Re-conceptualizing Digital Divide

With the outburst of Internet technology in the mid-nineties, the notion of digital divide came into existence. It can be classified into two categories: external divide and internal divide. External divide (inter-country) can be defined as a digital gap between developed and developing countries and internal divide (intra-country) can be defined as a digital gap between urban and rural areas. However, the initial concept of digital divide was narrowly focused on the gap between have and have-nots, for instance, those who have access to computers and internet services and those who do not have. In the beginning, mass diffusion of Internet in the developing countries has been promoted to reduce the internal and external digital gap. Unfortunately, accessibility to internet was rather misunderstood as economic and social change. Mark Warschauer (2004) in his book Technology and Social Inclusion illustrated that many information and communication technology (ICT) development projects failed due to narrow conceptualization of digital divide in developing countries vis-à-vis developed countries. Mark presented one example of an Indian project launched in New Delhi known as Hole-in-the-Wall. The objective of this project was to provide computer access to the city’s street children. They fixed five-station computer kiosk inside a booth with monitors shown through holes. The computers were without keyboard with special joysticks and buttons that substituted for the computer mouse. The computers were connected to the internet through dial-up access and operated by a volunteer inside the booth. They wanted to experiment minimally invasive education, therefore, there were no instructors. The idea was to allow 24 hour computer access to the street children so that they can learn at their own pace and speed. Initially, the project was hailed by researcher and government agencies. Huge numbers of children flocked to the site to learn basic computer operations such as MS office, and internet browsing. However, after conducting an empirical research, the reality turned out to be different. There were many shortcomings in the project such as frequent occurrence of technical problems, lack of context-sensitive contents in their native language; moreover, children spent most of their time in drawing with paint programs and playing computer games. Likewise, the hidden architecture of the computer stations made it difficult to supervise, instruct, and collaborate with other community organizations. Even the parents from the community complained that kiosk was harmful to their children because they spent more time on playing computer games instead of doing schoolwork. The example shows that providing only computers to rural people is not a solution for social improvisation. Therefore, the digital divide should not be counted by number of internet connections; however, it should be analyzed taking into account how technology interventions have been used to amplify the best social practices.

Therefore, the researchers have re-conceptualized the concept of digital divide in a broader term. Re-conceptualization of digital divide, besides technological gap, contains the intersection of socio-economic status, gender, age, language and geographic location. In addition, it refers to the cultural dimension, inadequate infrastructure, and shortage of manpower. Broader interpretation of digital divide also include cognitive issues such an attitude of community people towards technology and their daily usage patterns.There is a need to offer community oriented meaningful computer courses instead of delivering particular software programs. We need to involve the community organizations in designing the context based curriculum. Mere rendering the software training is not sustainable in the long run. Instead of making donor oriented or politics oriented IT policies, it should be more people oriented. There is a dearth of people oriented IT policies which really make a difference in people’s lives. Fast spreading policies such as providing computer training to mass population can be attractive for pulling funds; however, sustainable development comes from the slow and effective penetration of the technology. Indeed, we need to consider both the factors and find the middle way to use the technology for mass dissemination and penetration. For instance, rural teachers might learn how to create their own technology-based materials based on local conditions rather than only using commercial software developed for other contexts. A crafts cooperative might learn how to develop and manage its own web site rather than posting its announcements on somebody else’s. Nongovernmental organizations might learn to establish and run their own networks of telecenters rather than just attending cyber cafes. Therefore, to bridge the broader digital gap and to provide meaningful ICT access, consideration of social context, social purpose, and social organization are significant irrespective of developed or developing countries. Otherwise, how could be know the impact of ICT on society without any consideration of the social context in which computers are used. Although the cheap cost of computer devices can make it affordable to the poor people, social structures are crucial in determining who is able to access any technology and use it beneficially. In the context of Nepal, the role of leadership, vision, and local “champions” are crucial to the success of ICT for development projects. We should not repeat the mistake to overemphasizing the role of computer experts rather than of the best community leaders, educators, cooperative societies, micro financing firms and NGOs. Those who are capable of managing complex social projects to foster innovative, creative and social transformation will likely be able to learn to integrate technology into this task. For instance, to provide community based public access by NGOs such as e-Village in India, also, provide an opportunity with micro financing activities to rural ICT entrepreneur like Grameen Bank project in Bangladesh. In developing countries, it is neither feasible nor possible to provide computers to each and every rural community members, therefore, the intermediate organizations based on public private partnership (PPP) such as NGOs can operate community information services known as telecenters, equipped with computers, internet connection, fax and telephone. These community information service centers can retrieve meaningful information on health, agricultural product prices, educational material, or the government policies and disseminate the same to the rural communities.

In conclusion, pessimist society has blamed ICT for bringing the digital gap; on the other hand, the same ICT can be an efficient and effective tool to bridging the broader external and internal digital gap. Indeed, providing laptop to each child is not the only solution, the participation requires more than just physical access to computers and connectivity. They should be able to access the requisite skills and knowledge, and contents should be based on local context and language, furthermore, requires community and social support to be able to use ICT for meaningful ends. As Mark Warschauer stated that the tasks are large, but so is the challenge: reducing marginalization, poverty, and inequality and enhancing economic and social inclusion for all.

This article has been published in the Nepalnews.com (29-01-10)


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