The Digital Divide

Whose Digital Divide?
by Norman Lewis, Director GAP21.

London, England -- With the explosion of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), governments and international institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank have become increasingly obsessed with the 'digital divide': the gap between those who have access to these technologies and those who do not. A divide that exists between and within the countries of the world.

At one level the existence of huge disparities in access to these technologies across the world is clear: The industrialised countries with only 15% of the world's population contain 88% of all Internet users ­ South Asia, home to a fifth of the world's population, has less than 1% of Internet users. There are more Internet Service Providers in New York City than in the whole of Africa. Indeed, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) calculate that at the present average speed of telecommunications spread, Côte d'Ivoire and Bhutan, for example, would take until 2050 to achieve the teledensity that Germany and Singapore have today. Never mind access to basic telephony, when one considers that purchasing a computer in the USA costs a month's wages while in Bangladesh it is the equivalent of eight year's income, the scale of the divide appears gigantic, indeed as a 'chasm' rather than a 'divide'.

Thus, at this level the debate about this 'divide' is obvious and addresses the underlying concern, the existence of inequality. In the developed world, however, there is nothing new in this debate. The existence of inequality is as old as the market itself. Indeed, every major technological revolution has been accompanied by disparities in uptake and social dissemination. This is simply the result of income differentials and the affordability of the technologies. In the context of the 'digital divide' within the developed countries of the world, historical precedent suggests that far from addressing a 'chasm', we are merely experiencing a transitional phase. At this stage disparities in income and the affordability of the technologies has resulted in a differential uptake and use of the new technologies. Indeed, historical precedent suggests that in time, this 'divide' will all but disappear.

The interesting point to highlight in passing is that this technological change is being accompanied by enormous angst and trepidation over what history should suggest ought to be a very relaxed approach to the operation of the market mechanism. After all, when the motor car was invented and became an essential part of modern society, there was no debate or huge policy initiatives addressing the inequalities underlying the 'car divide' then, or indeed, today. Even the question of universal access to telephone networks ­ a reality we now regard as a fundamental human right ­ only became a reality in many OECD countries in the late 1970s and 1980s. The penetration of telephones in working class and farm households in France under George Pompidou, and in Germany under Willy Brandt, for example, was merely in the single digits during the 1960s. But while subsidies and the break up of monopolies helped to ensure this outcome, the key point is that this was not informed by a public debate about the dangers of 'divides', social exclusion or social failure.

Yet, everything changes when the debate about the 'digital divide' shifts to the gap between the developed and developing countries. Almost every project or programme initiated by the governments of developing nations and international institutions to address the 'divide', stipulate that success is predicated on creating the right environment within which the market mechanism can operate freely. But while deregulation, privatisation and establishing the right regulatory and legal framework are important to attracting much-needed foreign investment; it is simply assumed that the market, left to its own devices, will help solve the 'divide'. But is this the case?

The structural adjustment programmes initiated in the 1980s and 1990s by institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have systematically failed to reduce the developing world's crippling debt. Furthermore, despite educating many developing country governments in the strictures of the market, very little foreign investment has flowed into these parts of the world. So, while there has been some development in this part of the world (reduced infant mortality and improved adult literacy rates), massive and glaring discrepancies remain at the most basic level despite these programmes. According to the UNDP's Human Development Report 2000, for example, 1 billion people are still without safe water and more than 2.4 billion without basic sanitation ­ roughly 8 times as many as have access to the Internet across the world (depending on whose figures you use). But surprisingly, a moratorium on the developing world's crippling debt is never seriously entertained as probably the key to the short-term dissemination of ICTs in this part of the world.

Yet, the developing world is being urged and cajoled into embracing ICTs as the priority if they are to participate in the 'digital age'. There is a fundamental problem with this besides the inevitably stupid and destructive counter position along the lines of the Monty Python 'Life of Brian' sketch between basic human needs and ICTs; 'What has the Internet ever done for us?' More precisely, 'how can the Internet deliver clean water and sanitation to my village?' Essentially, forces external to these societies, forces that do not address the developing world's logical or long-term development priorities, are setting their development agendas.

In many ways, this may appear counter-intuitive. After all, ICTs are changing the world we live in and like it or not, we all have to join the bandwagon or fall by the wayside. There is nothing new in recognising how technological development impacts upon the world and forces everyone to adapt or die. However, the imposition of this agenda is more than the recognition of market inevitabilities. In reworking development priorities, what is being imposed is the need for externalities and the assumptions these entail: namely, the notion that ICTs are special and contain universal 'healing powers' that can drag the developing world into the 21st Century. ICTs are indeed wondrous things. But they are merely tools. Moreover, for ICTs to have social benefits many things have to be in place as well. For example, it is all very well suggesting that 'm-commerce' (mobile access to the Internet) will allow the developing world to 'leap-frog' previous infrastructural stages of development, and thus allow it to compete on world markets, but the 'm' in 'm-commerce' refers to mobile phones ­ phones that run on battery power. How do you conduct your business over a cell phone when you live in an area where there is no electricity and thus no way of re-charging a battery?

But the development agenda being established by the 'digital divide' debate contains another important consideration, which ironically represents the lowering of people's expectations of what ICTs represent. For example, literature proliferates on identifying the relationship between the global and the local and includes as diverse subjects as gender and race equality, cultural development, design and user interfaces, values, e-literacy, education and content creation. While the notion of developing local content is attractive and is happening, the idea that this can become the basis of sustainable growth is fanciful. The Internet is a global medium. Indeed, probably its most important element is the cooperative creativity it inherently develops and demands ­ an extension of the global division of labour. But the ICTs being envisaged in the development agenda are being conceived of in the most narrow and parochial terms ­ as the 'hand looms' of the 21st Century. Rather than breakout of the poverty trap, this application of ICTs will merely reproduce the developing world's structural dependence and inequality ­ the reality that has given rise to this debate in the first place.