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Divided we stand

As a socially conscious, free-thinking African with a will to do good and a keen interest in technology, I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about the issue commonly called the digital divide.

Simply put, it connotes the perceived difference between technology haves and have-nots. The haves are thought to be in a better position since, because of their access to technology, they will somehow enjoy a much better life with greater access to information and opportunities, and thus to wealth. For a while it was a top development priority for the UN, and we saw two high-profile global conferences under the WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society) flag between 2003 and 2005.

Locally, the issue caught the imagination of our president, who, as deputy to Madiba, set up the Presidential National Commission on Information Society and Development (PNC) in 1996. Its primary mandate is to work toward the establishment of government policy framework on information and communication technologies (ICTs).

The opening line on the commission’s website says: “Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have shaped a new world.” If this is the opening gambit of the PNC, then you must question its efficacy. At the outset, I wonder about the extent to which these technologies have “shaped a new world”. Is it really the technology that shapes a world of economic prosperity and social equality? How do you measure the will of a piece of technology? How exactly did the technology leave its creator’s table, roll up its sleeves and get stuck into “shaping” a new world? I guess the PNC is referring to the internet, mobile phones or even ye olde fixed-line telephone. Yes, it too is an ICT. But I digress.

I worry when it is the expectation that technology in some way is able to shape a world. I worry primarily because it hides the real situation. I worry because it disguises the ugly, nasty, reality of inclusion and exclusion. It hides the fact that technologies are actually the outcome of human intention and desire — and are then, in truth, a way for some people to be included and, more maliciously, for many to be excluded. It is not the technology that possesses intentionality, but rather the human wielding the technology. So, perhaps we can rewrite the PNC’s opening statement along the lines of something like: “Some people have shaped a new world using ICTs.”

This was not going to be an attack on the PNC, easy target as it is, but rather a comment on the concerns we should all have about the “digital divide” in a more personal way. So I draw on two of my favourite authors in the area, Golding and Murdock.

In their article entitled “Dismantling the digital divide: Rethinking the dynamics of participation and exclusion”, the authors draw on Bourdieu’s notion of capitals to explain various ways in which “divides” manifest. Instead of defaulting, as most people do, to laying the blame at price as a barrier to adoption, they assert that people need to have certain economic capitals (in the form of free time), social capitals (by way of whom they will be communicating with) and cultural capitals (their knowledge of how to use and apply the technology) before they can start to enjoy the benefits of any ICT.

In this way it becomes easy to understand that digital divides could even exist in families in the sense that the daughter might be expected to help with household chores while the son might be allowed to play computer games instead. You can then extrapolate their argument to any level of society or business — local, national and international. In my opinion, these levels are inextricably linked. To talk in a blanket way about a digital divide between nations ignores the fact that divides exist within a nation and that at any given moment various human actors are using ICTs and other technologies to continue to enforce their dominant position in business, society or culture.

You are then forced to recognise that there is not just one digital divide, but the world is littered with numerous digital divides. Plural.

You are forced to agree that divided we stand.

Kruger was turned down for a job in the PNC in 2005

The book reference
Murdock, G and Golding, P (2004): “Dismantling the digital divide: Rethinking the dynamics of participation and exclusion”, in A Calabrese and C Sparks (eds) Toward a Political Economy of Culture: Capitalism and Communication in the Twenty-First Century, Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield

Another blog on the issue
Seth Godin’s Blog