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The digital divide and Web 2.0

August 1, 2008

map of the Earth using the Mercator projection

The internet, though global in reach, has its own specific geography, simultaneously linking and dividing people and places in new ways. As Manuel Castells demonstrates in The Internet Galaxy, plotting any aspect of the internet economy – origins of diffusion, locations of technical infrastructure, location of investors, service providers and content producers, location of users – will give you a map of the digital landscape which is both familiar and rapidly changing (Castells, 2002). Like Mercator’s Projection, which exaggerates the colonialist North while shrinking the underdeveloped South, our Internet map would massively inflate the size of the most technically advanced countries of North America, Europe and the Pacific rim and further belittle the developing countries of the South.

Within the magic circle of northern hemisphere wired societies, the internet has turbo-charged the economies of a handful of major metropolitan areas which now constitute the main hubs of network development and investment, account for the majority of internet domains, and form the main nodes in the global network. As Castells points out, the internet is in fact the technological driving force of global urbanisation:

The entire planet is being reorganised around gigantic metropolitan nodes that absorb an increasing proportion of the urban population, itself the majority of the population of the planet… The internet is the medium that allows metropolitan concentration and global networking to proceed simultaneously. The networked economy, tooled by the internet, is an economy made up of very large, interconnected metropolitan regions. (Castells 2002)

Because the internet has made connection to the network a precondition of full social and economic participation, it has also – at least initially – increased the divide within the wired societies between richly connected urban and poorly connected rural areas and between the well-connected majority and economically deprived ethnic minority communities who cannot afford connection. However as internet diffusion nears saturation these internal digital divides are beginning to narrow.

But the digital divide between the developed/wired world and the undeveloped/unwired one is arguably still growing. For less economically developed countries, lack of connection to the global network equates to marginalisation in the new global economic system: “development without the internet would be the equivalent of industrialisation without electricity in the industrial era.” (Castells, 2002)

The global network may actually be accentuating inequality. The 1990s was a decade which saw not only the rise of the internet and the growth of the networked economy, but also a substantial increase in inequality between rich and poor countries – a widening of the gap in productivity, income and social benefits between the developed and developing world. This growing development gap is another aspect of globalisation, the distinctive economic and social transformation of our time, whose technological driving force is the internet. Castells concludes that

Under the current social and institutional conditions prevailing in our world, the new techno-economic system seems to induce uneven development, simultaneously increasing wealth and poverty, productivity, and social exclusion, with its effects being differentially distributed in various areas of the world…This global process of uneven development is perhaps the most dramatic expression of the digital divide. (Castells 2002)

Such uneven development is characterist of technological innovations in general. Way back in the 1960s, E M Rogers wrote

the consequences of the diffusion of innovations usually widen the socioeconomic gap between the earlier and later adopting categories in a system.. Further, the consequences of the diffusion of innovations usually widen the socioeconomic gap between the segments previously high and low in socioeconomic status. (Rogers, 2003)

However as internet-powered globalisation proceeds, some of its imbalances may be evening out. Just as some of the network access inequalities in technically advanced societies – between men and women, urban and rural, rich and poor – have diminished as the net diffused more and more widely, so there are signs of the digital divide between developed and developing countries beginning to narrow.

One factor is the waning of global economic domination by the countries of the North and West. A new tier of southern and eastern economic superpowers has arisen – the so-called BRIC grouping of Brazil, Russia, India and China – whose economies are growing so fast that they will soon match in size or overtake those of North America and Europe. The stature of the BRIC economies is reflected in the countries’ internet presence, as measured by the number of internet domains based in the BRIC countries: in 2007 a list of the 20 countries with the largest number of domains showed China in third place with 157 million domains, Brazil in 12th place with 25 million, Russia 17th with 20 million, and India 19th with 15 million (see domaintools.com).

Although north America, Europe and the Pacific rim countries (including Australia) still have the highest penetration of internet users, they no longer have the largest number of users – Asia does. More importantly the rates of internet usage growth in the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America now dwarf those in the developed North and West, as the table below shows. The South may be beginning to catch up.


Data from Internet World Statistics @ http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats

Other less economically developed countries are also taking strides. Indonesia is currently the least wired of East Asian nations, but has just announced an ambitious programme of broadband rollout, backed by NGOs, local businesses, international corporations and the UN, that aims to provide 20% of the population with a cheap, fast connection via either wireless or mobile by 2012.

Several aspects of ‘Web 2.0’ have the potential to help make participation in the global network more feasible for people in developing countries. For example

  • Open source makes free software available to people who could not afford to pay
  • Cloud computing makes powerful applications available to all and means computers need be less powerful
  • OER makes educational resources available free to anyone with a connection
  • Mobile & social computing helps people to get organised and make their voice heard

Another positive is the huge number of organisations now working on the problem of bridging the digital divide: UN bodies like UNESCO and the Global Alliance for ICT, academic/business initiatives like OLPC, international NGOs like Digital Alliance Foundation, bridges.org and Eduvision, and networks like Digital Divide.org, Digital Divide Network, Scidev.net and Web2forDev. A growing number of people understand that helping to bridge the divide is the responsibility of all of us, and is about investment in hardware and in infrastructure, and above all about investment in education.

As Digital Divide.org say on their website, “closing the digital divide is fundamentally about empowerment – that is, about using new technologies to empower the poor just as they now empower the rich.. It is the only way to make globalisation work for the poor”.

It is also arguably a precondition for survival, for we humans face global climate catastrophe unless we can find ways of equalising development – of ending the pursuit of endless economic growth, contracting and converging in order to reach a more just and sustainable way of co-existing with each other and the planet. The hope must be that the global network can play its part in this process of slowing down and evening out.
—–

Castells M, 2002. The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society. Oxford

Rogers EM, 2003. Diffusion of Innovations, 5th edition, p471. Free Press, New York

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From → H806

5 Comments
  1. 1 п. “Не имей сто друзей, а имей сто шекелей” тоже хорошо рифмуется 🙂
    8 п. Ты никогда не потеряешь работу. Когда закончатся фотографии можно размещать рисунки (да хоть бы и конкурс объявить на лучший рисунок Одри (-:), аппликации и фотографии поделок из пластилина…
    9 п. Сто пудов ! 🙂

  2. За такие посты надо награды давать, на полном серьезе!

  3. Could you help me, please?

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  5. This is a very useful write-up. Do you mind if i translate it into french for my subscribers?

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