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Technology vs.Human Development: Brazil, 1996

Why do feelings of despair and abandonment persist in a world that has the power to create a fair and cohesive community?
Mario Ibraim Salimon

Issue #28, October 1996

Just machines will make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
We'll be free when the work is done
We'll be eternally free and eternally young.
— Donald Fagen, "IGY," 1982

Brazil is a pool of contrasts. It is the world's soccer champion and a major exporter of high quality software. Then again, Brazil is also one of the globe's most unfair distributors of wealth, and its rates of child mortality and illiteracy are astronomical.

In spite of technological developments, the average human being remains essentially a puppet in the hands of abstract powers. As we approach the emblematic year 2000, our world stands far from being the middle class citizen-friendly techno-paradise portrayed in optimistic sci-fi of the past such as The Jetsons.

Why do feelings of despair and abandonment persist in a world that has the power to create a fair and cohesive community? The New World Order has not eliminated greed or self-interest. As a matter of fact, the "New" World Order is old and conservative in the face of the challenges presented to our civilization. Technology grows, and social development shrinks. This observation is pertinent to many countries in the world, but it reverberates loudly in Brazil, where the gap between technological and social development is unacceptably large.

A recent official survey shows that the poorest 10% of Brazil's population participated in a mere 1% of the national wealth in 1983 and a minute 0.7% in 1993. But the richest 10% experienced an increase in their share of the nation's wealth from 46.7% in 1983 to a staggering 49% in 1993. According to UNICEF's State of The World's Children/1996 report, an average of 61 Brazilian children out of 1,000 live births die before their fifth birthday. In the poorest parts of the Northeast and North regions, seasonal factors take the rates as high as 200 per 1,000. One out of 5 children does not stand a chance against highly manageable menaces such as diarrhea and respiratory diseases.

In our age of information and technological advancement, these facts and figures are unacceptable. However, what the facts and figures of contemporary Brazilian life show is that the money-making-machine can work even when most of a country's citizens are excluded from the development process. Many people perceive Brazil as a kind of sexy and laid back third world corner, while in fact, we also have the first, the fifth and the tenth worlds here.

Access to information could surely help the Brazilian people, and Brazil has the technological resources to provide information. But illiteracy is still an obstacle to as much as 60 percent of the adult population in some Brazilian regions. A 1991 census by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics found that some 20 million Brazilians were illiterate. As if that situation wasn't dire enough, experts reported last year that previous illiteracy statistics were certainly an underestimation of reality.

Is Brazil suffering from a lack of investment in its people? No. It is the quality of social programs that seems to be the problem. Ninety-five percent of Brazilian children have access to education. However, only 45 out of every thousand children finish primary school without repeating grades, and 400 out of every thousand fail and must repeat their very first term. Three hundred of every thousand children take an average of 12 years to complete primary school — that is one and a half times the expected eight years.

Economy and the Technology Market

How do these facts sound for a country that is considered the 10th world economy? If one considers all these facts against the country's per capita GNP of $2,270 (US dollars) and compares that figure to other countries with a much higher standard of living, it becomes plain to see that, in Brazil, economic growth has not generated social development. Strange as it may seem, Brazil's economy thrives on absorbing the latest trends. Its automobile industry has grown exponentially in size and popularity. Fiat's local branch is now producing Palio, a model sold world wide. Mercedes Benz will also produce its compact model in Brazil in an attempt to conquer space in Brazil's expanding market.

The computer sector is the hottest and most promising industry. Recent surveys show that in Sao Paulo (a metropolis of over 15 million inhabitants), 20 per cent of all families have a computer at home, many of which were bought in the last twelve months. The city's most recent computer fair grossed 1.8 billion dollars. Also, jumping on the globalization band-wagon, Brazil has opened its doors to the importation of a wide span of products from other countries, including computers. But local production is still irrelevant if compared to the amount of machines smuggled from Paraguay and Miami. Most of the existing PCs are assembled from bits. Only recently corporations such as Compaq, IBM and Apple are advertising and selling, and their success is due not to the Brazilian economy but to affordable credit lines opened by international banks.

But despite its swelling market and growing technological industry, Brazil has failed to decrease illiteracy and address other pressing social problems. The country remains a giant that excels in being a loser: the never-changing "country of the future" — a future that most Brazilians feel they may never experience or endure. There is still a lot to be done. According to official data, less than ten percent of the Brazilian population has a telephone at home. But most have a silver screen. According to the country's Statistics Bureau, 89% of the households in Brazil have at least one television set. This is an incredible indicator of people's priorities if one considers that only 40% of the population have access to proper water and sanitation.

