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The digital divide’s great leap forward


'SMS till you drop' mobile phone ad on van in Kampala, Uganda. Future Atlas under a Creative Commons Licence

We need to harness the innovation from today’s technology revolution to better serve people's needs, writes Chris Spannos.

Skyrocketing smartphone ownership and internet usage globally is bridging the digital divide even as Western economies have higher rates of technology use, the Pew Research Center reported this week. However, even as more people use technology, the gap between the haves and have-nots grows deeper and wider.

The outcasts of the digital revolution include four billion people whose lives have so far been left largely untouched by the technological innovations in information and communication that most of us take for granted. That means that those of us reading this piece are among the lucky three billion.

Over the past decade, the number of internet users has grown rapidly – from 1 billion in 2005 to about 3.2 billion at the end of last year. Mass migration of people to the online sphere is, however, far from complete. This has resulted in tremendous differences in quality of life, both virtual and real.

Some 3.5 billion Google searches are run every day, yet nearly 17 per cent of the world’s adult population are illiterate. Two-thirds of these are women. While 500 million Facebook users watch 8 billion videos per day, 67.4 million children are not in school. Snapchat’s 100 million daily active and largely young users share nearly 9 thousand photos per second; but 122 million youth – more than 60 per cent of whom are young women – are illiterate.

The positive aspects of digital technology are real, but the benefits are not shared equally. In being disconnected from the internet, more than half the world’s population are excluded from its benefits, evolution and governance. Those who are connected lose out on the participation, diversity and input of those excluded.

The digital divide parallels existing inequities in the allocation of goods and services. Oxfam recently reported that the richest one per cent now have more wealth than the rest of the world combined. ‘Power and privilege is being used to skew the economic system to increase the gap between the richest and the rest,’ the NGO states. In its 2016 report Digital Dividends, the World Bank explains that households in the Majority World are more likely to own a mobile phone than have access to electricity or clean water.

While those in the Majority World lack access to education, electricity and clean water, many of us in the Global North are benefiting from the ever-developing ‘Internet of Things’. Smart refrigerators can be programmed to detect when you need your next grocery delivery, and order milk and eggs for delivery to your doorstep. At the same time, malnutrition sentences to death nearly 3.1 million children under the age of five, every year. Intelligent cars can turn home-heating and alarm systems on or off as they pull into the driveway. In the same world, 1.6 billion people live in inadequate shelter and more than 100 million people remain homeless.

RELATED: Will ‘IoT’ boost surveillance capabilities? By Chris Spannos

Evolving technological developments could be applied to reduce global injustices in access to basic economic and social rights, and limit our carbon footprint. In reality, they are being designed to promote lifestyles of leisure. An estimated 89 million tonnes of food are wasted each year within the European Union. Smart technology could help reallocate resources more fairly, including to benefit the hungry.

Instead, the West is entering a new gilded age of digital decadence that provides a thin veneer over historic injustices. The coltan that powers our smartphones is mined by workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo who struggle to make decent wages. Technological waste – generated by the cycle of purchasing the latest upgraded device – creates mountains of pollution. Scratch the surface of the digital revolution and you will find full ultra-high definition inequity.

Many experts believe that the solution to the digital divide is getting more people hooked up and connected to information and communication technologies. That is because, for many in the Majority World, digital technology has had real benefits.

Mobile phones have reduced the cost of sending money to friends and family by making digital remittance payments possible. The World Bank reports that 1 billion people with disabilities – 80 per cent of whom live in developing countries – use text, voice and video technology to help them communicate. Almost 2.5 billion people lack formal identification records such as birth certificates and licences, creating huge obstacles for those seeking health and social services. Digital systems can help provide these much-needed records.

The UN has declared the internet essential for achieving its Sustainable Development Goals – to tackle poverty, hunger, health and education – by 2030. While the benefits are tangible and impossible to dismiss, there is a dark side to the proposals for more technology and connectivity as the solution to overcoming the divide.

While digital technology is seen as enabling innovation and opportunity for the poor and disadvantaged, many development institutions and NGOs propose solutions that spring from the neoliberal paradigm. This paradigm proposes reforms in Majority World countries that deregulate telecommunications markets and advance privatization. Through more business investment and greater competition, ‘economic growth’ can be realized, is the argument.

RELATED: Growth is the only way, by Dinyar Godrej, from '10 Economics Myths that we need to junk', December 2015, New Internationalist magazine

Yet neoliberal economic policies have caused the inequities that riddle almost every country across the globe. If such approaches are followed, a few digital technology empires – based largely in the Global North – will profit, and though their promised technology may bring benefits and prosperity to a few, too many will continue to be left behind.

Technology itself is not the solution to global injustices. Solutions will come from the fair distribution and allocation of all resources – agricultural, material and digital. Forecasts suggest that the scientific, legal and cultural barriers to creating many emerging technologies will reproduce future disparities in wealth and power between nations. The US is currently much better positioned to develop nanotechnologies and conduct stem-cell research than many countries in Latin America and Africa, for example. The existing system with new tools will lead to the same old results, or – worse – entrenched and deepened inequalities.

Overcoming the digital divide means rethinking the technological capabilities that are possible and reconfiguring them to serve human needs, rather than reproducing past and new disparities in wealth and power.

Chris Spannos is Digital Editor at New Internationalist. The May issue of our magazine will take a special look at technology and development.

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