Alok Sheel, the writer is secretary, planning and economic affairs, government of Kerala.
The changes wrought by the digital revolution are so profound that it is considered a major turning point in human history. Computers have entered kindergartens and primary schools, and ‘computing’ added to the three Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic. A logical corollary is that those not ‘plugged’ into the new digital technology are in imminent danger of disempowermnt.
The digital divide is what separates those at ease with and access to computer and web-based digital technology and those unfamiliar with its use. There are three separate issues here. The first concerns the consequences of exclusion, the second is the kind of people who are excluded, and the third is on what can be done to bridge the divide.
The consequences of exclusion are more or less the same as those of the literacy divide. Literacy was critical in the past not only because of the high social status a good education bestowed, but also because knowledge translated into social and political power since the illiterate were handicapped, as they still are, in getting their due without it. Access to land rights, accounts, administered rights, commerce and justice required a level of literacy that kept rising.
Information, administration, commerce and communication are now fast becoming fully digitised. The digitally challenged are in danger of two separate kinds of exclusion. Disempowerment is loss of existing access of literates to rights, information, activities and services on account of digitisation. Dynamic empowerment is using information technology (IT) to improve on existing access, such as web-based medicine, reservation services, web-based financial services, marketing, etc. Since IT is a productivity multiplier, it holds immense potential for accelerated income growth in developing countries, where productivity of labour is the chief constraint on poverty reduction.
Since IT is a productivity multiplier, it holds immense potential for accelerated income growth in developing countries
The sense of disempowerment is compounded by the inability of the digitally challenged to interact socially and politically with the global ‘online’ community. Increasingly friendships, marriages and political groupings are breaking the shackles imposed by geography and spilling over into cyberspace. This makes it easier for like-minded people to come into contact with each other, enhancing human happiness all round.
The people most likely to be digitally excluded are older people, whose formal education was completed before the new technology was integrated in the new curricula, and the poor, who may indeed be denied access to education altogether, both digital and non-digital. It is conceivable that entire societies could be digitally challenged where rulers or governments are backward-looking or repressive.
Bridging the digital divide is of critical relevance to India. The hype surrounding its emergence as a digital superpower notwithstanding, the International Telecommunication Union placed India at the bottom of 40 major economies in the ‘Digital Opportunity Index’ in 2005. That India is ranked below several countries in East Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America is hardly surprising, considering India’s laggard social and physical infrastructure.
The state must ensure, through a combination of public and private investment, that a universally accessible and affordable IT infrastructure is in place. Equipment and network access is an important element of this endeavour, an interesting side note of which is MIT professor Nicolas Negroponte's celebrated effort to make a $100 hand-cranked laptop with wireless access available to every child on the planet.
Second, the state must ensure that no child is left behind, irrespective of socio-economic background, through a combination of state support and regulation. Digital technology has to be integrated with the school syllabi, so that all children are adequately drilled in it.
Third, special adult digital literacy classes need to be organised at various levels by government and civil society agencies to enable those past the stage of formal education to acquire digital skills.
Finally, relentless pressure has to be brought upon backward-looking and repressive rulers and governments by the global community to ensure that their citizens are enabled and empowered to plug into the new digital age.