Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Digital Divide or Social Divide?

In the 1970s, three researchers, Tichenor, Donohue and Olien, from the University of Minnesota presented the Knowledge Gap theory. They believed that the increase of information in society is not evenly acquired by every member of society and that people of higher socio-economic status tend to have better ability to acquire information. The people with lower socio-economic status, defined partly by educational level, have little or no knowledge about public affairs issues, are disconnected from news events and important new discoveries, and usually aren't concerned about their lack of knowledge. This leads to an increased gap between members of social classes. As I was going through this theory, it occurred to me that it is true even today and is expected to continue widening the gap between the rich and the poor. 

Seventy percent of world population does not have access to the internet. Only one-third of world population is online out of which, nearly 40 per cent use internet on mobile devices. This was made possible through cheap web access over phone lines.  Does it suggest that the digital gap between the rich and poor is closing? Not really I suppose. 

With constant digitization of everyday services, bill payments, internet classrooms, educational materials, job applications and interviews,  and connectivity through social media, people are rapidly developing digital literacy in order to carry out these tasks more quickly and conveniently, given their busy schedules. The same activities are expected to become inherent parts of their routines in the future. I am assuming that only these people will be the customers of next generation of internet services. These will be the people who will benefit from great careers given ready awareness of opportunities and better connections with employers, can pursue better health-care through online doctors, and can access distant education, to mention a few. 

However, it is difficult to carry out all of these tasks over smartphones. Its simply tiring and cumbersome. I do not remember using my smartphone for doing more than checking emails, maps, weather, downloading music, social networking, sports, checking shopping deals (btw I loved the black friday apps ), news (occasionally), online gaming and pictures.(For other things, I do want to go back to my big screened laptop). This is the trend that I see most of the people following by choice.Those who do not have the money to buy personal computers and high-speed wired internet connections also rely on their phones.  Can mobiles phones close the digital divide? 

All these people are and will be left out of the benefits of information technology. Not only they will lag behind in getting the best jobs, but will also lose e-business opportunities. Business is all about staying informed about market conditions, and making informed decisions at the right time. How would they know when to act? The result would be that they will stick to their traditional methods of working and with every coming day, lose opportunities to grow. Information is the basis of knowledge which helps societies develop wisdom to take timely and effective measures to make the most out of available resources. 

Bill Clinton once said, "It is dangerously destabilizing to have half the world on the cutting edge of technology while the other half struggles on the bare edge of survival". Who's responsibility is it to bridge the gap? The Government of each country. Who has the capacity? Private companies. The greater the competition between cable network companies, the better and cheaper the technology will be and Adam Smith's invisible hand can take care of the rest. In my opinion, public-private partnerships in this area can immensely help closing this gap. The digital government initiative by the American government can set policy guidelines for developing countries in this area and the model can and should be followed elsewhere. 

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