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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Technology beyond comprehension: perpetuating the digital divide
Article Type: Editorial From: Online Information Review, Volume 36, Issue 1
In December 2011 India’s Minister for Human Resources Development, the Hon Kapil Sabil, discussed the provision of a “low-cost” tablet (about USD35) for Indian school children (BBC World, 2011). Some years prior to this India had a similar idea for a low-cost desktop computer, the Simputer (Simple Computer). The intention of such innovations, in whatever country, is admirable:
to improve access to the web;
to assist citizens in living more “connected” (and by implication, better) lives;
to improve education, business, leisure, global understanding and so on.
India is not alone in these endeavours. In more developed and wealthier countries the middle classes for some time have taken advanced ICTs and robust connectivity for granted – in the mid-1990s when my daughter was 11 she had her first Apple laptop, and has not been without one since then. For people in our situation the availability of laptops, tablets and handheld devices, along with the IT infrastructure to support them, has become an unquestioned, basic requirement for daily living.
There is every reason for India, among other countries, to aspire to the same levels of IT availability as more economically established societies. There are well-crafted policies in many countries like India, Pakistan and Vietnam that clearly articulate a focus on developing ICT infrastructures in different sectors. While one might admire such initiatives that attempt to give members of society an equal footing with regard to information access, and to help embed lifelong learning in citizens’ psyche, we time and again come up against what appears to be an easily forgotten barrier: the widening Digital Divide that prevents a citizenry from achieving its aspirations. And this Divide is not a matter of technology availability alone, as Warschauer (2003) pointed out some years ago; rather it is a complex amalgam of cultural and social context, education, politics and economics.
As Amoretti and Musella (2011, p. 196) state, the Digital Divide is “… a hierarchy of access to various forms of technology in various contexts, resulting differing levels of engagement and consequences … , depending both on technological equipment and user skills … ” (Amoretti and Musella, 2011, p. 196). Yes, technological equipment – low-cost computers, tablets – and skills. While we are better at providing the technology, though by no means universally so, we still seem unable to assist users of the technology through skills development. At no time during his BBC interview, for example, did India’s Minister for Human Resource Development mention the human factor, the need to empower people by educating them in digital literacy.
Technology develops apace, yet we consistently fail to satisfy the need people have to understand how to use the technology for their benefit. Never mind basic information literacy, which remains a mystery to so many parts of the world, we are now in an era that requires multiple literacies, particularly digital literacy. In this regard Ameen and Gorman (2009) found that digital illiteracy was a major stumbling block to development in countries such as Pakistan – people are unable to use resources once they have the technological capability to do so.
In other words, while the information infrastructures may be more robust and more widespread in many countries than five years ago, and while rapid economic development makes it possible for a country such as India to contemplate making low-cost technology available to its citizens, these same citizens are being left behind because they are incapable of using the technology to benefit themselves or their communities. Why is this so? Is it easier to use an IT plaster to cover the wound than it is to treat the malaise through the long process of education? Is it easier to make political promises, but then bow to pressures for more military spending, or trade protection? Perhaps a better question to answer through more focused research is: How are different uses of the new technology influenced by contextual, cultural and knowledge resources available to individuals and groups? Or this: How can we convince those in power that IT largesse needs to be matched by funded focus on human resource development?
The longer we fail to address such questions in our quest for learning how to balance the IT and IT infrastructures with the need for an IT-savvy population, the longer we perpetuate dependency thinking, inequality within societies and inequities in international relations.
Ameen, K. and Gorman, G.E. (2009), “Information and digital literacy: a stumbling block to development? A Pakistan perspective”, Library Management, Vol. 39 Nos 1/2, pp. 99–112
Amoretti, F. and Musella, F. (2011), “Governing digital divides: power structures and ICT strategies in a global perpsective”, in Randolph, L.P. (Ed.), International Exploration of Technology Equity and the Digital Divide: Critical, Historical and Social Perspectives, IGI Global/Information Science Reference, Hershey, PA, pp. 193–208
BBC World (2011), Asia Business Report, 12 December
Warschauer, M. (2003), Social Inclusion and the Digital Divide, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA