Saturday, December 18, 2010

How to solve the digital divide - do nothing

There's still talk, from time to time, about the digital divide between internet users and those without internet access.

It is said that the divide will produce a long-term group of privileged people with ready access to the world, while leaving those in remote areas, with low literacy or low incomes, trapped in a cycle of poverty.

I've long been a sceptic about this divide. The internet is still a relatively young technology and is evolving rapidly, as are our tools for access it. I see the divide shrinking rapidly and naturally as competitive pressures generate innovation and reduce access costs.

Kevin Kelly, a noted technology thinker, old Whole Earth editor and co-founder of Wired, shares my scepticism in his book, What technology wants.

He points out that it is more of a case of the 'haves' and 'have-laters'. When a technology is first introduced it is adopted by, well, the first adopters. These people are interested in the technology for the technology's sake - often before its uses become clear.

They are willing to pay more for the (barely-functional new) technology to experiment and innovate and through their investment of money and time help grow the technology's range of uses and attractiveness to the broader community.

Over time the technology, if it suits a communal purpose, becomes more useful, usable and cheaper. More and more people jump on it. At some point it reaches critical mass and those who are using it outnumber those who do not.

At this time there's a brief surge of concern over the 'divide' between those using the technology and the advantages they may be getting over those not using it, then the remaining 'have nots' finally start using it - or opt out altogether and talk about the divide disappears.

This happened with telephones, mobile phones, televisions, cars, sewing machines, computers and many other technologies. We're simply following the same curve with internet.

Kelly says that,

"the fiercest critics of technology still focus on the ephemeral have-and-have-not divide, but that flimsy border is a distraction. The significant threshold of technological development lies between commonplace and ubiquity, between the have-laters and the 'all-have'."

He says that instead what we need to worry about what we are going to do when everyone is online.

"When the internet has six billion people, and they are all e-mailing at once, when no one is disconnected and always on day and night, when everything is digital and nothing offline, when the internet is ubiquitous. That will produce unintended consequences worth worrying about." 

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