Bridging the Digital Divide

A Digital Gulf Divides the World

A recently published U.N. study reveals that there were about 600 million Internet users in 2002. By the end of this year, that number should rise to 900 million. But access is not equitably distributed. [Many] nations, most of them in Africa, are virtually off-line.

It appears that we are on the way to a two-thirds society: On one side there is a splendid information elite, able to use all the new technologies, whose careers are flourishing. On the other side, a digital proletariat is rising in the elite’s shadow, a mass of people unable to keep up. There are also political reasons for this gap. A couple of months ago, Vietnam was, for a few days, completely cut off from the Internet. The collapse was due to maintenance work on a firewall server that the regime uses to try to prevent its people from getting access to the wrong Web sites. In this respect, the Vietnamese act much like China, Myanmar, or Saudi Arabia.

On the one hand, they provide access to strengthen their economies; on the other hand, they struggle in vain to suppress [the infiltration of] harmful political and social influences. In other places, regional networks facilitate the leap into the future. For example, Laotian exiles and Vietnam veterans in the United States have created the Jhai Foundation to set up LANs [wireless networks] in Laotian villages and make it possible for rice farmers to check on current prices before they take their crops to nearby markets. The key to the robust technology is the “power bike”: If you want to surf, you have to pedal to keep the batteries charged.

In many Arab and African countries, information belongs to the government. Net access is often subject to severe restrictions. According to estimates, of the roughly 400 million people in the Near and Middle East, about 5 million now enjoy Internet access.

For Nigerian professor and Web-author Olu Oguibe, the borders that run through cyberspace are the same old divisions of class and wealth. They separate poor regions in the United States as surely as in Chad: “The digital Third World is a global territory, one that transcends the traditional categories of First and Third Worlds.”

For many users, the strength of the Internet lies in the time and expense it saves. While it takes several weeks for a letter to go from Congo to Argentina, an e-mail gets there in seconds, for a few cents. Then there is the integration effect: Researchers in isolated institutions can connect with their colleagues.

A favorite example of the opportunities created by the Internet is the Indian city of Bangalore. By 1998, Bangalore was exporting software and related services worth US$3 billion to the West. But for the majority of the inhabitants of this huge city of 4 million, living conditions have gotten dramatically worse. Real-estate prices have exploded, air pollution has broken records, and interruptions in both the water and electricity supply are daily occurrences.

In the rich West as well, getting online was supposed to give disadvantaged people new chances. And indeed, the digital divide has narrowed. In the United States, poor people and immigrants increasingly have access to computers and the Internet. But there are relatively few online resources appropriate to their needs.

The consensus to date has been that the availability of digital information has contributed positively to social development. Since Sept. 11, however, this agreement has no longer been unanimous. The downside of information has reared its ugly head: secrecy. U.S. authorities have removed much formerly available data from their Web sites. Researchers who depend upon newspaper databases for their work are being confronted with dwindling text resources. Why? Because a U.S. Supreme Court decision decreed that online usage means extra royalties to writers. In order to get around paying them, publishers have begun to remove articles by freelancers from their databases.

And new barriers have already been put in place—economic ones. More and more free online resources are being dropped or turned into subscription services; a new front is being opened by the spread of pay-as-you-go services. The result is cash or trash: high-quality data for some; cheap information, drenched in ads, for the rest.

Though the gap between data and knowledge available in the northern versus the southern part of the global village is a problem, what is more important is whether people will be able to understand the information they get.

A German aid worker living in an African village discovered that its women were spending an hour each day fetching water for their homes. He had a well drilled in the village center. The women felt cheated.

The time they had been spending walking to fetch water and back had been theirs alone. The aid worker, a man from the northern world of efficiency, had decreased their quality of life.