"Divide and rule out" by Victor Keegan

  • To: s-asia-it at apnic dot net
  • Subject: "Divide and rule out" by Victor Keegan
  • From: "Irfan Khan" <KhanIA@super.net.pk>
  • Date: Fri, 15 Dec 2000 19:37:50 +0500
  • Sender: owner-s-asia-it@lists.apnic.net
    • Divide and rule out 
      The internet revolution has still failed to reach 98% of the planet's 
      population. Victor Keegan on the importance of bridging the digital 
      December 14, 2000 
      The single pervasive theme of the 21st century has already been 
      decided. It is the Digital Divide and whether it can be bridged. 
      Seldom has a potential social malaise engaged so many minds 
      everywhere at the same time. It is as if concerned people around the 
      world have simultaneously decided not only that the problem should be 
      solved but that it actually can be. 
      Every one is getting in on the act, from the United Nations and the 
      Group of Eight at the top, to university departments and community 
      groups at the other end of the scale. In Britain, Tony Blair has 
      promised "universal access" (whatever that means) by 2005 and is 
      putting plenty of money where his mouth is - including 250m for 
      disadvantaged communities to go online, 250m to train teachers, and 
      increased pressure on BT to deliver broadband. 
      But what medium is best suited to deliver universal access? The PC 
      may peak at around 60% penetration and digital television is unlikely 
      to cover more than 70% of the population, leaving 30% 
      Most social problems of this magnitude are only debated after the 
      event. It is only when global developments have produced social 
      chasms - whether involving health, wealth, gender or ethnicity - that 
      the conscience of the world is stirred and remedies explored. The 
      digital divide is unusual in that a solution is being sought in real 
      time - while the revolution itself is being unrolled. 
      The initial success is mildly encouraging, at least in the 
      industrialised world, even though it has been triggered by the 
      driving force of the technology rather than human endeavour. The 
      speed at which people in richer countries have adopted the net is far 
      faster than adoption rates for previous technologies such as 
      telegraph, radio, television, fax and video. 
      Fast adoption has been driven by rapidly improving technology in all 
      the key areas - computers, telecommunications, storage, bandwidth, 
      digital cameras etc - accompanied by an equally rapid fall in real 
      Within some subsections of the IT revolution the adoption rates, 
      particularly among youngsters, has been phenomenal. Sending text 
      messages by mobile phone, unheard of 18 months ago, has now reached 
      10bn, overtaking email in popularity. 
      Since mobile phone penetration has already reached 90% among some 
      categories of young people, the problem of digital disadvantage has 
      been solved even before companies and governments have started to 
      work out what role phones should have in the digital revolution. 
      That is exceptional but it underlines the fact that there is no 
      single digital divide but lots of overlapping ones: between old and 
      young, men and women, rich and poor, blacks and whites, northern 
      hemisphere and southern hemisphere and, above all, between developed 
      and developing nations. 
      This is the area where the creation of a vast new underprivileged 
      digitariat, even more dispossessed than now seems inevitable unless 
      dramatic action is taken. 
      The bald statistics are depressingly familiar: barely 2% of the 
      world's population of more than 6bn are linked to the internet; most 
      people on the planet have not even made a telephone call, let alone 
      accessed the web; there are more telephone lines in a big city like 
      Tokyo than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. In the US, internet 
      access costs a user only 1% of average monthly income, whereas in 
      Uganda it costs more than a month's average (per capita) income. 
      Most of the new business opportunities in the next few decades will 
      either be the creation of digital goods (such as music, audio and 
      films) or the application of digital and internet techniques to old 
      economy products (such as mapping and monitoring systems in cars or 
      intelligent fridges). Those developing countries whom the internet 
      has passed by, will be doubly hit by all this. They will not be 
      making any of the new economy goods that people increasingly want to 
      buy, while at the same time their traditional markets (such as 
      commodities) will be squeezed by the price deflation brought about by 
      the creation of giant electronic marketplaces on the internet. 
      Meanwhile, what little international investment has been going their 
      way will be diverted to the more exciting prospects (even after the 
      experience of the past year) of internet-related projects generated 
      by the information-rich countries. 
      The US provides a strong contrast with the prospects for the Third 
      World. According to the organisation monitoring the digital divide 
      [http://www.digitaldivide.gov/ ], the share of households with 
      internet access has soared from 26.2% in December 1998 to 41.5% in 
      August this year. More than half of all households now have 
      computers. But the interesting thing is that while net access is 
      still disproportionately the prerogative of richer people, the 
      digital divide is being tackled. During the most recently recorded 20 
      months, the number of black households with internet access at home 
      has more than doubled from 11.2% to 23.5%. Hispanic households have 
      experienced similar growth (from 12.6% to 23.6%). This is still way 
      behind the access of white households and also Asian and Pacific 
      Islanders, who have the highest access rates of all (56.8%), but it 
      is moving in the right direction. 
