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The Digital Divide : the same division of resources?

Daniel Pimienta, Funredes, Mars 2002.

Author:
Daniel Pimienta

Publication date:
03/2002

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The Digital Divide : the same division of resources?

Daniel Pimienta, Funredes, Mars 2002.

 

 The human network MISTICA (http://funredes.org/mistica) is , constituted of  researchers and grassroots actors of Latin America and the Caribbean. They have  thought collectively, for the past few years, on the subject of the now famous “digital divide”. The group too often get irritated of an over-simplifying and superficial dominant rhetoric which has the tendency to erase the real societal challenges (the social appropriation of technologies and the empowerment of people and communities) and to polarize the discussion on the access, within the limited meaning of the word (is it finally about creating consumers in the South for electronic commerce and its products coming from the North?). 

 - The essence of the problem is the social divide and not the digital divide. The statistical differences between the countries of the South and those of the North concerning the access of users to ICTs are nothing else  than the reflect of this socioeconomic division (which indeed exists also inside the industrialized countries). 

 - Certainly, the collective MISTICA (where gather many field players some of them having struggled for ICT dissemination for more than 15 years) considers that, in certain conditions, ICT can represent an extraordinary chance to fight against the social fracture. But there is no evidence that  the generalized connection of people to the Internet is the condition for that chance to happen. 

 - The obstacles to overcome so that people can change their social and economic environment using ICT are not limited to the existence of a telecommunication infrastructure which is accessible at affordable cost, although this condition is of course  necessary. There are other obstacles, as the one of the language and of the education in general and, more specifically, the education for the culture of information. 

 - This culture of information (or culture of networks) and, beyond, the know-how in the use of ICT with a full conscience of the social, economic, linguistic, cultural, policies,  ecological (to the sense of the ecology of information) challenges can only be acquired by a complete training and community practices. It is about  facilitating the drive to the users into a content producer and  a development player within his/her community... and not only  a  more or less aware consumer. 

 If it is merely about giving some inexpensive (or even free) access and a training to the proprietary software on a PC, consequences will be to enhance the sales of one software company and  to create clients for products of the electronic commerce coming from the industrialized countries... 

Between two persons of the South having in appearance similar practices in front of a PC, very strong differences in terms of development impact may exist; et’s take two extreme cases so to schematize the message: 

 - "A" (most often a Yuppie of a PVD) surfs the Web, creates friendship thanks to the  chat and buys products on the Internet which will be delivered via Miami; 

 - "B" creates a page that reflects his/her culture and his/her language, participate to professional electronic conferences where he/she creates remote collaboration actions to contribute to the development of his/her country,  searches the Web in an efficient way for information required to reach the previous objectives, facilitates a virtual community and contributes, with the help of Open Source software, the global sales of handicraft products from his/her region. 

 

Actually, "A" is behind the screen and "B" is in front of the keyboard, and this makes the whole difference…

 What is the respective influence of "A" and "B" on the development of  his/her country? Probably negative in the case of "A" (certainly negative in terms of balance in US dollars!). Certainly positive in  the case of  "B" (probably positive in economic terms!). 

What difference between a community telecenter "X" and a cybercafé "Y"?  Both offer, in an apparently similar way, the sharing of ICT access resources between several people who do not have thus the need to own individually access infrastructures (PC,  modem, lines...). But some differences  do appear after a careful analysis. The first is integrated to the community fabric and  articulates, by way of the ICT, solutions to different community needs (such as the legal advice or the receipt of transfers of funds from the family abroad). It offers a form of training to participants that aims at appropriation and empowerment. The second is not linked to the community; it is a business of service that forms customers to the use of software and who aims especially at the entertainment market. 

 Of course, in reality, there is a continuum of practices between “A” and   “B” and between "X" and "Y", and it may be simplistic to schematize... But  let’s be clear: what is at stake? To form users of type "A" and to cause the development of type “Y” telecenters? This is certainly not what the organized civil society wishes in developing countries! And this is the danger of a simplifying rhetoric on the digital divide… 

Field actors in the South get worried of a mobilization  of attention and resources in the industrialized countries and international organizations which claims to bring an answer to break the digital divide with solutions where they are not really represented and within the framework of a financial management where contributions, once again, will remain, in their enormous majority, in the hand of the North (an example among others is the project of the World Bank named «Global Development Gateway which costs alone as much as thousand of regional development projects such as Mistica…»).  

Perhaps time has come to think that the present model of international cooperation calls for a change of paradigm which would enable the support of genuine solutions emerging from the field instead of continue the practice of imposed solutions which are designed far from the realities and for which the economic equation is absurd…

 


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