Why we shouldn’t use terms such as “bridging the digital divide” or “digital leapfrogging”


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  Whilst poor countries have indeed not had to spend their limited resources on outdated technologies, such as copper cable for telecommunications, they generally cannot afford the latest generation of ICTs.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…”.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Why we shouldn’t use terms such as “bridging the digital divide” or “digital leapfrogging”

  1. Coincidentally, and inspired by your presentation in Sarawak, and your book, at UNIMAS we are assembling short videos for possible development into a MOOC for ICT4D. Here’s the script introducing the Digital Divide.

    The digital divide refers to the gap between people who have access to information and communication technologies (ICT) and those who do not. Since the inception of the internet, scholars and international organizations such as the World Bank, the United Nations and the International Telecommunications Union, have expressed their concern that people without access to ICTs will miss out on the benefits that such access can provide. They recognised the value that information has in efforts to improve aspects of human development such as education, health, agriculture, employment, democracy and human rights.

    It became a hot topic in the mid-1990s when President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore began talking about it. Subsequently, the focus shifted to the developing world, where governments began to form policies for ICTs for national development, including the reduction of poverty. At that time, the divide was conceptualised mostly in terms of access to technology, with a great deal of attention being paid to the proportions of populations that had access to the internet compared to those that didn’t; and the underlying assumption that people without access were missing out on something important.

    However, as we began to better understand the outcomes of using the internet, it became clear that providing access to it alone would not deliver the benefits that were anticipated. People need a wide range of skills to make good use of ICTs as well as a good understanding of how they might provide benefits in their day-to-day lives. In the rush to spread access to the technology, many of these factors were poorly accounted for or even ignored. Nevertheless, there were many national and international initiatives that persisted with this most simplistic view of the digital divide – often driven by commercial or political motivations. In their Technocratic Approach to the problem, it is believed that social inequalities are overcome by technology.

    Others have adopted a different view of the digital divide. They see it in terms of the consequence of a problem rather than its cause. This view emerged from the observation that technologies are mostly benefiting those who are already privileged and are widening the gap between them and the poorer and under served communities. The reason for this lies, they say, in the inequalities that already exist in society and that the digital divide is just another one of them. Accordingly, with the Inequality Approach to the digital divide, social inequality should be the starting point of any programme aimed at reducing poverty and marginalisation. In the absence of wider considerations of inequality, ICTs will be destined to heap benefits onto the privileged and will further increase the gap between them and the marginalised sections of society.

    Sadly, the Inequality Approach to the digital divide struggles to be heard. With the global spread of mobile phones, where two-thirds of the world’s population now has a mobile phone connection, many people claim that the digital divide no longer exists. However, they ignore the evidence that economic growth in which ICTs play a fundamental role, is actually increasing inequality not reducing it, and that this is happening both between developed and under developed countries as well as within them. Global technology corporations, and the international agencies that serve their agendas, are pushing the Technocratic Approach as hard as they can to serve their own interests and those of their shareholders. Therefore, if ICTs are to have a real impact on reducing inequality, national policies and professional development practices need to be re-aligned towards the needs, aspirations and opportunities within marginalised communities for deploying ICTs towards genuine improvements in their lives.

    • Tim Unwin

      Thanks so much Roger! So glad there are a few of us who keep the clarion call of inequality always in our minds. Yes, I so often feel that I am in a very small minority at international gatherings – but we must always seek to represent the voices and lives of the poorest and most marginalised. Thank you too for all that you have done to put these things into practice.

  2. Nancy Hafkin

    An excellent piece!! Thanks for sharing it.

    >

  3. amitpariyar

    Very insightful . Thank you for sharing. This probably means that gap will continue to grow and will favor the rich. Just wondering how can the poor countries ever catch up with the rich… or should poor countries really follow what developed countries have already achieved .. .or could there be independent growth trajectories …

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