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Digital Divide - Metastasis of a Buzzword


The problems of the world are frequently expressed in catch phrases that serve as sort of a lazy shorthand for a complex and flawed world view. “Iron Curtain,” “Jewish Question,” “Washington Consensus,” and “Third World” are but a few that have had a big impact over the years. Within the realm of telecommunications, the phrase “digital divide” has caught on.

The phrase "digital divide" was coined in the mid-1990’s to describe the split in a family where the husband was online and using computers a great deal, and the wife was not. The Clinton administration used it to describe the gap between those groups, societies, and later countries that had access and those that did not. Variations on the theme included “cyber-segregation” and “racial ravine” which emphasized the racial divisions in access to new technologies. The term spread in the late 1990’s and soon found its way into United Nations documents, technology company donation programs, foundation goals, and legislation. During the Bush administration, the use in the United States declined but the Tsunami wave carrying the term continues to this day. Search on Google for “digital divide” and almost any country and there will be many hits. Some people are critical of the term but continue to use it. One author disliked it but his publisher insisted on using it in the book title. Grass roots activists know it is simplistic and yet they know it can be useful in fund raising. In a time when the attention span of decision-makers (and people who sign checks) is short, the temptation is great to use the term. What are the problems with the term?

Binary world view

First, it posits a binary split in the world, based on connectivity. Early Internet maps showed connectivity by country. If you your country had a direct connection to the Internet, it was colored purple. This number grew through the 90’s (Bhutan, one of the very last, hooked up in 1999) Many times these initial connections benefitted only a physics department at a university in the capital city or a government ministry. For this reason, the connectivity maps were misleading. Expressing the differences in connectivity, access to computers, training, and salient content as a “divide” that requires “bridging” is also a crude representation of a situation. The statistics we usually quote are from NUA in Ireland. As of September 2002, they estimated that more than 600 million people were online, most of whom were in Canada, United States, and Europe. As I write this article, the World POPClock estimates the current population at 6,313,900,075. So about 90% of the world is not online.

Excessive rhetoric

Expressing this as a divide or a problem benefits those whose goal is spread networks. This includes many in the international development industry (where I’d place myself), technology companies, the International Telecommunications Union, numerous charities, foundations, and NGOs, some political activists, and hobbyists involved in techno-communitarian projects. One problem is exaggerating the consequences of being offline. The rhetoric is reminiscent of missionaries raising money for their overseas missions to convert the heathen and save them from Hell. In the same way, countries, businesses, small towns, youth, indigenous groups are all doomed if they don’t get connected. Here is language from a USAID project in primary schools in Uganda. It dates from 2000: “A concerted effort must be made to get technology into the core of the Ugandan educational system, so that Uganda is not left behind in the coming technology revolution. It is also important for USAID to join this effort, focusing on bringing access to new information technology, so that development efforts across the board are not undermined by a future society of people, who will not have the computer literacy skills to participate in the new electronic global economy. “ The problems of a country, a people, a town, or an individual are stated as one of lack of access to networked computers. The technology drives so many of the projects that other issues are obscured, and trying to raise support for projects without a technology component iis difficult when digital divide projects receive the most publicity.

Corporate agenda

Technology companies and associated consultants made a killing during the Year 2000 (Y2K) furor. Billions in services (upgrades, code patches, new networks) were sold prior to the end of 1999. When almost nothing bad took place at the start of the new year, there were two reactions. An IBM executive told me that just showed all the prep work was done and that the IT departments were ready. He considered it a success. However, a technologist in Venezuela said they had done nothing because they always lived from crisis to crisis and they saw this as just another attempt to market services. When nothing happened, they felt vindicated. So, too, the efforts by high technology companies to “bridge the digital divide’ are seen as another case of creating new markets and generating enough FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) that the United Nations, whole countries, and associated development agencies will buy into the “problem” in the same way they did before Y2K. HP (and other firms including the satellite firm I worked for) say they “want to do well by doing good.” This means that they want to expand markets to demographic groups and economic classes that have not participated in the so-called digital revolution. They want to help out and also contribute to the bottom line, but when the new economy goes bust and a telecommunications crash follows, the “doing good” part usually remains only on web sites and in archives of CEO speeches.

Priorities in development

These programs that promote ICT (development speak for “information and communication technology/ies)" multiplied in the mid-1990’s. Evaluations were generous about the results and the impact on those who came into contact with the training, the telecenter, or the computer labs. The projects multiplied because they fit the agenda of the donors and loan officers, and the recipients could not press for less sexy, more mundane projects such as pay for teachers, literacy instruction, or equipment that had little to do with computer networks. Many of the projects did not reflect the real needs and priorities of the local populations. The best project organizers were able to link ICT solutions to the expressed problems and needs of people who had no idea what the Internet was or how computers might be used. However, many “bridge the digital divide” projects did not consult the local people who were most affected. The organizers were driven by the technology, and this is still a problem even though the evidence is voluminous that better integration is needed. Although projects can be designed to make good use of the technology, there exists another problem. How do you set priorities?

