Friday, April 21, 2006

The problem with the "The Digital Divide"

Earlier today I was reading the articles on Uplift Charleston over at Postscripts and Xark! My first thought was to ask my techy friend his thoughts. Not knowing much about the organization other than what I briefly skimmed through at work (while on break, of course), I stated that the group was about sharing knowledge and supporting anyone interested in technology at all levels... to counteract what is predicted to be "The Digital Divide". I may have mis-extracted this from the first paragraph of a press release in my haste to accomplish too much within a few minutes.

Obviously, the term "Digital Divide" was not a good term for me to use for this group. My friend advised me that according to, the core goal of the Digital Divide movement is to "give governments the infrastructure needed for the success of any large-scale effort to stop terrorism, disease or poverty. For another, it will make the global economy sustainable. Bringing another two billion citizens onto the information grid can return a sense of stability and fairness to markets".

I pushed my techy friend up on his soapbox so that I could better understand his issue with the use of the term "Digital Divide". Below is his response. To better understand his point of view, you should note that his wife is Asian. I told him I wanted to use excerpts, but I used almost all of it as I really did't know what to exclude!
Closing the so-called Digital Divide *could* be beneficial, but it also could be very detrimental; it just depends on how it is implemented and on how well that implementation takes hold.

On one level, it sounds promising, that everyone, including the poor, should have equal access to digital technology--wireless cellphones, computers in classrooms, and whatnot. Many people who work abroad will send money home to their families to purchase cellphones, and a lot of other electrical equipment to help make their lives 'easier'. The cellphones are nice, and I could quantify that as an exception to the rule, as it allow families to stay in touch more easily and cheaply.

But much of it is wasted or overlooked. Before we got married, my wife bought a cheap washing machine for her aging mother (about two or three months wages there), but it didn't clean the clothes as well as washing by hand, so now it's become an endtable. Computers also are quite popular, (to help the kids get ahead) but they sit unused as they don't know what to do with them, or don't have the software. Internet is out of the question, as you have to have a landline, and many areas only have cellphone coverage.

I think the single worst case that I've heard involved a small town a few hours away from my in-laws. Many of the residents there had children and/or sibling working abroad, who would send back money for all sorts of things. If you passed through the town, you could see that everyone had refrigerators, washers, dryers, TVs, stereos, computers--everything--neatly arranged on their front porches! The town hadn't yet gotten electricity, you see...

Many cities complain of overcrowding, so the government implemented an initiative to encourage people to stay in (or move back out to) rural areas. They would give them a plot of land, free of charge (perhaps 1/2 acre). But the city holds the promise of
higher income (and higher expenses, but they don't consider that), higher prestige (who wants to farm by hand?), and more educational opportunities (uh, if you have the money)--so they sell the land off for half it's value, travel to the city, move into a corrugated tin shanty, and spend the rest of the money on a cellphone, TV and dvd player. Then they can't find work, due to a lack of education, experience, and/or English speaking skills, so they end up begging, panhandling, or worse.

Another clear example of this is Somalia; they have a booming cellphone market, but it remains a miserable place to live.

But none of that really is a result of technology, or of the attempt to integrate technology; it's a money management and goal-setting issue.

This is an infrastructure and economic goal, not a "to every man" one. But the governments-in-place must be willing to allow these to be placed, and willing to maintain them and make them available to their citizens.

My soapbox is not about this goal, but those individuals who believe that the Digital Divide bypasses government and hands it straight into the hands of the most needy. It just doesn't work that way.

I guess this may be an unfair assumption on my part with regards to the Uplift Movement. It always seemed that their goal was to create a better world through living a better life themselves, which doesn't necessarily coincide with goals of governmental and economic expansion.

At this point I went back to my techy friend and explained that I didn't think the Uplifter movement was really trying to put a computer in every house so much as it wanted to assist people who are already interested in technology to not be afraid to learn about techology and to demonstrate how easily and cheaply it can be accessed. It also encourages people who are already techno geeks to share their knowledge.

"Here's the concept: Uplift is a national, non-profit, all-volunteer group devoted to helping regular people make use of free and low-cost technological tools. Uplifters support independent _expression, citizens’ media and Do-It-Yourself thinking. The group doesn't have a budget -- it has people."

My email conversation got me to thinking that maybe...just maybe...the term "Digital Divide" should NOT be used as a positive argument for the group. I went back to my techy friend to get permission to post his comments. My intent in approaching him was to stir a little chatter in the lowcountry blogosphere and maybe even get the press release revised for the sake of our virtual community.

My friend returned with still more comments worth sharing.
Based on what you are telling me about the article from the journalist, it seems like he merely appropriated the term from the global application and is instead using it as a sort of literacy tool locally.

