Photo Credit: Drew Sheneman | The Star-Ledger

Mind the Digital Gap

Owning the latest electronic gadgets or having unfettered internet access at home may seem to be common or ordinary to many of us. Yet, in today’s digital age, millions of people globally remain disconnected and have no access to electronic devices. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted this divide – Why does this divide still exist? What can society do to bridge this digital gap? The IAS Gazette endeavours to answer these questions in this article.

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As the Covid-19 pandemic rages worldwide, it has highlighted the importance of technology in our everyday lives and how our society will be increasingly reliant on technology in the coming years, with or without a global health crisis. At the same time, it has also exposed the growing digital divide amongst different segments of the population. Despite the rampant increase in the use of modern smart technology, there are still groups around the world who are unable to utilise technology to benefit their daily lives.

We are now in an era of great transformation with various technological advancements such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing, the fifth generation technology standard (5G) of cellular networks, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The 4IR is the new phase in the Industrial Revolution, as the biological and digital world converges in more advanced ways, revolutionising business operations and making processes more efficient. 

Nonetheless, for all the amazing things that the 4IR has brought us, the gap between those who easily have access to information and communications technology (ICT) and those who do not is widening rapidly. Experts have been on the quest to find out why the digital divide still persists as governments all around the world grapple to address this new factor in poverty before it threatens to tear societies apart. 

Income Inequality: Little Access To Technology

Almost two decades ago, a study conducted by Professor Mitchell Moss from the Taub Urban Research Center and research associate, Steve Mitra, discovered that wealthier communities had increased access to the Internet, relative to their poorer counterparts.

Fast forward, the issue of how income levels affect the accessibility to technology still persists and has been exacerbated by the pandemic. A joint report released on Dec 1, 2020 by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) illustrated the relationship between a family’s socioeconomic status and internet accessibility – 97 per cent of the richest households in high-income countries have internet access while only 74 per cent of the poorest households have access. It also found more than two-thirds of school-age children aged approximately 3 to 17 years (1.3 billion children) lack internet access at home. Given how most workplaces involve the digital space, these statistics are worrying policymakers and social activists around the world. 

Graph showing the percentage of children and young people with internet access at home, by country income group. | Photo Credit: Report by UNICEF and ITU

Consequences For Education

“Lack of connectivity doesn’t just limit children and young people’s ability to connect online. It prevents them from competing in the modern economy. It isolates them from the world.” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director, in a joint report with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

This pandemic has closed schools, spurring educational institutions to migrate lessons online and adopt remote learning models. This has further worsened the ‘homework gap’, a term used to highlight the challenges and barriers children face when working on assignments from home without an Internet source. It is a phenomenon that is happening around the world, especially in larger countries like India, students living in provincial regions are now more likely to face added barriers. Traditionally, students from poorer provinces already have difficulties in accessing print materials. Education is the greatest but the simplest weapon in the war against poverty. However, the acceleration into the digital world will leave these students facing a double disadvantage. 

“Even if we cannot give our children equal outcomes, we should strive to give them an equal starting line.”

The disparity in technology endowments is now becoming a reason why students are falling behind in classes. Without proper access to technology and online learning, the window for academic progression will narrow that will unfairly impede students to reach their true academic potential. As disadvantaged students struggle even harder to remain competitive in this ever-changing world, the vicious cycle of poverty is fuelled to continue.

Who’s Responsible?

The issue of the digital divide requires something more than what schools can provide. But, who should pay and provide to get millions of low-income students online? 

Should governments intervene directly to provide access to technology? Or, should businesses and corporations be the ones providing access and imparting the know-how of technology? 

There is no straightforward answer. Bridging this digital divide lies in a strong and symbiotic partnership between civil society and national governments.

Business and corporations make important contributions on this front. Capgemini, a French conglomerate that provides Information Technology (IT) consulting, is a great example. Capgemini’s Chief Executive Officer, Aiman Ezzat, believes tackling the digital divide requires adopting a collaborative approach with different relevant stakeholders. The company has collaborated with Change Initiative, an Indian NGO based in Kolkata that specialises in education and employment creation in the opening of a digital literacy centre. The centre now teaches participants the basics of computers, mobile phones and tablets, and how they can use the internet to improve their daily lives.

Participants in one of Capgemini’s Digital Literacy Centre in Badshahpur, Gurugram, India | Photo Credit: @SRFFoundation/Twitter

Governments, on the other hand, are in a position to carry out both national and multilateral actions. Locally, there have been empirical benefits when governments decide to liberalise the telecommunications sector with appropriate regulatory and compliance systems set in place. On a more macro level, the Alliance For Affordable Internet (A4AI) is one of the peaks of a multilateral public-private partnership. A4AI represents a coalition of governments, businesses and civil society around the world delivering policies to reduce the cost of internet access and to make universal and affordable internet access a reality for all. 

By investing in people, society is laying the foundation for a labour force that is digitally literate and geared for the future economy.  A digitally literate workforce will be a positive one, for both national governments and businesses. This is more than giving people digital devices to use. It is about a combination of government policies and businesses providing and imparting digital resources to bridge the gap.

Bridging the Digital Gap is More Than an Economic Imperative

It is no longer just an economic imperative to ensure that the digital divide is bridged. It is now a moral imperative to ensure that everyone, both young and old, is ensured access to technology. We have made strides in bridging the digital divide but there is still a lot left to do. Governments must pursue pragmatic and feasible policies to bridge this chasm. Businesses, on the other hand, should recalibrate and focus on investing in human capital. 

Mankind has always sought to piece puzzles together. This time, however, the puzzle of the poverty cycle must be disrupted.

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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