Coming to Terms With a Global Digital Divide

"You can visit the library and read any book in the whole wide world, without ever having to leave the house." This was my first introduction to the concept of a World Wide Web and a watered-down version of the Internet's capabilities at best, but for 10-year-old it was like Magic. Years later, I am still in awe of what the Internet has done and has the potential to do for the world, but somewhat jaded at the prospect of a Web-based utopia.

The problem is mainly definitional: The Internet is often thought of in holistic terms as one network, connecting anyone in the world who chooses to be a part of it, when it is in fact a connection of networks, each with different capabilities, speeds and prices, that together dictate who participates in the World Wide Web and for what purpose. The resultant effect of this model of skewed accessibility in an increasingly digital landscape, is a world where network access, capability and technologies have great influence on the businesses that arise, survive and succeed, within and beyond regional borders.

Recently, social media has been abuzz with talk of so-called body-con technologies; wearable devices like Apple's iWatch and Google Glass that promise to be as fashionable as they are pervasive. While Credit Suisse predicts the market for such technologies will be worth $50 Billion by 2018, reviews have ranged from a humorously debasing SNL skit to a don't-knock-it-till-you've-tried-it appeal from Google CEO Eric Schmidt during a recent book tour. That being said, there is no denying the excitement as we scratch the surface on what appears to be the final frontier of digital assimilation: The human body. But is everyone ready for this?

The same level of connectivity is not mirrored in all parts of the world, neither is it necessarily aspired to. While Web growth in North America can be said to have been largely driven by technologies that cater to personal needs (PCs, smartphones, smartphone apps), Internet usage in other regions such as Africa, has developed through more social channels, such as mobile banking. While internet penetration in Africa hovered around 16 percent last year, mobile telephony soared to one of the highest in the world. Currently, 90 percent of the continent has access to a mobile phone -- a phenomenon that has helped topple dictatorships and connects rural communities to otherwise difficult to reach services such as healthcare, in addition to the now common money transfers via text.

Nevertheless, there is certainly no shortage of demand for technologies developed for personal use in this region. However their cost and the likelihood of limited access to Wi-Fi networks has meant a different kind of growth for Africa when it comes to Web usage. The iWatch and Google Glass will undoubtedly find a market in Africa, but it will be one that is comparatively restricted and largely driven by conspicuous consumption. It's not so much that the African market is not developed for these technologies, but rather an often siloed approach to the technologies' development and marketing, restricts their potential for wider market access.

The question then arises: How can digital or tech-based businesses effectively translate into markets and networks beyond their immediate regions? By being conscious of inherent differences in network capability and re-evaluating access to a perceived target through in-depth, locally-sourced knowledge of which technologies would be the best ways to reach them. There is likelihood of some convergence in the future: A burgeoning industry now exists in this sphere, with a few companies offering digital optimization services and "borderless" e-commerce solutions. But the majority are still focused on more 'cosmetic' approaches aimed at creating the same experience for all consumers globally, rather than a tailor-made approach that considers specific needs of each region on its own.

Ultimately, the answer lies not so much in fighting a global digital divide, as embracing it. The Internet has done much to level the playing field for people looking to launch businesses and even more so those looking to grow them, but there is still some ways to go in terms of removing the blinds of a perceived Web-based utopia, by accepting differences and tackling each region and industry through local eyes.