This year I’ve been talking a lot about the “Digital Divide”. But what is that? And why does it matter?
The “Digital Divide” is basically a term to describe the technological gap which prevents the poorest of the world’s poor from participating in global online conversations that are occurring on the internet.
This is important because what we are doing on the internet is starting to have the power to shape our politics, our governments, our economies, and our own personal priorities, opinions, and tastes.
If the poorest of the poor are excluded from these global conversations, we can only use the internet to make a difference for the poor instead of using the internet to make a difference with the poor.
This is no more clear and apparent when it comes to international aid and development. Everyone from activists, aid professionals, and aid pundits are shaping how the poorest of the poor are served.
These aid discussions – ranging from polite and professional to snarky and snide – are shaping policies and practices on what is (and isn’t) “good aid”. But, due to the digital divide, the poor don’t have a say in this online discourse.
Although I’m no aid expert, I believe there are three things that are needed for the poorest of the poor to be brought into global conversations that directly affect them:
- Charity can’t solve this problem alone: The infrastructure needed to connect low income and remote communities must be laid by either governments or (more realistically) for-profit companies. Similarly, devices that can plug into this infrastructure (like cellphones and low cost PCs) need to be made more affordable. This isn’t about dumping stuff on the poor, but rather making it a viable consumer choice.
- There needs to be an incentive to get connected: Charities and NGOs will need to be a big part of this by giving developing communities a greater say and control in how they receive assistance. I believe using technology to connect donors and recipients together will go a long way to make this less about aid from an institution and more about people on opposite sides of the digital divide helping each other. Why does that even matter? As I’ve talked about before, the distinction between institutions and people can be important in many cultures and contexts.
- Giving an IP address isn’t enough: Just because someone can participate in a global online conversation, doesn’t mean they will. For example, I’ve already written about how conservative Muslims in developing countries will most likely avoid online aid blogger discussions. This is because the snark, sarcasm, and personal attacks occasionally thrown around in that space directly contradict some interpretations on Islamic Codes of Conduct. I believe digital intermediaries – or bridge-makers – can go a long way to foster conversations (and impacts) that are inclusive and free of unintentional ethnocentrism.
This is basically what talked about when I – thanks to you guys – got the opportunity to go to the World Economic Forum. It’s also something I continually talk about whenever I get the chance.
And, while attending the United Nations Foundations’ Social Good Summit, I was asked by Ericsson to pose a question starting with “How Come?”. It was for this campaign they are running. I decided to ask “How Come the Poor Can’t Video Blog?”:
The bottom-line (and perhaps a plus): once the poor start speaking for themselves and we start using the internet to make a difference with them instead of for them, the sooner people like me will have to shut up 🙂