The rapid growth of digital technology, often referred to as information and communications technologies (ICTs) in a broader sense has largely reshaped our daily lives and how we interact globally. The internet has become one of the most fundamental and vital infrastructures around the world. According to the World Economic Forum, each additional 10 percent of internet penetration can lead to a 1.2 percent increase in per capita GDP growth in emerging economies.

The advent of World Wide Web has significantly contributed to the diffusion of ICTs, mostly due to the rapid information exchange. Everyday life changes occur in terms of communication, entertainment, learning, shopping and education. People join into processes that alter not only many aspects of their lives but themselves, too. This is the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) or the Digital Era.

Moreover, in the 4IR or the Digital Era, diffusion of ICTs among firms is widely considered to be one of the primary factors behind their economic growth. E-marketing activities, online sales, as well as work flow automation and resource planning have been fostered considerably. Even though a widespread technology boom is being witnessed, with innovative services and applications able to be rapidly spread through the Internet, the adoption of ICTs is distributed unevenly.

According to a recent World Bank Report, digital technologies have fundamentally reshaped our lives by expanding the base of information, reducing the costs for information sharing, transmission and acquiring, and bringing innovation that lead to the greater connectivity among people, businesses and governments.

Equally there has also been a tendency, amongst the more advanced countries, and among technology enthusiasts and some educators, to assume that the whole world is connected to the Internet. However, Internet statistics show that only about 6-8 percent of the world’s six billion population is connected to the Internet. Approximately 92 percent of the world is not connected to, nor uses, the Internet.

The erroneous assumption of universal connectivity is not simply a statistical mistake. Governments, corporations, community organizations, and individuals make many incorrect decisions, with sometimes dramatic and far-reaching consequences, on the basis of the assumption that most of the world is connected to the Internet. Not only is the vast majority of the world not connected to the Internet, most people do not even have the computers, skills, experience, interest, or awareness to become connected.

The disconnected are not randomly distributed, but have specific demographic, social, economic, racial, ethnic, gender, and political characteristics that amount to a systematic bias of exclusion, often referred to as the ‘Digital Have-Nots’.

Similarly, the connected are not randomly distributed, but possess particular demographic, social, economic and political characteristics making up what has become known as the ‘Digital Haves’. The separation, chasm, abyss, canyon, gulf, or distance between the ‘Digital Haves’ and ‘Digital Have-Nots’ has become known as the ’Digital Divide’.

It is a fact that, different groups of people are more or less privileged in accessing and using technology. As digital revolution spreads rapidly the notion of digital divide becomes even more substantial and therefore gains an increased interest for observation from researchers and policy makers.

New information and communication technologies also contribute to the restructuring of relationships of production and distribution and connect people and places across the globe in new ways. Concerns have also emerged regarding the formation of a new inequality between those who can access and make use of these new technologies and those who cannot.

The digital divide is a new frontier where social inequalities are shaping and being shaped by the latest development of technology. Social inequality has been increasing both in developed and developing countries since the 1990s. At the same time, the internet has grown exponentially.

Yet, the diffusion of the internet is extremely uneven. As William Gibson, a Futurist, put it, “The future is here already and it just isn’t evenly distributed”.

The divide, however, which refers to the gap in usage and access to digital infrastructure and services between individuals, households, businesses or geographical areas, remains significantly wide for emerging economies. More specifically, it affects certain population segments, for instance low-income and rural communities, due to the lack of digital infrastructure, affordability and skills.

At the global level, there is a huge digital divide between developed and developing nations. For instance, the World Economic Forum asserts that while 10 percent of the world population was online in 2002, 88 percent of them were residents in industrialised countries. Within national states, the uneven diffusion of the internet appears along the familiar fault lines of social inequality such as socio-economic status, gender, age, ethnicity, and geographic location.

There are many ways in which social inequality shapes internet access and use. Hence, the digital divide is a multi-level and multi-dimensional social phenomenon, affected by social inequalities at the global, national, community and individual levels. These multiple digital divides vary according to the characteristics of countries, such as their different levels of economic development. Data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) shows that school enrolment, education attainment, newspaper readership, and language diversity are important indicators of knowledge-based barriers to internet access and use.

Even a World Bank report that highlights a growing digital divide between rich and poor, avers that the rapid spread of the internet and mobile phones around the globe has failed to deliver the expected boost to jobs and growth. However, the report states the benefits of rapid digital expansion had been skewed towards the better-off and the more highly skilled, who were better able to take advantage of the new technologies.

The Report further asserts that digital technologies are transforming the worlds of business, work and government and it is a collective global responsibility to connect everyone and leave no one behind, because the cost of lost opportunities is enormous. Towards this end countries will also need to improve their business climate, invest in people’s education and health, and promote good governance.

Another report by the World Bank claims that the effect of technology on global productivity, expansion of opportunity for the poor and middle class, and the spread of accountable governance had been less than expected. Digital technologies were spreading rapidly, but digital dividends, especially, growth, jobs and services had lagged behind.

This report stresses that whilst achievements of the digital era are to be celebrated, this is also occasion to be mindful that we do not create a new underclass. The report opines that the digital divide should be closed by making the internet universal, affordable, open and safe. It also notes that delivering the development potential of new technology would require regulations to ensure competition among business, action to improve skills, and more accountable institutions.

This challenge means that internet users in emerging economies cannot create added value even when they have access to the internet, ICT devices and applications. Although conditions to ensure physical access to the internet are essential, they are not sufficient alone to achieve the ‘full benefits’ of digital technology.

Without proper education and skill training, the potential of digital technology cannot be fully tapped. Therefore, digital literacy is key to enable citizens and companies to use the internet and foster a deeper integration of digital technologies into business and public services.

Stronger attention should be drawn to the necessary conditions to develop the knowledge and the shared competence necessary to achieve a more inclusive digital economy. This means that digital technology is neutral. Its potential cannot be released without coordinated efforts from human organisations, i.e. governments, industry, civil society organisations and academics.

Finally, we have to acknowledge that the internet is a powerful tool that can do positive or negative things and it all depends on the way it is harnessed. Closing the digital divide may play a critical role in the development of the emerging economies, as it can improve the social and economic equality, favour social mobility of people and boost innovation and economic growth. Failure to do so could lead to further inequalities.

Paresh Soni is Associate Director for Research at the Management College of Southern Africa (MANCOSA) and writes in his personal capacity

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