At the first World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), held in December 2003, global leaders acknowledged their awareness of the uneven distribution of the benefits of the information technology revolution between the developed and developing countries. From the discussions, it’s evident that by “benefits” they were referring to things like improved education, health, agriculture, enterprise development, and the like.
They also proclaimed their commitment to turning this digital divide into a digital opportunity for all. Governments, and the development agencies that assist them, have subsequently invested heavily in broadening the telecommunications infrastructure so that internet access can be enjoyed by larger a proportion of society. ITU statistics put a positive spin on the outcome, reporting in 2011 for instance that the number of internet users had doubled over the previous five years and that global internet bandwidth had grown exponentially. They underplay the fact that this still leaves 65% of the world as non-users.
But the most hype is lavished on the phenomenal growth of mobile phones; reaching saturation point in developed countries and growing at 20% per year in developing countries, to achieve almost 80% penetration. With the ITU referring to a ‘mobile miracle,’ a UN report points out, gasping, that there are now 5.4 billion mobile phone subscriptions for a global population of seven billion people, with growing numbers of smart phones in use that are capable of accessing the internet.
So where does this leave the digital divide? For some, the end is in sight. The UN suggests that ITU estimates indicate that ICTs could be accessible to everyone by 2015, and IBM says that, thanks to mobile technology, the digital divide will soon cease to exist.
The euphoria surrounding the growth and spread of ICTs – internet and mobiles in particular – ignores some crucial fundamentals concerning the nature of the digital divide. In the first place, its problematic character is often misconstrued as the cause of a problem rather than the consequence of one. Lack of access to ICTs is actually more a reflection of underlying inequalities, especially those relating to poverty and education, than it is a problem in its own right. Internet access alone does not serve poor people well.
In the absence of useful and targeted information services that are applicable to their needs, as well as the education and assistance to make good use of them, computers and the internet are irrelevant and costly distractions. Much of what makes the internet useful to rich people is absent from the lives of the poor; e.g., literacy, good education, keyboard skills, bank accounts and the credit cards to access them, registered identities, a reliable transportation infrastructure and networks of equally-equipped individuals. Aha, some will say, this is why mobile phones have taken over from the internet as the closer of the digital divide. Everyone can use a phone and everybody else has one.
This raises the next digital divide fundamental misconception, that access to ICTs will alleviate the problems of the poor. A decade of research has highlighted the conditions that are required to ensure computers and the internet are able to contribute towards poverty reduction efforts. It is now clear to many, but clearly not so to everyone, that it isn’t how much or what technology you have access to that counts, but what you do with it. ICTs will not make good development out of bad development, but they can make good development better.
This is not to say though that such knowledge has found its way effortlessly into orthodox development planning or practice. There exists a host of inhibitors preventing research in this (and many other fields) from achieving the social and economic impact that it deserves, despite the enormous sums of money that government and aid agencies invest in it. Whilst the impact gap permits the persistence of the delusion of the impending demise of the digital divide, yet another factor suggests it is far from dead.
Research in Europe has reported that 24% of Europeans, or 120 million people, have no use for the internet, rising to more than 40% in Portugal and Greece. Consider that these results are from countries where affordability is much less an issue than it is in developing countries; computers and the internet are widely affordable within household budgets or, if not, they are readily accessible in public institutions. Additionally, the supporting knowledge and physical infrastructure is already in place. Evidently, something more than physical access is holding people back from participating in the information revolution.
A study in the U.S.A. concludes that the use of computers for education or meaningful content creation is minuscule compared to their use for entertainment. Apparently, instead of closing the achievement gap, they’re widening the time-wasting gap. Moreover, this tendency is increasingly apparent for parents and children with fewer resources, those who were supposed to be helped most by closing the digital divide.
Superimposed upon a failure to understand the relationship between ICTs and development, the rapid ascent along the hype curve of mobile phones has also lead to similar misconceptions, e.g., that using a mobile phone brings you into the information age. Here again, research suggest another reality. Some observers have noted that most of the use of mobile phones – around 70% - is for social interaction, and the rest is for emergencies. Additionally, despite the many promising examples of mobiles for health, education and banking that are often paraded in support of claims that they are closing the digital divide, it is rarely noted that such applications are enjoyed by only a tiny fraction of the 5.4 billion subscription-holders. In some cases the impact of mobiles is heavily over-sold; such as mCash which moves money around only slightly faster than it always had been previously and the wild claims that more mobiles lead to higher GDP growth, which ignore the more likely causal effect in the opposite direction.
The digital divide needs to be re-cast in a truer light; as the consequence of a problem rather than its cause. The fundamentals are that access to technology does not equate to human development and that other factors are required for it to do so. Instead of claiming victory on the digital divide, global development needs to focus more on these other factors. Continued insistence to cast the issue in simplistic terms is only helpful in attempts to render it amenable to simplistic solutions, which generally don’t amount to the equal distribution of digital opportunities and the benefits of the information society that the WSIS had in mind.