Let me guess: you are probably reading this article on your PC, or your iPad, or your smartphone or BlackBerry. You are reading it because you came across it while browsing around The Huffington Post for articles of interest or while checking for tags that you follow (you may have even received an alert if your settings are fixed to notify you whenever something of relevance is posted).
Then again, you may have seen the link on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Hmmm... come to think about it, perhaps a friend forwarded it to you with an SMS or shot you the link through WhatsApp or on Skype? And you may have received it while you were asleep at 4 a.m. your time. But you saw it as soon as your eyes blinked warily in the early morning sun. Final guess: You are reading it while up in the skies flying on one of those airlines offering WiFi on board!
Anyway, point made: You and I belong to the same group of those hyper-connected individuals who exploit any possible communication conduits that technology has to offer in order to stay connected, exchange ideas, share knowledge (and sometimes even nonsense) with the world, over - God bless -- the world wide web!
As Jeremy Rifkin argues, the Age of Access has created two new types of people: the "proteans" and the "proletarians" of the Internet. The "proteans" are the participants and creators of the new cultural economy and the "Internet generation." The "proletarians" are those who lack the privilege of riding this miraculous vehicle and are doomed to ignorance, excluded from democratic decision-making and condemned to an exile of disadvantage.
For the first ones, Internet access is a given, a good that is well integrated into their daily reality; as such, it is beyond than a privilege, it is a way of life. For example, being connected while at home, in the office and even on the move, makes the "proteans" an essential part of a networked world. These people are contributors, producers, consumers and global players; all at the same time, thanks to the wondrous world of internet. They can participate in political and civic arenas and democratic decision-making. They can raise a voice of awareness to the world and be heard. These 'proteans' are part of an online alliance created over a "virtual community." Not so for the rest of the world.
The Internet, with its revolutionary capacity to connect millions who share information across time and space, allowed for an unprecedented mobilization, yes. But it is falsely regarded as a "global" one. It does have characteristics of "globality," yet it is far from being as inclusive and democratic.
While one-fifth of the world's population is migrating to cyberspace, the rest of humanity is still caught up in the world of physical scarcity. For some its form is extreme, it can be a daily struggle for survival. It means a reality removed from the fibre-optic cables, satellite uplinks, cellular phones, computer screens and cyberspace networks. Although difficult for many of us to comprehend, more than half of the human race has never made a phone call.
There are various factors characterizing the notion of digital divide: economic, usability, empowerment. Information and knowledge have always been essential parts of economic growth, productivity and social progress. The evolution of technology has strengthened the potential for social productivity and has elevated living standards. It has also created a new "Globality," a global reality where all of us will be competing or working along with everyone, from everywhere on anything and for everything (Sirkin et al., 2008).
As we moved from the manufacturing to the information economy, which not only thrives but triumphs on information generation and dissemination, there has been an overall growth rate of the global economy. Living in a globalized economy, one may rightly assume that it would produce a globalized labor power. However, as Manuel Castells argues, "in the information economy there is global interdependence of the labour force and it is characterized by the hierarchical segmentation of labour not between countries but across borders."
Low-income and disadvantaged workers cannot compete for IT jobs; this is widening the income gap. An additional obstacle is the inequitable provision of infrastructure, a reality which calls into question the notion that the Internet is the medium that collapses distance and eradicates spatial inequalities. IT is profoundly rooted in geography and financial investment; no infrastructure, no connectivity, no internet. Period. The digital divide should be approached in a manner that takes into account classification issues such as socioeconomic status. There are places that don't even have phone lines because people steal the wires to sell the copper!
The "usability divide" is related to the fact that technology remains so complicated that many people would not be able to use computers even if they could afford one -or had easy access to them. Although almost 40 percent of the population has lower literacy skills, few websites follow the guidelines for writing for low-literacy users. Even government sites that target poorer citizens are usually written at a level that requires a university degree to comprehend. According to Jacob Nielsen, lower literacy is the Web's biggest accessibility problem.
With regards to the empowerment divide, even if computers and the Internet were extraordinarily easy to use, even if they were available and accessible everywhere, not everyone would be able to understand and make full use of the opportunities at hand. Many users don't know the potential that this simple "search" mechanism provides and how to take advantage of it to communicate, access new markets, open new opportunities for business and collaboration. Many people don't understand advanced features or how search engines prioritize listings. They often don't know what "sponsored links" mean or what "captcha" is. They have no idea how to create a tricky password in order to stay as safe as (virtually) possible from spamming and hacking.
The notion of "access" applies not only to physical proximity and availability of resources but also to the significant issue of training and skills development as an integral part of the same problem.
The digital gap impacts societies and the global economy in a number of sectors: education, poverty and job opportunities are some of the most important ones.
One of our most successful workshops as Global Thinkers Forum in Amman was about ICT and the Knowledge Economy for human capital, conducted by leading Jordanian ICT expert Reem N. Bsaiso. The ICT revolution occurring at present is generating reform processes and provokes the restructuring of societies by widening divisions within society and creating a new class system of access. Villages in rural areas are still struggling to provide proper health care and access to food and water to their citizens. Bridging the digital divide could significantly improve their quality of life. People could go online and learn how to relieve certain sicknesses, or even communicate with nearby villages to see if they can provide help. People living in rural areas could be easily alerted of incoming dangers, as well as how to prepare for them. Bridging the digital divide would keep more people up to date on the latest world events facilitating democratic decision-making and would also connect more people with their homes and families.
In conclusion, many people are going to lag behind in absolute numbers for a long time. Would a profile on Facebook or a Pinterest account make a difference to the abominable reality that some people have to deal with because of poverty, war, lack of access to basic amenities? Certainly not. People need financial resources and skills in order to take advantage of the Internet. The issue of infrastructure is of utmost importance and it requires long-term commitment and investment plus collaboration and multilateral support. Governments, the private sector, financial institutions and civil society must join hands in coordinated efforts involving local, national and transnational initiatives; that is, if we (they) really want to achieve positive change and a less (digitally) divided world.