Stereos, refrigerators and other home appliances have also experienced a growth in sales in recent years. This is a result of a relative reduction in prices due to increased importation from Asia and the creation of products directed to lower income consumers. Brazil strives to satisfy its consumers, no matter what class they belong to. But what really scares those of us who can see further than the next computer fair is that a relevant number of tomorrow's children may not be able to read the manuals for the computers or stereos they get for Christmas. They will be very vulnerable to political manipulation, and they will be an undesirable working force, thus feeding the underdevelopment cycle.

The New Old Order

It seems we have at last made a long time dream come true: Brazil has entered the first world! At least as far as prices are concerned. After all, living in Sao Paulo today is as expensive as New York City. The problem is that most Brazilians have a much lighter wallet. The power machine is incredibly resistant. At times, one feels the country will just stop and start taking apart the gears, coils and cables to see what went wrong. When the crises come, one tends to think people will start voting wiser. After all, many citizens thought that the end of the dictatorship would be the solution to all problems.

But nothing changed. The same Old Order politicians rule the country and rely on appealing facades to appeal to the masses. Take for example our multilingual sociologist President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who still trades governmental posts for the opposition's favorable votes in crucial (from his point of view) issues. He is credited with the creation of the Plano Real, a complex economic stabilization program that has managed to bring inflation close to zero. But this economic plan has also caused an undeniable recession marked by rising unemployment rates. And he is presently seeking to have congressmen change the Constitution so that it will permit his reelection.

It is said that Brazil endured a kind of dictatorship that was "concerned with development and integration." For this reason, the "civil government" has inherited a fair telecommunication system that is slowly being made available to the private sector. As the government realizes it won't be able to deal with the demands of maintaining the network as it expands exponentially, private industry is taking over telecommunications. One outcome of this privatization could be that a Brazilian may have to pay up to 5,000 US dollars for a telephone line in crowded cities. No one is sure about the quality of services in the future, for neither the private nor governmental sectors have a good reputation as far as a cost-effectiveness service is concerned.

The Internet

The internet is the phenomenon of the day in Brazil. Users have grown from 100 thousand in 1995 to 500 thousand last April. Projections estimate the year will close with one million Brazilians accessing the web and its services. This growth has resulted in the redirection of the government's investment in telecommunications. The government is now emphasizing the improvement of the existing infrastructure.

The internet is causing a certain commotion among hackers and businessmen as well as literate people and intellectuals. It is the talk of the parties, the best new toy, a means to charm an audience. People are exploring and coming to terms with this new window to the world. It is a big shock to suddenly have access to such an array of ideas and virtual places. When some enterprises or institutions create a home page, they talk as if they had just landed on the moon. It is still a novelty, but an ever more accessible one.

NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and human rights agencies are studying means to make the best out of the net to get across their message. Canadian representatives in Brazil are about to sponsor an interesting initiative: the creation of a computer training pack for NGOs, through which people would use their machines as something more than a fancy typewriter. More than a network of computers, this country needs a network of citizens that are able to understand why people starve in a country that keeps on breaking its own harvest records; why Brazil is the world's soccer and Formula One champion but also the world's leader in automobile accidents; why we have an inflation rate close to zero but commercial interest rates of up to 14 percent per month. Above all, people must be capable of understanding that they and nobody else have the obligation to change this situation.

If the country invests heavily in computer and telecommunication infrastructure, then the citizens and institutions must think of means to use this information highway to build a culture of responsibility towards the role of technology in human development. When clicking a button on a computer, we must ask ourselves what happened to those people that used to type, sort, post and deliver the letters we now send by E-mail. Are they employed today? What will happen to us when our company's computers become capable of writing ordinary memos on their own?

The process of education seems to be the perfect application for such advanced technology. It will be improved by the use of hyper media environments that will entertain students — children and adults — instead of simply turning them into human clearinghouses. But education technology must be made available to everybody, or else it will just contribute to further marginalization of the technologically illiterate. Brazil's next challenge is to allow its citizens to be as developed as its market.

These are only a few snapshots from a country that may be very distant from Bad Subjects readers. But they are important pictures if we are to understand that, in a global village, people must share not only their products but also their problems and their possible solutions.

Mario Ibraim Salimon is a Brazilian journalist and musician. If you want to read more about Brazil, he suggests visiting the following web sites:

You can reach Mario himself at the following internet address:

Copyright © 1996 by Mario Ibrahim Salimon. All rights reserved.. All rights reserved.