Understanding the digital divide

By FJ Tichawangana

WHEN you get home today connect to the Internet and do a search for “Development in Africa”. What? You don’t have a computer? You’re not connected to the Internet? OK, let’s try something

else. Take out your cellphone and call your cousin/brother/mother/boyfriend in the UK and say hello. Arrgghh! you scream. Too expensive? Welcome to our side of the divide.

Our side? Who is we? What divide?

We are the members of the world population that have no access to the new technology of communication, business, entertainment and education that is totally changing the way people on the other side behave. The people on the other side can fax a document when they want to send information to someone. They check their email often and when they need information on something they refer to the web. They use the abundant information available to them via these technologies to make better business decisions faster, to communicate with loved ones across the globe every day, to learn new things, to create new jobs, to generate wealth and, very often, to shop for that new pair of shoes or for the children’s new computer.

One way of defining the digital divide is “the gap between those who have access to information communication technology and are using it effectively, and those who do not”. Information communication technology (ICT) is the stuff I referred to above. Telecommunications, the Internet, the Worldwide Web, computers, etc are all part of ICT.

“Access” does not just mean being able to walk into an Internet café. No, there is a lot more to it. This means that there might be an Internet café just across the road from your home, but if you cannot afford to use it, if the content is not relevant to you, if you do not know how to use it, then you still do not have access. On their website, Bridges.org talk of “real access”. Those on the other side of the divide have real access to ICT.

According to the website: “Providing access to technology is critical, but it must be about more than just physical access. Computers and connections are insufficient if the technology is not used effectively because it is not affordable. If people do not understand how to put it to use or if they are discouraged from using it; or if the local economy cannot sustain its use. Access goes beyond just physical access and makes it possible for people to use technology effectively to improve their lives.”

As computers make their way deeper and deeper into our way of living, from entertainment, to education to business, an interesting trend is developing. We find that that gap is widening. We find that even as the Internet, which is the single biggest manifestation of ICT, moves into its twenty-first year of existence it is by and large irrelevant in the daily lives of millions of people across the globe who themselves have to struggle for mere existence.

Just under one tenth of the world’s six billion people have access to the Internet. The mass of information and resources available basically for free (after payment of connection costs) make the Internet a paradox. The people who need access to information most, the people who cannot afford newspapers, books and other educational or informational materials, are denied the cheapest source of information in the world. Since an informed society develops faster, this means that the poorest societies and countries in the world are in this way denied development – but it’s not quite as simple as that.

While we can say that the digital divide exists between developed and developing countries we find that even in developed countries, many still do not have access to adequate ICT whilst even in the poorest of countries you will find some people who have access to lots of ICT. You will also find that men tend to have more access to ICT than women. At the University of Zimbabwe for instance most of the computer labs are full of male students. Their female counterparts have just as much of an opportunity, theoretically, to use the labs, but upbringing, societal norms, etc, mean the girls are less interested in computers. And those who are? A lab full of rowdy young male university students is enough to discourage many who dare approach the door.

In an affluent home, the owner of the house and his family might have access to all forms of ICT while their gardener and his family do not. We see therefore that the digital divide is complex, and cuts across many strata in society. It is a divide made up of many interlinking disparities.

In Zimbabwe there are now about 500 000 Internet users (Unctad report 2003). That’s about 4,2% of the population. Most of these people have access to the Internet at work and in Internet Cafés. Very few can afford access – or just a computer – at home. That 4,2% which does have access uses the Internet mainly for email. Then comes news, educational research, etc. However, much of the content available to us is not Zimbabwean, or African either. Most Zimbabwean organisations that have websites do not use them for business, or even for communication. They are merely status symbols and are often out of date. The majority of Internet connections are dial-up, which means we do not have access to rich multimedia content that is now available on the web. It also means that new Internet functionalities like voice over Internet Protocol which would enable us to make international phone calls at the cost of a local call and teleconferencing remain a challenge for even the most connected of people in this country. We have yet to harness the full power of ICT. So, it turns out that even the privileged among us who have Internet access still have one foot on the down side of the digital divide.

However, the picture is not that bleak. According to Wired.com, in 1998, over 950 million households worldwide, 65% of all households, did not have a telephone. The Economist at one time reported that there were 40 million people in the third world waiting for phone lines. Many were expected to wait for up to 10 years before getting connected.

Then came the cellphone revolution. In a few years cellular technology has swept through the third world faster than other technology ever did. In December last year the Worldwatch Institute in Washington reported that cellphones now outnumber landlines in Africa. The cheaper cost of setting up mobile networks and the more efficiently run mobile phone companies (compared to the mostly state-run fixed network operators) have made this possible. Now many businesses and families in Zimbabwe and across Africa, for the first time, have easy access to telecommunications.

In this regard we have taken a major stride to making that ever-widening divide smaller. If we can get our telecommunications networks right, then next we can focus on using them to help us get our education, business and economies right. If my grandmother in Gwanda can communicate with her grandchildren wherever they are in the world without leaving her hut, then there is hope that we can bridge this awesome divide.

* FJ Tichawangana is a technology enthusiast. You can contact him on outbound@venekera.co.zw.