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Question time: what should be done about the 'digital divide'?

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue July, July 1 - July 31, 2000 | BY UBIQUITY 


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Question Time: What Should Be Done About the "Digital Divide?"

Is there truly a "digital divide" separating the rich-and-wired to the poor-and-unconnected? If there is, what should be done about it? One approach to the problem has been to provide computers and Internet connections to the poor. But the Asahi Shimbun newspaper has urged a different approach, which insists that the key to correcting the digital divide is to eliminate poverty. Here is an excerpt from its editorial on the subject:

"To correct the 'digital divide,' it is most important to make steady efforts and provide assistance to eradicate the poverty of vast numbers of people. Some gadgets may be handy but they will simply be mere white elephants if they are not useful in the daily lives of the people. Economic assistance to developing countries must be in accord with the stages of development in the recipient countries. Information technology will be an effective tool in education and vocational training in Southeast Asian countries. In sub-Sahara countries that are left behind by the globalized economy, AIDS runs rampant and there are endless ethnic and religious conflicts. Those countries must be given comprehensive aid, coupled with such measures as preferential abolition of tariffs and incentives to encourage foreign investment. Information technology can be an instrument to make economic development in the developing countries more efficient. Yet the developed countries should desist from enshrining it as the major item in assistance and talking about unrealistic dreams."

Haves Feed the Have-Nots

As one who has grown up with computers and become part of the "haves," I too am very concerned with this issue. As to solutions, I am going to find out how an effort called "The Hunger Site" ( is organized. When visitors to the site click on a button, the site's sponsors donate a cup of food to help end world hunger. This is a productive use of technology by the "haves" to get basic needs to the "have-nots" that could be expanded to other areas.

-- Charlie Lindahl

The Power Gap

There are many economic, political and cultural issues wrapped up in the digital divide. The facts are: 1) there is a wide gap in computer use between rich and poor countries, and between rich and poor within most countries, and 2) this gap often is a reflection of religious, ethnic and racial distinctions that shadow economic divisions throughout the world. Of course, the digitally advantaged have no right to assume that the digitally disadvantaged "need" digital technology. "Need" is a culturally determined category, whether related to technology or the basic necessities of life. The roots of the issue are not as simple as the chasms separating rich and poor in wealth, education and technology. The basic deficit is the huge gap separating the First and Third Worlds in political power and independence. Third World countries lack the power to control their own resources and future. . . . This power gap is historically derived. It originated through armed conquest, colonization and colonialization of the Third World, and included the enslavement of peoples and the pillage of natural wealth. The legacy of economic and military power supremacy that this history has bequeathed to the First World continues today. There are no easy answers, but the starting point is to remove the heel of oppression from the backs of the oppressed. The next step would be commitment by the former oppressors to make available the economic resources Third World peoples decide they need to determine their own futures. Third World debt relief is only the beginning.

-- Ted Pearson

Divided, Digitally and Otherwise, We Fall

It's interesting how election-year rhetoric can become fact to news media without a shred of evidence. Has it ever been shown that there is a "digital divide," anymore than there is an "automotive divide," a "video divide," or a "vaccination divide?" Yet, we don't have calls for sending every poor person a new Cadillac or Sony TV. Which is more important to people in undeveloped nations, clean water or the ability to order underwear online from Victoria's Secret? While it's obvious that a digital divide is a much sexier campaign issue to some than food, medicine or education, it certainly is less important to the people who go to bed hungry each night. In any case, the author of the editorial from Asahi Shimbun is also off-target. It's unclear to me how favorable tariffs, combined with any amount of economic aid from Western countries, can provide solutions to "endless ethnic and religious conflicts." A case in point would be the Middle East, into which the U.S. pours billions of dollars each year, with no net gain in peace, prosperity or brotherhood. Somehow people believe that because their beliefs can be bought off with money, power and influence, that it is also effective for everyone else. This is simply not the case. Perhaps we should focus on real issues and real solutions for these suffering people, and ignore politicians attempting to garner the spotlight through shady "science" and false hopes.

-- Pete Capelli

Lesson from History

Attempting to solve all the problems of the third world will result in none of the problems being solved. Giving people the tools to get a better education is the best way to solve their problems in the long term. A parallel case may be found in the history of the U.S. civil rights movement. The movement's focus on equality of educational opportunity was the most important factor that changed race relations between then and now.

-- P. Burnstein

Cultural Coercion

I agree completely with the Asahi Shimbun newspaper that eradicating poverty is the only/best route to closing the digital divide. I disagree, however, with the opinion that we should purposefully attempt to close the divide, which amounts to a kind of social/cultural coercion, at worst, and a welfare state, at best. Computers, PDAs, and mobile communications will either "catch on" in other countries, or they won't. The claim that so-called underdeveloped countries would benefit from our devices and habits is a bit presumptuous.

-- Glen P. Ropella

Another Name for Poverty

Asahi Shimbun is correct, there will be a digital divide as long as large groups of people remain poor and ignorant. A man who spends a twelve-hour day behind a water buffalo, and his wife who cares for six small children, are not going to participate in the eBay auctions no matter what kind of computer you give them. In fact, I suspect that the "digital divide" correlates so closely with socio-economic status that it doesn't really deserve a separate name; it's just another facet of poverty. The poor and ignorant, regardless of the reason for their poverty, have neither the means nor the interest to participate in the wired world. There are millions of people in the world who can barely keep themselves and their families alive; it seems frivolous to propose that computer access in and of itself can change this. When they stop being poor and ignorant (which won't happen in four or five years), then they'll get themselves wired.

-- Dan Covill

A Country Divided Against Itself

The digital divide does not exist only between poor and rich countries but also within rich countries where (depending on the country) 10 to 30 percent of people will never use a computer, much less use the Internet. The problem will get worse if education deteriorates in the coming years. There is also another digital divide -- one that separates the people who live ONLY through their computers and the rest of us. But this is another matter that needs another discussion group.

-- Rafael Sala

The Information Chasm

I have seen and lived in several of the so-called "third world" countries; I was born in one. In almost all cases that I have observed, the better part of the country's resources are in the hands of a very few privileged rich who control everything, who deny education to the masses, who hide information and distort that which is given out, who still play on religious feeling which is almost the only comfort a poor man has. This rich and privileged part is the one that is in contact with the "developed world" which, in turn, is full of ruthless and ill-meaning adventurers whose only aim in life is to make as much money as possible. The only real contribution that I foresee is diffusion of true information. In many countries, the very people who "elect" their representatives don't even know what a government is! Many people affected by disease they don't know the diseases originate from their poor hygienic conditions! I don't foresee any diffusion of information taking place, or things changing for the better in the timeframe of my generation.

-- Arif Ishaq
Rome, Italy

Concern about the Healthy People Initiative

I have been deeply concerned about the digital divide and agree the answer is not merely supplying computers. I have been concerned that the Healthy People 2010 initiative appears to assume that the problem will be resolved by 2010 with everybody having computers or their more easily accessible equivalents. They recognize the literacy and poverty problems, but seem to emphasize the technology solutions. Am I missing something? Will somebody please reassure me or suggest what can be done to expand their outlook?

-- Win Sewell

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