A friend of mine called asking if I had any articles on the “digital divide”. He was making a presentation on that topic. As I searched through my collection, I found quite a few which I emailed him. But it also set me thinking: what exactly is the digital divide? What can be done to bridge it? Is it ever going to get bridged? What are the success stories from which we can learn?
The “digital divide” is the gap in technology (computing and communications) usage and access. This manifests itself in many different ways: between the big companies and the smaller companies, between the people in developed markets and those in the emerging markets, between the urban and rural populations in the emerging markets.
From bridges.org comes a more formal definition:
Simply put, “the digital divide” means that between countries and between different groups of people within countries, there is a wide division between those who have real access to information and communications technology and are using it effectively, and those who don’t.
Since information and communications technologies (ICTs) are increasingly becoming a foundation of our societies and economies, the digital divide means that the “information have-nots” are denied the option to participate in new ICT jobs, in e-government, in ICTs improved healthcare, and in ICT enhanced education.
More often than not, the “information have-nots” are in developing countries, and in disadvantaged groups within countries. The digital divide is thus a lost opportunity — the opportunity for the information “have-nots” to use ICTs to improve their lives.
The divide is brought about by differences in education, language and income levels. The education divide limits the usage of computing. A computer is a versatile platform, and it needs the users to define what they can do with it. With illiteracy levels still high in many of the emerging markets, the adoption of technology is minimal. Language in countries like India is another barrier because most software is still only in English. The perceived market is too small to make investments in creating software for the mass market in many different languages, because companies are not sure if they will recoup their investments. Income levels are a huge obstacle – most technology is still denominated in dollars, which makes adoption beyond the scope of most individuals and enterprises, for whom earnings are in local currencies with unfavourable exchange rates against the dollar.
The result is the division of the world into two – one which has access to computers, communications and the Internet, and one which does not. Taking ideas and technologies from the first to the second does not work well because the two worlds are quite different. What is common is the need for the use of technology – that is the undeniable truth of today’s life and business. What is needed are technologies which can bridge the digital divide and create a digital dividend for the have-nots.