This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
The United Nations emphasised bridging the digital divide as part of the Millennium Development Goals. However, although the costs of telephone and internet services have declined, digital disparities persist in many developing countries. The 2015 ICT Development Index reveals that, while the internet penetration rate in the developed world sits at 81%, two-thirds of the developing world are still without access.
So far, the issue of the digital divide is largely seen as a gap in access to information and communication technologies (ICT). This access-centric discourse has led the development community to focus overwhelmingly on improving physical access to technology. In doing so, they believe they can bridge the gap between developed and developing nations.
The International Telecommunications Union annual reports regularly recommend ways to improve “connectivity”. These include reducing the price of broadband and telecommunication subscriptions. Since 2003, the World Bank has spent more than US$9 billion on ICT development aid in more than 100 developing countries.
The five dimensions of digital inequality
Policymakers have a tendency to use a single factor, such as access, to judge ICT development. Digital inequality cannot be reduced, however, to a binary view of access. Governments and development bodies need to differentiate between types of online activity and pay attention to the inequalities among internet users.
We can break the digital divide down into five dimensions of inequality.
Inequality, in technical use, refers to the varying degrees of physical access to the internet and how that might affect an individual’s usage. For example, lack of broadband in rural America has been shown to negatively affect socioeconomic opportunities, out-migration and social connections in remote communities.
The extent to which people have autonomy in their internet use depends on where, when and how often they use it. New studies of “cyberslacking” reveal that people in higher positions at work tend to use the internet for more personal purposes than their lower-status colleagues. Contrary to previous assumptions, personal use of the internet at work is not only a distinctive trait of people who lack home-internet access, but also of those with higher levels of computer literacy.
Evidently, inequality in skill – broadly defined to include technical, cognitive and socioeconomic factors – affects if and how the internet is used. A concept like “digital literacy”, which is defined as “mastering ideas, not keystrokes”, suggests that being part of the information society goes beyond having access to a computer.
Knowledge of English (the de facto language of the internet) can determine one’s likelihood of being part of the digital world. Empirical studies across non-English-speaking countries find that a lack of English knowledge can impair an individual’s online experience, as well as their ability to retain information.
All this points to a need to rethink ICT development policies, to place greater emphasis on the socio-economic conditions that underpin access. We need to avoid policies that do not tackle inequality in a holistic manner.
Lessons from Thailand, India and Peru
Thailand’s 2011 One Tablet Per Child scheme aimed to provide nearly one million free tablets to schoolchildren. The widely criticised scheme, costing taxpayers US$50 million, was flawed from the start.
Critics argue that the policy was a populist campaign measure, not a well-thought-out plan to reduce digital inequality. Many doubted that teachers would receive proper training. Instead, they believed the government would dump the tablets onto teachers without a concrete implementation plan or consideration for those who did not know how to use them.
The microchip manufacturer Intel, which helped with the technical launch of the program, was also concerned about “the lack of electricity and adequate facilities” to support tablet use in some schools.
Overall, the program’s achievements have been mixed. It took nearly two years for the pilot project to roll out because the government could not get a manufacturer to produce the tablets at the price it had promised voters.
Even if schools received the tablets, some were not equipped to implement the program. A report based on 12 primary schools in 2013 shows that only half the schools had internet connectivity fast enough for tablet use. It also reveals that school administrators were not provided with any guide for incorporating learning through the tablets, and not all teachers knew how to use and maintain the tablets.
If the overall policy goal was to improve the education of Thai students in disadvantaged areas, the government neglected to set out assessment criteria.
The One Tablet Per Child Policy is now dead following the ousting of the government in the May 2014 coup.
A similar project on a larger scale failed to even get off the ground in India. The plan was to make 22 million Aakash Tablets available to students at a subsidised price of $35. The politicians overpromised on technologies that could not yet be delivered.
When the policy was conceived, there seemed to be little discussion, let alone forethought, about the infrastructure and support for use.
Likewise, five years in, the Peruvian government’s $200 million tablets-to-schoolchildren policy is difficult to justify. Poor teacher training in poorly equipped schools in remote areas has left many doubtful about the effectiveness of the program.
One Peruvian education official admitted:
… what we did was deliver the computers without preparing teachers.
The official even lamented that the digital gap among students may have widened.
What next for the digital divide?
Policymakers who dream of digital technologies as the quick fix to their development problem need to think twice before committing financial resources to policies that look good on paper, but fail in practice. Part of this failure is due to the technologically deterministic approach officials take. Another element is the view that a development gap can be closed by a tool or through internet access.
The clear lesson from Thailand, India and Peru is that reducing digital inequality depends on much more than access to products. Instead, it’s about developing human capital that will allow society to benefit from technological advancement.
Instead of brandishing cheap tablet policies to woo their constituents, politicians should consider the socioeconomic conditions required for a policy to succeed.