How communications technology will bridge the Divide
The definition of literacy changed in the last decade of the 20th century. This new concept of "computer literacy" is an essential tool in everyday modern life. A highly qualified individual -- even one with a doctorate degree -- without the basic knowledge of computers would likely be considered as computer illiterate!
A simple, yet elegant way to define computer literacy is "the ability to achieve desired outcomes via a computer." The tasks comprising computer literacy vary in different environments. For general users, computer literacy can be said to have three components: understanding of basic computing principles, knowing how to use at least one computer operating system, and proficiency with specific software programs.
In most places of business in the modern world, having a computer system is standard practice. Computers are used in auto repair shops to assess cars. In advanced countries, no one finds books in the library by looking in a card catalog. Instead, patrons search the library's computerized database. Doctors' offices utilize computers to store patient information. In most places in those countries, the computer is a basic tool that everyone needs to use. It is in one's best interest to become computer literate.
Computer literacy does not mean one need know how to use every piece of software. It does not mean one need to know how to write programs or network computers. One just needs to know a few basics -- how to open and save a file, how to use a word processing program, and how to send and receive email -- for starters. It means having some level of comfort around computers rather than a look of fear and a feeling of anxiety.
The question arises, how does one become computer literate? A large number of educational centers offer basic computer courses. They are usually reasonably priced and conveniently scheduled. These courses can usually be found in the capital and major towns of the country, on afternoons, evenings and weekends. There are also online courses and tutorials available. Computer literacy is related to a broader concept of information literacy, which can be described as understanding how to assess, interpret, and generate meaningful responses to volumes of data.
Computer proficiency, like foreign language proficiency, takes many hours and in some respects is a lifelong process. Because computer technology changes rapidly, computer users must be continual learners. Those who fail to keep abreast of technological changes will be marginalised and unable to use the hardware/software standards of today. Ten years ago PC DOS Ver. 3.3 and Mac System 6 were mainstream languages; today they are only historical curiosities. In another ten years what languages will dominate? It is almost certain that they will differ from today's standards.
The amount of new information regarding computer technology is so frightening that some people become afraid to learn. Though the "it will be out-of-date in a year or so" mentality is valid in some respects, many basic principles regarding computers haven't changed for decades. By techno-time standards, that's an eternity.
Information and computer literacy, in the conventional sense, are functionally valuable technical skills. But information literacy should in fact be conceived more broadly as a new liberal art that extends from knowing how to use computers and access information to critical reflection on the nature of information itself, its technical infrastructure, and its social, cultural and even philosophical context and impact. It is as essential to the mental framework of the educated information-age citizen as the trivia of basic liberal arts (grammar, logic and rhetoric) was to the educated person in medieval society.
Research statistics show that New York has more telephone connections than all rural Asia. London has more Internet accounts than the whole of Africa. As much as 80 percent of the world's population has never made a phone call. The Internet connects 100 million computers. Yet that represents less than 2 percent of the world's population. Considering the unprecedented enthusiasm with which digital networks are spreading, forecasts say that as many as one billion Internet connections will be lined up worldwide by 2005, three billion by 2010. Theoretically that should connect almost every family and every village on earth's surface.
In practice, growth patterns are extremely uneven, and private Internet connections will remain unavailable to the vast majority of the population in developing countries and transition economies for the foreseeable future. Information systems generate and provide access to knowledge, wealth and power. The persistent inability of the poor to participate in their use can have serious social consequences.
Unlike most other forms of disparity between the privileged and the less fortunate, the disparity in relation to telephone and Internet access has an instantly recognizable and universally used name: "Digital Divide", or simply, "the Divide". This name also reflects the expectation that bridging the Divide, i.e., providing better information access through electronic media, will lead to a dramatic improvement regarding the situation of the poor and underprivileged overall. In fact, historical experience confirms that information technology does play a central role in societal development.
In Argentina, the government launched a $1 billion program for offering personal computer loans to people who can't obtain conventional credit. In Chile, the government completed an ambitious plan to wire all 1,263 public high schools to the Internet, in order to provide access to students of all economic levels. In Brazil, NGOs (non-governmental agencies) have introduced computer courses and Internet connections to hundreds of slums. Simultaneously, computer donations and free connections provided by IT companies have made the Internet more accessible than ever to Latin Americans.
