The Digital Divide : Causes and Symptoms

Bridging the Digital Divide appears to be the stock in trade heading these days of too many reports and conferences and meetings. Every blessed project name seems to have a e- prefixed to it. From e-governance to e-learning to e-this, e-that, e-the-other. It is all very e-boring. One wonders as to the e-cause and therefore I think we should do a bit of e-seeking for some e-explanation.

The next time I see another e-scheme, I will be ready to e-scream.

Seriously, here are what I believe to be the reason for this fixation with the so-called digital divide, in no particular order. First, it is a simple case of ‘to a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.’

Practically everyone involved with anything to do with development (except the direct beneficiaries of development) has some facility with ICT. So therefore they start to believe that every problem has a solution that is ICT related.

The next explanation is what I call the bank robber phenomenon. When some famous bank robber was asked why he robbed banks, he simply replied because that’s where the money was. ICT projects are the most lavishly funded. And therefore, it attracts the most attention from people who would like to get a piece of the action.

Another part of the explanation is what I call the drunk looking for his key scenario. A man evidently drunk was seen searching for something under a lamp post. When asked he said that he lost his keys under the trees over there. But why was he searching for them under the lamp post? “Because,” he said, “it is easier to look for it under the light.”

Definitely, part of the explanation has to involve simply not recognizing that the digital divide is merely symptomatic of some other underlying cause. But it is too bothersome to seek to understand that cause. And even if the cause is as plain as daylight, it may be too difficult to deal with the cause. So one gets busy addressing the symptom.

Addressing only one symptom (the digital divide) while neglecting to understand the causes leads to spectacles that are reminiscent of the south seas cargo cults.

During the war, the natives of some South Pacific islands had noticed a curious phenomena. They had witnessed some people prepare a long piece of land and mark it with flares and fires. Then someone with cups on his ears would talk into a device and soon planes would land in the clearing and disgorge cargo. When the war was over, the natives decided that they needed cargo. So they made headphones out of coconut shells and radio receivers out of bamboo and lit the fires around the clearings. They haven’t had much sucess in getting cargo yet, but they believe that the cargo would appear just as soon as they can duplicate the equipment better.

I do not believe that merely going through the motions, however sincerely, of bringing ICT to rural populations would magically transform the rural economy. Focusing on the digital divide could indeed be counter productive in that resources that could have been better employed would be wasted in inappropriate ventures.

I should hasten to add that there is indeed a digital divide. But we must also recognize that there are other divides as well, such as a nutritional divide, a gender divide, an income divide, an education divide, and so on. All these divides are interrelated and there are strong dependencies. It is a second best world out there and it is easy to fall into the trap of seeking first-best solutions in a second-best world.

I will discuss why I believe that ICT tools are most suited to address the complex set of problems which cause all the divides, including the digital divide. My contention is this: we need to focus on the understanding the underlying reasons for the underdevelopment of rural areas. Having done that, we then need to figure out the best use of our limited resources to bring to bear the most appropriate tools for addressing the causes. If we do that, then we would have bridged all the divides, including the much talked about digital divide. It may turn out that ICT tools are the most appropriate in many areas. But a priori assuming that ICT tools are always appropriate is silly and sometimes tragically too expensive.

For now, I cannot find a more succinct depiction of the misplaced emphasis on the digital divide than this cartoon by the incomparable R K Laxman.
“I am hungry … if we had a computer, we could have ordered food through a website.” }

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