The Digital Divide

‘To Have and Have Not’, Ernest Hemmingway’s 1937 novel, is dealing with the choices, a basically good person is making, when finding himself confronted by adverse economic circumstances that are beyond his control. It was made into a movie in 1944, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The script was heavily changed to suit the times (a time honoured Hollywood tradition) and made Lauren Bacall a star at 19. Bogart was married and a mature 47 years old at the time, but that didn’t stop him from falling for his leading lady (a time honoured Hollywood tradition). At least he had the decency to get a divorce and make an honest woman of her. Their marriage lasted until his untimely death in 1957 (definitely not a time honoured Hollywood tradition).  As couples go, Bogey and Bacall, they had it all!

I read recently that people on the “Have” side of the Digital Divide, i.e. those with access to the Internet, make up only 5% of the world’s population! Let me drive this staggering inequality home by some examples:

There are more Internet connected computers in New York than in all of Africa, more in Finland than in all of Latin America and the Caribbean combined!

Now, if you get by without access to the Internet and communicate using only a very basic mobile phone (even a basic one, by the way, has more computing power than Apollo 13), you may be tempted to say: So What!

It seems that the Digital Age has not only created the Digital Divide but also a Social Divide. For there is no denying that constant access to the Internet is driving the fastest cultural and social changes humanity has ever seen. Facebook, Twitter and any number of other social networking platforms are no longer used by Internet savvy people to while away their spare time. These platforms are driving people’s very lives! They have replaced old fashioned dinner table conversations, letter and diary writing, heart to heart’s with mum and dad or other relatives. Teachers are sought not for advice, but to remind them that students have rights and, anyhow, what they do have to offer is available on Wikipedia and YouTube in a much more digestible form.

These social media sites are not just teenage hangouts. They have become successful businesses in their own right and are used by other businesses to conduct business! They have become a very important social, cultural and economic marketplace and will soon be the only marketplace that really matters.

I am not sure whether this is right or wrong. Even if I had an opinion one way or the other, it would matter little. As with our online privacy, the genie is already out of the bottle. The best I can hope to do is point out some very real dangers ahead.

The industrial revolution has replaced a great many traditional crafts and occupations; further innovations, like prêt-à-porter, have sent most tailors and others to oblivion.

We have, more or less, coped with this in the past. Successive governments have legislated to mitigate adverse impacts. However, the Digital Age continues this trend at an exponentially accelerating pace. Governments, already hamstrung by a propensity to react to the slightest changes in voter attitudes, are finding it increasingly difficult to respond in a timely, measured and appropriate way. They are not helped by a global financial system that, underpinned by the digital revolution, has grown so big and complex, that even its main protagonists are baffled by its convulsions.

The National Broad Band initiative is, in part, the current government’s response to bridge the Digital Divide in Australia. Given the almost hysterical opposition to the NBN by some people, most of which should know better*, it is difficult to see how we will ever be able to tackle the Digital Divide on a global scale.

 Assuming for a moment that my assertions are correct, and regardless of whether you are a social conservative or progressive, I hope you agree that it seems like collective suicide to condemn 95% of humanity to the “Have Not” side of the Great Digital Divide.

* For more on the NBN see my article ‘National Broadband Network’ in the Sweet Sea News May 2011 edition or on www.jacobswell.com.au (click on IT Talk).