That's kind of what I was hoping; the downside is that there are two very different concepts being attached to a common phrase. As far as your journalist associate is concerned, ["Digital Divide"] - that's something I do everyday--and believe everyone should be willing to do--I just never thought to equate it with that term.

I like this quote that you sent me separately:

> "Here's the concept: Uplift is a national,
> non-profit, all-volunteer group devoted to helping
> regular people make use of free and low-cost
> technological tools. Uplifters support independent
> expression, citizens’ media and Do-It-Yourself
> thinking. The group doesn't have a budget -- it has
> people."

The key words are "national", "regular people" and "free and low-cost technological tools". To me, that means regular and responsible use of ATMs, Debit cards, libraries, search engines, office machines, and other everyday items....not introducing new, expensive, or inappropriate equipment into their lives.

At my friend's suggestion, I will list the unexpanded version of Truths and Fallacies. First the Truths:
TRUTH NUMBER ONE: The Divide is widening, not narrowing, and at an ever-increasing rate.

TRUTH NUMBER TWO: Closing the Digital Divide may be the only way to make globalization work for the poor.

TRUTH NUMBER THREE: The consequence of not closing the Divide is terrorism.

TRUTH NUMBER FOUR: Closing the Digital Divide is fundamentally about empowerment, that is, it is about using new technologies to empower the poor just as they now empower the rich.

TRUTH NUMBER FIVE: Closing the Digital Divide is the only way to sustain the growth of world markets.

TRUTH NUMBER SIX: World leaders from every sector ­ business, government, academia, NGOs ­ can benefit from closing the Divide. Yet no one sector has the incentives to lead the effort to close the Divide.

TRUTH NUMBER SEVEN: Closing the Digital Divide requires building an "enterprise ecosystem" that offers "end to end solutions" for the poor.

TRUTH NUMBER EIGHT: The midlevel countries in relatively advanced emerging markets, not the poorest countries, are the best settings for experimental efforts to close the Digital Divide.

TRUTH NUMBER NINE: Closing the digital divide involves using new technologies to formalize the "informal economy," thereby bringing the poor into established markets.

Now for the Fallacies:
FALLACY NUMBER ONE: Closing the Digital Divide is about giving poor people access to computers.

FALLACY NUMBER TWO: Getting the private sector to profitably serve the poor at the "bottom of the pyramid" is the key to closing the Digital Divide.

FALLACY NUMBER THREE: Creating "shared use" of ICT products in the countryside, such as information kiosks that deliver government services, is the key to closing the Digital Divide.

FALLACY NUMBER FOUR: Closing the Digital Divide requires setting up a "superfund" that supports ICT projects for the poor.

FALLACY NUMBER FIVE: The key to closing the Digital Divide is investment in literacy and education.

FALLACY NUMBER SIX: Social entrepreneurs with IT skills must become the prime movers for closing the Divide since they are able to introduce "disruptive technologies" to serve the poor.

FALLACY NUMBER SEVEN: If governments will only open up their telecom sectors to foreign competition, and make themselves "e-ready", market forces all by themselves will cause the Divide to close.

There are explanations given for each Truth and Fallacy. I encourage you to read these and to consider how referring to the "Digital Divide" may stir an opposing view to the intent of the Uplifters Movement. FWIW, I do intend to be at the first drop in and will be dragging a few friends who are still thinking about blogging with me.


daniel said...

Wow. Thanks for giving this so much thought. This is a fascinating post.

For what it's worth, you'll notice that I used the term "Digital Divide" in the press release, but not in the blog post. Here's the reasoning, right or wrong: When writing for a blog audience, I can assume different levels of competency and familiarity; when writing for an audience of journalists, I'm trying to activate a frame of reference.

In other words, the first hurdle when you're trying to get coverage is to get the attention of a decision-maker. One way of doing that is to frame your story within a "larger story" that journalists are familiar with. Uplifter is a complex set of ideas that take time to explain. "Digital Divide" is a quick hit.

In retrospect, I think that was a weak choice on my part. If the result is that people look at Uplifter as part of some enormous international globalization effort with questionable motives, that's ... awful.

The important dots to connect here are some principles you'll find over at the notion that you don't really own a thing if you can't take it apart... the idea of helping people help themsleves, the idea that it's best to live within your means, the idea that technology is a tool, not an end unto itself. The thought of a global Digital Divide never crossed my mind. I was thinking much more in terms of the divides that exist right here.

Anyway, your techy friend made some interesting points. Should make for a good conversation on Saturday.

Anonymous said...

Lisa, what is MOL? You left a comment on my blog. Good luck getting in your Foreign Service dreams. Talk to me.