We must look at the whole package of necessary inputs and efforts, apart from the provision of Internet access and some computer training. Transparency about inputs and benefits, also in quantifiable terms, is important for any development initiative, but particularly for those that set out to enable people to make comparisons and choices.
Even enthusiasts do not claim that initiatives to promote access to modern communication technology for the poor typically originate at the grassroots level. More often than not, they are "top-down" approaches, at least initially. The local NGOs that implement them receive support from governments (who, in turn, often use loans and grants from donor organisations such as the World Bank) or from corporate foundations interested in the IT sector.
A Seattle-based non-profit organization, Digital Partners (www.digitaldivide.org), plays a leading role in the worldwide campaign to close the digital divide. It has at present three chapters outside Seattle, two in North America (New York, Vancouver), and one in South Asia (New Delhi). In the advocacy of new information technologies, public and corporate concerns are closely intertwined. This situation offers new opportunities and yields innovative approaches ("public/ private partnerships", "poor/ non-poor coalitions") but also constitutes a particular challenge.
With growing intensity, the information and knowledge revolution is leaving its mark. The "new economy" emerging in industrialised countries suggests that a substantial share of GDP growth is attributable to the information technologies sector. In the developing world, information and communications technologies (ICTs) are proving formidable and cost-effective development tools. Properly used they can reduce poverty; empower people; build capacities, skills and networks; inspire new governance mechanisms and reinforce popular participation at all levels.
The range of applications is limitless, from electronic commerce, to the empowerment of communities, women and youth; from the promotion of good governance and decentralisation, to advocacy programmes, including the observance of human rights; from long-distance education to telehealth and environmental monitoring. The divide runs between North and South, rich and poor, young and old, literate and illiterate, men and women, and urban and rural dwellers. The statistics accompanying this article tell the story in graphic detail.
Immense resources -- both in cash and kind -- are required to create a more level playing field for developing countries in the global knowledge society. Public-private, bilateral and multilateral partnerships hold considerable promises. The private sector should be encouraged to contribute its expertise and resources towards bringing the information revolution to the unconnected and underserved regions of the world. For their part, multilateral and bilateral organisations must match their recognition of the importance of knowledge and information in the development process with much more funding for practical programmes.
Statistical data reveals that India's software exports are expected to grow from $4 billion at present to about $100 billion by 2005. Global demand for specialised IT skills will outstrip supply by 20 percent within the years. The Asia-Pacific PC market, excluding Japan, grew 35 percent in 1999 to 14.1 million units, while the number of Internet users jumped from 12.9 million to 21.8 million; within another five years, the total is expected to reach 95 million. NTT DoCoMo, Japan's mobile phone operator, is the world's largest telecom company with a capitalization of $370 billion. In Bangladesh, an investment of $80 million by Grameenphone has provided cellular phone service to rural areas, covering 100,000 subscribers in 250 villages.
English language skill is a must for using a computer and operating an automation system. Modern computers are products of Western innovation. Most handbooks and guides are prepared in English. The reason for that is twofold: English is unofficially the lingua franca, and secondly, major computers manufacturers are from English-speaking nations. English dominates the Web (80 percent of all Websites are in English), as well as the digital content market, including CD-ROMs. If ICTs are to be mainstreamed in the developing world, and local knowledge is to be shared, content in digitized form must also appear in local languages. The creation of "knowledge broker" and solutions Websites, i.e., one-stop shops with hyperlinked access to structured and pre-selected sites, would help reduce search time as well as usage costs.
To a computer, English is just the translated symbols of 0s and 1s. Consequently, there should be no impediments in developing local language computing systems. Computerized fonts and relevant keyboards have been developed in many non-English languages to enable word processing.
The goal for information technology must be to deliver revolutionary breakthroughs in terms of giving the world's poor access to global economy. We must work towards the day when through the Internet, through distance learning, through cellular phones and wind-up radios, the village elders or the aspiring students will have access to the same information as the finance minister. Communications technology gives us the tool for true participation. This is leveling the playing field. It may bring real equity to information.