Sitting out a computer fiesta

It may be time to recycle the story of the actress's complaint about a dramatization of Adam and Eve: ''The snake has all the lines!'' Why should the main English-speaking democracies forgo an opportunity to add their own script to a standing-room-only drama of the future: the rise of the computer in the third world?

The United States has already rejected an invitation to next year's big conference on the subject in Havana, thus leaving more dialogue than necessary to the communists on stage. Britain is reportedly in the process of deciding whether to become a member of the international sponsoring organization, which is headquartered in Rome.

Perhaps a case can be made for staying out of this particular venture and joining the third-world computer effort in other ways. After all, such a prime mover in third-world technology as France is said to be considering withdrawal after years of participation.

But here is the kind of decision whose element of technological jargon should not keep it from having increased public discussion. This becomes more and more necessary as growth or lack of technological development anywhere in the world has potential effects elsewhere.

When, for example, the US counts the developing world as a major export market, it can hardly afford to ignore the pace of computerization in that market - or fail to seek its market share.

The present issue of the Havana conference and its sponsoring organization is not made easier for public discussion by the fact that virtually nobody has heard of this organization with its jawbreaking title: Intergovernmental Bureau for Informatics (IBI). Nor is the hypothetical American or Briton on the street likely to know of IBI's program called SPIN (Strategies and Policies for Informatics).

Yet the bureau goes back to 1974 as an offshoot of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). It has set in motion a number of third-world training and other projects, including French-Tunisian and Cuban-Nicaraguan ventures. If and when SPIN flies high, industries in member countries promise to benefit from having been in on the ground floor.

This explains why British industry voices are urging Britain to join. And why some US companies are expected to be represented in Havana even if their government is not.

At the same time, more than profitmaking motives enter into decisions on information technology in the third world. The poorer nations are a little like the poorer people within a given nation. In both Britain and the United States, efforts are being made to prevent a new kind of discrimination by ensuring educational access to computers for all children. It would be in keeping with the exhilarating challenge of the computer age to see the children of the globe in this light.

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