The Two Digital Divides

Tracking interesting signals, ideas and questions in the field of economics and society at large.

The term “digital divide” has two meanings: one refers to the metaphorical distinction between online and offline worlds; the other, to the socio-economic gap between those who have access to the internet and those who do not.

As ubiquitous smartphone usage erases the former divide—wherever we go, we are online and offline simultaneously—the distinction between those “on the grid” and those off it becomes all the more decisive. When everyday life is increasingly defined by network communications and the attendant gains in social and cultural capital, we are at risk of developing two socio-economic mega-classes: the digital and the undigital.

While the International Telecommunications Union claimed a global mobile phone penetration of over 95% in June 2013, in developing countries one must also take into consideration:

  1. The affordability of devices
  2. The quality and “smartness” of devices available
  3. The strength, extent, and affordability of bandwidth (infrastructure)
  4. Literacy and language barriers
  5. Computer and internet competency (“digital literacy”)
  6. Battery life and charging infrastructure

As Lizzie Wade writes for Wired, “it’s not enough to democratize the hardware by making the phones themselves super cheap. You have to democratize the infrastructure, the network itself.”

According to the ITU the percentage of worldwide internet users in 2014 was an estimated 40%—with only 32% in the developing world and 19% in Africa. And according to the Global System for Mobile Communications Association, or GSM, 1.6 billion people in rural parts of the developing world don’t have access to mobile networks.

Attempts to redress the issue have been ham-fisted., a platform created by Mark Zuckerberg to provide free internet to the developing world, has faced criticism by human rights groups internationally. A coalition of 65 civil rights groups from 31 different countries claimed that it violates basic principles of security, privacy, and net neutrality. In Motherboard, Jason Koebler writes, “As it's currently set up, allows people to access websites from a smartphone without a data plan, but very few sites (including Facebook) are actually accessible… You don't have to be all that paranoid to see it more as a play to indoctrinate the developing world into a Facebook-controlled internet, which is exactly what's happened in places like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, where many people believe that Facebook is the internet.”

Quoting Josh Levy, advocacy director at Access, Kobler writes that “‘The platform creates a two-tier internet that exacerbates, rather than bridges, the digital divide.’”

More promising than (at least as it currently stands) are the innovations and improvisations in developing countries to meet local needs. Text-message-based money-transferring systems, such as M-PESA in Kenya, make it safer and easier to send, receive, and store money as well as pay bills and purchase goods. (With M-PESA, one doesn’t even need a mobile phone of one’s own—merely a SIM card and phone access.) In the Sierra Juárez, in Mexico, “artisanal cell phone installations” welded out of scrap metal and based on open-source 2G network technology help bring mobile service to remote and mountainous regions that don’t stand a chance at luring commercial providers.

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