      In Britain, a Guardian/ICM poll earlier this year predicted that 
      almost half of all adults in the UK would be online early next year. 
      But, whereas 59% of the most affluent AB social group would be 
      online, only 14% of the poorest DE social class, which includes the 
      unskilled, would be in a similar position. However, Professor Patrick 
      Dunleavy of LSE reminds us, that all expensive new goods sell first 
      to the wealthy classes. He points to figures from the British Market 
      Research Bureau showing that in the year to mid-1999 the growth in 
      internet access was 33% for the rich AB social group but 44% for C1s 
      and 44% for C2s. Even among the retired and unemployed DE group 
      access grew by 50% over that period. In August 2000 the proportion of 
      ABs and C1s who used the net during the previous month rose by 33% 
      compared with a year earlier, while C2s, Ds and Es rose by 70% to 
      George Gilder, the US guru, argues that the wealthiest 20% are paying 
      for all the false starts and glitches that plague any new technology, 
      thus bringing it down the learning curve, where everyone else can get 
      it a few years later at a quarter the price. He says:"That's the 
      digital divide. The rich provide the investment and the rest reap the 
      David Elstein, former head of Channel Five, told a roundtable on the 
      digital divide (reported in this week's New Statesman) that every new 
      innovation, from radio to the Consumers' Association, divides 
      society. Online evangelists, he claimed, had not yet proved what you 
      needed to do for the net revolution that you did not for the others. 
      The answer, maybe, is that not having electricity or a phone in an 
      industrialising society is less of a handicap than net access because 
      of the all- pervasive nature of the new revolution. Not to have 
      access to information in an information-driven age, when most jobs 
      require techie or keyboarding skills, is to risk total exclusion. 
      Information moves so fast these days that sending an email has a 
      definite advantage over a letter. 
      In the information economy, knowledge is vital and most of it is 
      locked inside peoples' heads. That is partly why the dot.com 
      companies were so ludicrously overvalued this year. But once 
      knowledge becomes a digital product - a document, a music file or a 
      video - it can be transmitted instantly to millions of consumers at 
      no extra cost. 
      This offers a tantalising prospect for the Third World. Countries in 
      Africa which, 150 years on, have not yet even experienced the effects 
      of the industrial revolution, have the potential to leapfrog into the 
      information age. Some indeed are already starting to experiment (see 
      Online, page 12). It is not necessary any longer to have an expensive 
      network of copper wires because the wireless revolution can beam 
      appropriate information to remote villages from some of the 
      satellites that fly over Africa virtually unused. What is needed is a 
      new generation of international social entrepreneurs to harness the 
      unused technology of the multi-nationals to the needs of the poorest 
      Of course, as Bill Gates has pointed out, what deprived people need 
      is not computers but basic things such as medicine. Jubilee 2000 has 
      pointed out that you could vaccinate 2,000 children against six 
      killer diseases for the price of a computer. That is true. Also, as 
      Kevin Watkins of Oxfam points out, in much of sub-Saharan Africa more 
      than half of primary-age children are denied the opportunity of even 
      a rudimentary primary education and fewer than one third make it to 
      secondary school. 
      All of this puts technology transfer in a depressing context. But it 
      is not irrelevant. Internet access raises the prospect of being able 
      to disseminate vital medical information and to do remote diagnosing. 
      It is potentially a "killer-app" for Africa for improving education 
      if appropriate, and appropriately cheap, methods of delivery are 
      Ultimately, the best way forward is by increasing economic growth. 
      This involves a host of factors including debt relief, stable macro-
      economic policies that encourage enterprise and discourage 
      monopolies. But education is at the core because of the long-run 
      connection between improving education and economic growth. The point 
      is that improving health, food, education and net access should not 
      be seen as being in opposition to each other. They are all part of 
      the solution. 
      And they must be applied quickly. Otherwise the praiseworthy progress 
      being made to narrow the digital divide in industrialised countries 
      will be swamped by the opening up of an even bigger divide between 
      developed and developing countries. It is already happening. 
      If nothing is done it will create a digital sore that industrialised 
      nations will have on their consciences for ever. Their culpability is 
      all the greater because they know they have the means to tackle it 
      but have so far chosen to do very little to solve it. Soon, the 
      talking will have to stop.