Bill Gates, after seeing the problems of a neighborhood in Soweto, South Africa said this to Bill Moyers*: “Well we took a computer and we took it to this community center in Soweto . And generally there wasn’t power in that community center. But they’d rigged up this thing where the cord went 200 yards to this place where there was a generator. You know powered by diesel. So this computer got turned on. And when the press was there it was all working just fine. And it was ludicrous, you know. It was clear to me that the priority issues for the people who lived there in that particular community were more related to health than they were to having that computer. And so there’s certainly a role for getting computers out there. But when you look at the, say, the 2 billion of the 6 billion the planet who are living on the least income. You know they deserve a chance. And that chance can only be given by improving the health conditions. “

Mr. Gates has enough money that his foundation can support programs for both health and computers, but the school principal in Uganda may have to decide on paying for electricity, paper, and air conditioners for the donated computers instead of spending the money on something more basic like text books, more lecturers, or better food for the students. Usually this is expressed as, “You talk about the digital divide! What about the education divide, the health divide, the water divide” And housing, electricity, roads, food, and a dozen other expressions of gaps. Most of the efforts are hyped as “transformative” and for a small number of people they can be, but they are not going to radically change the health of a neighborhood or a country. I live in Silicon Valley where there is a very number of residents who are connected. Many more use public libraries, schools, and community technology centers to stay connected. But the region has twice the unemployment of the country as a whole, and as companies seek to cut costs the mid-level high tech jobs are leaving the area. Forrester Research predicts that 3.3 million more jobs will leave the U.S. by 2015. High tech skills and connectivity do not assure the health of a region or security for individuals.

Complex reasons for being offline

Another problem is that the definition of the divide is changed as more people are connected. This is expressed in two ways: speed of connection and amount of access. As most people gain access to dialup in a country, the problem is re-defined as access to cable, DSL, or high speed wireless access. If you are stuck with a modem, you are on the other side of the divide. If you don’t own a computer, the emphasis is on how many are in households, rather than accessing the network in public places. In countries where the Internet has been available for a decade or more, there is a leveling off of new users, and many have dropped off for technical reasons or because of a bad experience online. In the United States the Pew Internet and America Life Project reports that 24% of Americans are not online and of those 56% have no intention of going online. Socially and physically they live close to the Internet but they won’t use it. These people are generally older, rural, white, and retired. The point is that there are many reasons for people to be grouped on one side of a so-called digital divide, but the term obscures the many reasons for their lack of access.

Why inequalities will continue

There are many structural and cultural reasons why large gaps will persist and increase. In the developing world they pay higher prices for everything except labor: transport, support, components, electricity, connectivity, supplies (paper, media, ink, technical pubs). Legal commercial software costs as much as someone in Holland or Canada pays. The interest rates on money are higher for small business loans. There are fewer choices of products, most of which are not produced locally, and the regulatory environment is not geared to encourage rapid deployment. While the curve of growth and deployment for ICT is creeping upward in poor countries, the rate of everything in our countries is progressing much faster, thus making the differences more pronounced. The gap increases. Technological products are developed in rich countries are based on our consumer culture’s hierarchy of wants, whereas poor countries have more basic needs. Donor programs do not take into account the total cost of ownership for ICT projects. The true cost is hidden from the recipient and frequently the donors too. Preparation for continuing these projects does not start during the planning cycle but after the program has started. The complexity of technological projects is misunderestimated (to use President Bush’s phrase). Few realize they are imposing a technological system (to use Thomas Hughes phrase) in places where only fragments are functioning efficiently.

What is to be done?

What makes me optimistic are the grass-roots workers and activists and other technical experts in many of these countries who ignore some of the very barriers I have described and are able to cultivate small oases of innovation and inclusiveness in problematic environments. They need support from each other and from outsiders, and of course the communication networks have helped make this easier. Because the problems and solutions are glocal—a mix of local and global, the need to convene and network both locally, regionally, and internationally puts a big burden on organizations with little money for travel or time spent away from their local efforts. We have to make better use of face-to-face time together and learn how it can be effectively augmented with common online tools such as chat, content management systems,web logs, mailing lists, databases, and wikis. The fabled gap may not lessen, but the threads will increase and loose network connections will grow stronger.