Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Towards Wise Societies

In the preparations for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), UNESCO called for an emphasis to be placed not on the Information Society, but on the Knowledge Society. That was the genesis of its report titled Toward Knowledge Societies.

UNESCO staff felt that WSIS was too likely to be a conference about connectivity. More important issues than the availability of information involve the quality of that information, whether it is internalized, what is learned, and how that learning is put to use. The focus on Knowledge Societies was an improvement.

I have been thinking about UNESCO a great deal, and it occurs to me that the founders of that organization were thinking "towards wise societies". The world had just emerged from World War II, and people everywhere understood that society had to be wise enough to avoid another world war, one that would be fought with nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The more farsighted among the leaders recognized that the inequities in the world distribution of power, wealth, income, and knowledge were unwise.

UNESCO was created with a unique mission and structure. It was to focus on the minds of men. Education was and remains a central focus of the organization. So too were the sciences. For Americans, it is not always clear what UNESCO means by the sciences, for they include not only the natural sciences and the social sciences, but the human sciences. That latter term reflects French thinking, and includes in the mission of UNESCO what Americans tend to think of as the humanities. Thus history and philosophy were and are key areas of concern for UNESCO. UNESCO's mission also included culture, again a field misunderstood by many Americans who think of "high culture" involving art, music, drama, literature, and dance. UNESCO does include these fields, and they clearly are critically important in determining our understanding of life and how to act. However, UNESCO also deals more holistically with culture, using a definition such as that employed by social scientists to include the entire body of knowledge and institutions that define a people or a society. Finally, UNESCO includes communication and information in its mandate, perhaps reflecting the early influence of William Benton, the advertising genius and State Department official who later became a U.S. Senator. UNESCO recognizes the need for libraries and a strong global information infrastructure, for book publishing and an intellectual property rights regime which encourages expression, as well as militating for freedom of expression everywhere.

If you think about this mandate, it is a mandate to work to make nations and peoples act more wisely!

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