Writing a short encyclopedia entry for a revised edition of Elsevier’s International Encyclopedia of Human Geography has provided me with an opportunity to write very succinctly about something dear to my heart – why we should not use terms such as “bridging the digital divide” and “digital leapfrogging”. These are part of the problem and not of the solution. Our use of language really matters. So, here is the draft:
“The latest technologies are almost always designed for advanced markets and the rich who live in them, and are well beyond the means of the poorest. Hence, if these technologies do indeed have benefits associated with them, these will accrue disproportionately to the rich. Poor countries and people are either left to pick up the scraps of remaining older technologies, or have to purchase inferior products at the lower end of the market. The Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence are going to be used in the so-called Smart Cities of the developed world long before they are used at all widely in remote rural villages in Africa or Asia; big data are going to be used by large corporations with the expertise to analyse them, long before they are understood, let alone, used by people in the poorest countries of the world.
This is why terms such as “bridging the digital divide” or “digital leapfrogging”, although widely used, are so inappropriate. When the rich are designing and implementing technologies in their own interests, to move them further ahead of their competitors, the gap or divide between rich and poor becomes yet more difficult to reduce, or bridge; the horizon is always moving further and further into the distance… Moreover, the notion of a “divide” generally implies a binary divide, as in the gender divide, whereas in reality it is complex and multifaceted; it is not one divide, but many. The notion of leapfrogging is also problematic, since it implies benefiting from someone else; using a person’s back to lever an advantage ahead of them. Whilst poor countries have indeed not had to spend their limited resources on outdated technologies, such as copper cable for telecommunications, they generally cannot afford the latest generation of ICTs. If anything, rich countries are leapfrogging ahead of the poor, by benefiting from the expanded market and lower labour costs that they provide. The low rates of taxation paid by US corporations such as Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon from the profits generated in poorer countries, are but one instance of such practices…”.