“Hell, [the internet’s] barely fast enough to check your email…you hit the button and you wait five minutes. Then you hit it again and get a snack…”
For those ‘mature’ enough to remember the days of dial-up, this quote evokes memories of the excited anticipation of the screech and whir of signing on to AOL, and the maddening frustrations of slow speeds. The internet then was tangential to the basics of everyday life – a luxury that afforded a new layer of connectivity and access to information, so we accepted the slow connectivity as an inherent characteristic of this novel invention.
Fast forward some 20-30 years and internet has become a necessity. As we are all aware, COVID highlighted this in the seismic shifts in which we access everything from banking to healthcare, to school & work “from home.” Now imagine trying to take an online exam with internet that takes 5 minutes to load/refresh!
The intertwining of our lives with technology and the internet has been rapid, and vastly uneven in how it has impacted different segments of society (geographic, socio-economic, race, age, disability, etc), leading to what has been coined the digital divide. Case in point: the above quote wasn’t dug up from the archives of the ‘90s, but rather describes the current-state of internet just four years ago in Appalachia[i]. The author asserts that “the collective deficit in opportunity, education and prospects – everything implied in ‘being connected’ – further separates us into haves and have-nots.”[ii] It’s difficult to disagree with this, and in such an increasingly connected and informed world, difficult to not feel responsible for ensuring more is done to correct the dichotomy. Yet others may point to previous disruptions throughout history, like the Industrial Revolutions, as emblematic of this exact period of transition as inevitable and perhaps necessary to spur the types of new innovations or programs to address these gaps, as previously valued skills or workplace norms give way to a new order.
The digital divide is too complex & multi-faceted to provide the comprehensive assessment it deserves in this blog. I was inspired to highlight the subject, and hopefully spark reflection and discussion, by two recent articles that I felt presented examples from opposing camps on the role of tech in widening or narrowing the deficit.
Tech excludes even further the already most marginalized communities?
This article highlights the possibilities and shortfalls of digitization, largely when systems and governments fail to take into account the realities of their citizens’ lifestyles and circumstances.
India’s national biometric identification system, Aadhaar, affords citizens “instant proof of identity and residence” (kind of like the Blockchain contracts we discussed!). Yet, “precisely because of India’s size and poverty, tens of millions still are left out – because they are poor, illiterate, disabled, lack electricity, do not possess a smartphone or cannot connect to a mobile or Wi-Fi network.” Tragically, because government food subsidies are linked to Aadhaar, some citizens have starved to death due to the inability to access their digital information.
Another impactful example presents the lack of foresight in seeking to digitize one of India’s most successful social programs, anganwadis (a network of preschools that also provides meals). Presumably in a bid to centralize and streamline the collection of data, the government mandated workers to use a new smartphone app to upload classroom data, with severe consequences for failure to comply: “suspension of wages and food supplies, threatening a vital source of nutrition for India’s poorest children.” What they did not take into account was the difficulty in using the app (e.g. it was only in English which most workers did not understand), and the fact that many did not have cellphones, or phones that would support the app, let alone access to connectivity.
Tech actually creates opportunities for greater access/inclusion?
Meanwhile in Latin America, optimistic economists, investors and entrepreneurs view tech as an opportunity to narrow the digital divide by eliminating institutional, governmental and societal roadblocks that previously prevented or deterred marginalized or disadvantaged communities from accessing such basic services as bank accounts, or secure methods to rent apartments or buy used cars.
Marcelo Claure, Bolivian-born COO of Softbank, sums the opportunity up succinctly: “there is so much room to improve people’s lives in LatAm because all systems are inefficient and plagued by bureaucracy…huge opportunities for tech to disrupt.”
A statistic in the article states that“before the pandemic, more than half of the region’s citizens did not use a bank. In just a few months from May to September last year, 40M people opened a bank account.” Depending on how you size the market, that’s a little over a 12% increase in bank account holders of the population who did not previously use a bank; on average, 3% growth per month vs. the 3-5% per year in preceding years through 2019. For many, opening a bank account was spurred by the need to be able to access the government stimulus spending so it remains to be seen if this accelerated pace of adoption heralds a new trend, or we’ll see a plateau and perhaps even decline in adoption despite the advent of such consumer-friendly bank alternatives like Nubank.
Of course it’s important to note that despite this increase, that still leaves nearly 300M citizens in the category of those who don’t or cannot use a bank, and there is still a long runway in the region for digitization in general (e.g. 20% of commerce is done online, vs. 70% in China and 50% in the US).
What do you think?
- In this information age, is it incumbent upon corporations or government to address the digital divide?
- Should we let history take its course and presume that this transition period will ‘correct’ itself by giving rise to new innovations that best address the divide by serving the distinct needs of different populations?
- Do you think digital disruption will actually spur more innovation that will ultimately enable greater access to opportunities, jobs, education, etc?
[i] “The Digital Divide: A Quarter of the Nation is Without Broadband” Time Magazine, Karl Vick, 3/30/2017, The Digital Divide: A Quarter of the Nation Is Without Broadband | Time