I don’t think anyone of us truly understood the necessity of bridging the digital divide until we were in the middle of a pandemic. The novel coronavirus compelled us to adopt a digital way of life. Individuals, communities, organisations, and governments had to rapidly embrace digitalisation. Digital transformation is helping organisations to ramp up operations and deliver value to customers while challenging the status quo. Technology has also helped governments to track the spread of the virus throughout the globe and take measures to curb it. Digitalisation has allowed telemedicine, remote work, and online education to proliferate and flourish in these stressful times. Even though technology has helped us live our lives better and stay connected virtually, it’s advantages and accessibility is blighted with inequality. The inequalities in digital readiness, especially in developing nations, have greatly impacted the adoption and utilisation of technology to combat business and other disruptions. As technology becomes a critical tool, there is a collective need to elevate the digital skills of people to ensure there is business continuity and life continuity.
The lack of access to the internet and computers have broadened the digital divide between developed and developing countries. Although mobile penetration has reached remote places connecting more than 3 billion people globally, there is inconsistency in the availability and strength of bandwidth across demographic and geographic margins. For smaller and medium-sized businesses, digital platforms can help them remain competitive in a market that has seen them struggling financially throughout the pandemic. It has been hard for small businesses to adopt digital due to the lack of infrastructure to support digital systems and the lack of digital literacy.
The digital divide:
The digital divide is defined as the socioeconomic and demographic inequality in regards to access, use of, and/or impact of information and communication technologies. It affects 52% of women and 42% of men globally. Regionally, in Africa only 39.3% of its inhabitants had Internet access, compared to 87.2% of Europeans and 94.6% of Americans. While some developed nations are preparing to roll out 5G networks across their states, developing nations are struggling to increase their digital literacy rates and maintain 3G and 4G networks.
The digital divide was initially anticipated to disappear with popularisation and lower cost of technology. But the digital divide still exists today despite deeper penetration of the internet and smartphones. The different types of digital divide are:
- Access divide– It represents the lack of access to technological resources. This divide is evident between developed and developing nations, primarily attributed to the socio-economic differences between them. Digital infrastructures require a huge investment which can become a hurdle for poorer countries.
- Use divide– It represents the lack of digital skills. Lack of technical know-how impedes digital learning and digital literacy. Reports have shown that there are 40 countries in which more than half of the population do not know how to attach a file to an email.
- Quality of use divide– This is the result of people having digital skills but not the knowledge or scope to use these skills to use them to alleviate problems.
The consequences of digital divide:
- Lack of communication– Technology has gifted us the social media platforms. They have helped us connect with people like never before. During the lockdown, social media became a critical tool of communication, socialising, and information sharing. Digital technologies drive our daily lives now. The ubiquity of smartphones and internet connectivity has brought the world closer together. The digital divide can hamper the microcosm of connectivity and lead to social isolation, disconnecting people who lack access to technology.
- Barriers to knowledge– When schools and colleges went online, the digital divide impacted those who lacked the technical skills and digital resources, limiting their access to learning and knowledge. Students and teachers struggled to adapt to the new normal and it’s been especially difficult for students from lower socioeconomic status and remote demographic.
- Accentuate social barriers– Digital illiteracy reduces the chances of finding a job and accessing quality employment. This can have a negative impact on the workers’ economic condition.
- Gender discrimination– The digital divide is more discriminate among females than males. Gender inequality seeps into the field of technology as well. Women don’t only earn less than their male peers but also have lesser access to digital education.
The solution to ending the digital divide:
It has been established that digital literacy is a critical component of a country’s economic progress. It is also an important tool to overcome social and cultural barriers. The United Nations has been working to raise awareness about the digital divide and the necessity to bridge the gap through World Information Society Day which has taken place yearly since May 17, 2006. It also set up the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Task Force in November 2001 to increase digital literacy in second and third world countries.
There have been attempts to reduce the digital divide by educational institutions and non-profit organisations. In Texas A&M University, laptop lending kiosks are helping students to learn digital skills. In Durban, South Africa, an online indigenous digital library has been opened as part of public library services. Such projects have the potential to narrow the digital divide by giving the people access to essential digital resources and empowering them with essential skills.
Non-profit organizations like the Gates Foundation have focused on providing more than just access, they placed computers and provided training in libraries to help those struggling to not only have access to computers but also assistance and guidance. Free Basics is an initiative promoted by Facebook and six other technology companies that aims to provide free access to a number of websites through a mobile application. Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) is another program, led by an international coalition of governments, businesses, and civil society, which aims to lower the cost of broadband in specific areas in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
While these programs are working towards building a more digitally equipped world and bridge the gap, there is need for more programs to drive literacy programs in less-favoured areas of internet use to improve their well-being and economic progress.
There are a lot of positive implications of a digitally transformed world. It can benefit the world through increased productivity and efficiency. It’s important to reduce information inequality to ensure that everyone can optimally use technology to learn new skills and get good job opportunities.