The Unwired Side of the Digital Divide

by: Faye Ginsberg / NYU

Today, as I write, the United Nations is inaugurating a long awaited program, a “Digital Solidarity Fund”, that will underwrite initiatives that address “the uneven distribution and use of new information and communication technologies” and “enable excluded people and countries to enter the new era of the information society”. What this might mean in practice – which digital technologies might make a significant difference and for whom and with what resources — is still an open and contentious question. Debates about The Fund at the first meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in December 2003, are symptomatic of the complexity of “digital divide” issues that will no doubt be central to second phase of the information summit scheduled for November 2005 in Tunisia.

Terms such as the Digital Age and the Digital Divide, continue to shape our sense of the world and drive markets for ever greater consumption of the latest digital technologies. Yet, according to statistics from the 2005 World Economic Forum in Davos, only 12% of the world is currently “wired” and only 16% have access to telephone land lines (though cell phone technology is rapidly spreading). Digerati may see those numbers as opportunities for new markets. But for an anthropologist who has spent a good portion of her career looking at the uptake of media in remote parts of the world, the unexamined First-Worldism that has underwritten assumptions about the digital age and its inequalities is discouraging. I am not suggesting that the massive shifts in communication, sociality, knowledge production, and politics that the internet enables are simply irrelevant to the world’s poor and remote communities. My concern here is with how the language smuggles in a set of assumptions that paper over cultural and economic differences in the way things digital may be taken up, if at all, in radically different contexts, and thus serve to further insulate thinking against recognition of alterity that different kinds of media worlds present.

Some iconic cases might provide counterpoints of hopeful possibilities, in a futuristic nostalgic mode. In an article in the NY Times (1/27/04) entitled Digital Pony Express links up Cambodia, James Brooks, describes the work of MIT’s Media Lab and the American Assistance for Cambodia group in O Siengle, Cambodia, a village of less than 800 people on the edge of the forest, a location that is emblematic of life for millions of Asians. Through the Motoman project, the village connects its new elementary school to the Internet. Since they have no electricity or phones, the system is powered by solar panels. Once a day, a ‘Motoman’ rides his red motorcycle with a Wi-Fi chip, around the school, creating a temporary Internet hot spot, enabling e-mail to be up and downloaded. He then takes the data to the provincial capital where a satellite dish allows bulk e-mail exchange with the outside world.

Tellingly, this story was in the Business Section, suggesting that part of its charm is the possibility of new markets. In such stories, the Digital Divide, even as it wants to call well-intentioned concern to inequities, invokes neo-developmentalist language which assumes that less privileged cultural enclaves with little or no access to digital resources – from the South Bronx to the global south — will simply be “left behind” without such attention from epicenters such as the MIT Media Lab.

Remarkably, there are new and unexpected allies to my concerns. Microsoft founder Bill Gates, once the personification of new media evangelism, had, by 2000, demonstrated a remarkable change of heart, offering a serious critique of the idea of the digital divide and its capacity to blind people to the reality of the conditions of the globe’s poorest people. As he put it in a speech in 2000 at a conference entitled Creating Digital Dividends:

O.K., you want to send computers to Africa, what about food and electricity — those computers aren’t going to be that valuable. The mothers are going to walk right up to that computer and say, “my children are dying, what can you do?” They’re not going to sit there and like, browse eBay or something.

Rather than giving out computers, Gates’ priorities for his Foundation are now with health care, in particular the development and distribution of vaccines which account for two-thirds of the grants made.

In their current cover story, no less an advocate for the spread of free enterprise than The Economist features a rethinking of the term (and terms of) The Real Digital Divide, along with a compelling photo of a young African boy holding an ersatz cell phone made of mud to his ear Its lead opinion piece, states that “the debate over the digital divide is founded on a myth — that plugging poor countries into the internet will help them to become rich rapidly … So even if it were possible to wave a magic wand and cause a computer to appear in every household on earth, it would not achieve very much: a computer is not useful if you have no food or electricity and cannot read.”

Ideas about what the digital age might offer look different from the perspective of people struggling to manage to make ends meet on a daily basis. Some qualitative studies suggest that radio and cell phones may be the forms of digital technology that make the difference, once basic needs are addressed. It seems that terms like the digital divide too easily foreclose discussion about what the stakes are for those who are out of power. Rather than imagining that we know the answers, clearly, we need to keep listening the 88% of the earth’s population that is on the unwired side of the so-called digital divide.

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