The Great Digital Divide or Equalizer?

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…”

The Slowskys

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?

India’s high-tech governance risks leaving behind its poorest citizens | The Economist (bc.edu)

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?

How Latin America became tech’s next big frontier | Financial Times (ft.com)

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

[ii] Ibid

9 comments

  1. Really good article and topic here. Reminds me of an issue that came up in my article about remote learning a few weeks back about how access to internet drove inequities in who succeeded in remote learning. This post builds on that and personally I believe we are at a point where access to internet should be considered a public good. Internet no longer is just a convenience, it’s a necessity. So many aspects of everyday life no require access to the internet. I think of internet as a public good in the same way as first class main with the USPS. First class mail costs the same wherever you send it within the USA, whether that’s in the middle of densely populated NYC or a small town in rural Wyoming. As a country we’ve decided that access to first class mail should be the same wherever you live even though economically it would be much more costly to maintain in rural areas. Internet in my opinion should be the same thing. Where you live should not play a factor into whether or not you have access to internet and what the cost of that internet is.

  2. I agree with @rjperrault3‘s comment on the internet should be considered a public good. The digital transformations you cited disrupt the status quo – a situation where potentially powerful players lose that power and grant more power to the masses. I also think of how remote work has opened up opportunities for employers to hire outside of major urban areas (tech companies hiring outside of Silicon Valley) as a positive, but the other side of that argument is then labor can be outsourced. (And I empathize with dial-up – I shared one dial-up computer with siblings meaning I had to fight for time online, and hope it actually worked.) What do you think the next generation will consider extremely outdated that we use today 20 years from now?

    1. Oooh great question! That should be a topic for class discussion. I don’t think I’m technologically savvy enough to opine, but I think the idea of ‘buffering’ or sites crashing due to volume will become a completely foreign concept to future generations, especially as mobile edge computing proliferates. Maybe there won’t even be a need for something that we consider completely essential, like keyboards?

  3. Another vote in agreeance with @rjperrault3! I take the economist’s point of view in thinking we should let the process correct itself. Markets perform better and more efficiently when left to respond to consumer preferences. Sure, there will be drawbacks along the way, but the market can correct itself much quicker if there is little to no intervention from the government. As you mention, consider the vast improvements society has already made since the dial-up age without the extra red tape and roadblocks!

    Great post, Christina!

  4. In the short a medium term I think it will continue to be a source of disparity but I hope it corrects itself over the long run. But technology will always carry with this capacity for haves and have nots. As a general rule though I think it is of net benefit to most so despite the disparities which are more a broad societal problem rather than one inherent to the digitization process itself.

  5. I think this a great open question, and one that’s absolutely worthy of a discussion in ISYS8621. We’ll touch on this a little toward the end of class with a section on the social and ethical implications of digital technology, we can certainly start to consider these issues now. Nice post!

  6. To your point about innovations to help counter these imbalances – an interesting study would be to just look here in the US. I think Starlink (an Elon Musk company) is the best way of providing internet to more remote or under-developed areas, and will be more efficient than laying millions of miles of cable. That being said, you still need a government piece to help address this and put the plan in place. I’m not sure that somebody living on a farm in rural Idaho without good internet could be able to find out about Starlink and then get service set up, and pay for it. Government is needed for facilitation and some investment at the very least, because frankly, folks can’t live without internet these days.

  7. Really great blog ;)
    ->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?
    What can we do? Evolution is unstoppable.
    However, I am optimistic, I am pretty convinced that digital transformation is bringing opportunities and wealth to everyone. Maybe we’ll see some rises in inequality, but even still, I think the global community will eventually be better in 20 years.

  8. I’m in agreement with many of the comments above. For starters, governments need to make better public policy decisions in order to increase access to the internet and other technological tools to make people’s lives better. To your point, in the example of India digitizing its social programs and launching a biometric identification system for residents to show proof of identity is an example of lack of foresight and bad public policy. Although, India moved to a democratic system in the early 1950’s, but the presence of the traditional feudal system and a strong religious caste belief will always remain far more powerful than progressive social policy. Like India, many other developing nations maintain laws and regulations that prevents poorer citizens from accessing the internet or providing basic education on technology. I am not sure how much of a role the private sector can play in changing these regressive policies on their own.

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