at the radical flexing of labor, environmental and financial regulations (once globally known as “neoliberalism”).

The socio-political and institutional framework as well as the ethnic situation in India is quite different from China and putting it into the same frame is also not correct (even the worse for the BRIC idea). "Social oppression" in India comes from bottom-up social assemblage schemes (such as the cast system) rather than only the top-down military and brureaucratic control and segregation of social and ethnic diversity.

Compared to the Latin profile and more specifically to the Brazilian “remix”, it becomes clear that our social and institutional violence is much more open to the evolution of creative mediations among ethnicities, localisms and faiths. Social philosophers and artists such as Gilberto Freyre, Mario de Andrade and Sergio Buarque de Holanda have all richly analysed and documented the variety of disciplinary (and oftentimes anarchic or tropicalist) appropriation of both order and progress along Brazilian history.

Maybe this open, diverse and interactive grid of human capacities lies at the very foundation for the impressive expansion and appropriation of the internet, the mobile phone and the TV in Brazil, thus forming an e-superstructure or cultural iconomy associated to flexibility, creative and com(passion) in Brazil and Latin America. As Sergio Buarque de Holanda (an European name in itself) used to say, Brazilians remix humanity into “homo cordialis”.

Russia, India and China are continental economies such as Brazil. As archetypical “Nation-States”, these societies have all experienced at some time in their evolution a crush for Imperialist projects, usually during these times social and institutional violence went hand in hand (in order to dominate globally, you should have absolute internal power, so it seemed to many a dictator).

However, there is not much to find in favor of the BRICs simplified icon if the roles played by the military, the State and other strategic stakeholders are examined from the perspective of this one and very essential vector of human fate in history: technology.

The regulatory, strategic and knowledge framework in Brazilian (and to a great extent Latin American) technological development history is mostly a sprout of civic intelligence and scientific communities of practice rather than the outcome of long term military and nationalistic agendas, utopias or “big fears”.

In other words, despite the relevance of State-led economic development and important military inroads in the development of technological infrastructures in Brazil (from oil and aircraft to telecommunication and computing grids and the national system of innovation), the cultural framework for Brazilian socio-economic and political development is notoriously more open, democratic, diverse and freely entrepreneurial than our Asian fellows in the BRICs conceptual cage with respect to cultural and development paradigms (however, of course “Asian” is also in itself simplistic and unfair to the actual Eastern cultural, societal and technological diversity and dynamism).

In the emerging era of open, democratic, diverse and free networking e-infrastructures, the tropical variety of human development geared by scientific, technological and cultural entrepreneurship in Brazil and Latin America seems more fit to the historic challenge we now face with pressing anxiety: to promote a planetary evolutionary process wherein patterns of organization, communication and sense-making (others could say, personal and collective storytelling) become more creative, innovative, dynamic and democratic.

This is the spirit of the knowledge society, this is the knowledge-based citizenship most akin to a common heritage of emancipatory ideals shared by European and Latin American societies, both among the wealthy elite and at the base of the economic pyramid.

Large territorial and demographic numbers are certainly a foundation for energetic markets and large scale investments, but that is true and relevant mostly for the tangible dimension of sustainable development.

Grid computing is entering a new stage of development centered on sustainability and interoperability. From both regional and scientific perspectives, digital convergence requires higher levels of interoperability and quality connections geared towards global challenges, economic development, innovation and micro-macro complex networking strategies, such as risk management in natural catastrophe monitoring.

An open and critical discussion is also needed so as to better weigh in the threats and risks arising from the tropical e-infrastructure framework, such as the high tariffs in telephony markets, the lack of adequate public policies, lagging investments in scientific programs, educational infrastructure and digital divide challenges as a short term bias tends to prevail among numerous policy makers and political actors.

Brazilian digital culture stands out globally as an example of diversity and creative adaptation to inadequate accessibility and formation, but even the tropicalization of advanced networking platforms will come to a halt without more prescient public and private investments in quality, accessibility and empowerment.

In order to achieve this paradigm shift into the knowledge society paradigm, policy makers must renew the macro vision, the role of the State and the priority of local and regional issues. New research and development paradigms are also needed as cloud computing comes to the fore. The convergence between telecommunication and computing frameworks make room for scientific and technological breakthroughs.

However, without proper investment, empowerment and emancipation, these emerging challenges will recursively face implementation and regulatory bottlenecks in our potentially dynamic economic macroregion, as difficulties to leapfrog techno-economic development also scale up globally.

European funding is a key element insofar as policy, science and social leaders realize that it is but seed money which will only result in an acceleration of digital development if local and regional convergences are promoted from the bottom up with long term commitments at the global layer, encompassing technological, societal and economic dimensions.

The intangible assets that we are now challenged to identify, map and process using advanced e-infrastructures for science, health, education, entertainment and the environment are not to be oversimplified into yet another buzzword. Let´s take the “B” out of BRICs and celebrate the promising digital convergences between Europe, Latin America and a new era of global human solidarity.

Gilson Schwartz, economist, sociologist and journalist, PhD professor at the Dept. of Film, Radio and TV at the School of Communication and Arts, creator and leader of the City of Knowledge Research Group, Brazil Coordinator of the PRO-IDEAL Consortium under the Framework 7 of the European Commission ( Speech delivered at the Closing Session of the Fourth BELIEF International Symposium, Mario Covas Auditorium, School of Engineering, University of São Paulo. July, 17, 2009

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