28 November 2002
Left Behind: The Growing Worldwide Digital Divide
If the other dimension of ideas described by Plato exists, then there is at least one idea form attached to every object, which represents its archetype in the other world of the ideal. Complex objects
would be composed of more than one idea. Thus, our world is just a shadow of the world of the ideal, the end result of the reaction of those forms. Personally, I do not think this is the case.
The physical world is, I believe, exactly what it looks like: Random collections of atoms, chemicals, and organisms, which may or may not have a deeper meaning at the bottom line. Plato's
world of the ideal does exist, however, in the minds of humanity.
Group-living animals were the first objects on our planet to communicate with each other. As this communication became more complex, so did their network of ideas. Humans, having a
technical written language, operate the most complex to date. Since the beginning of human communication we have categorized the world as we see it into ideas, and believed it to be the
interaction of these ideas. The first polytheistic religions referred to them as "spirits". A majority of ancient peoples believed that everything that happened, from gravity to human relations, was
driven by the will of the gods that drove these forces. The natural world was more than happy to oblige anyone looking for miracles.
As human communication became more articulate, more interesting ideas became available. This network reposited more and more information, large ideas with many concepts in the minds of
it's members. These were passed along using storytelling, books, type, song, dance, theater, synagogue, library, and forum. Every time a scientist, shaman, philosopher, messiah, athlete, or
government create and spread new ideas, the network expands. World views, ethical and belief systems, and religions are large sets of ideas called "memes". These perspectives influence
everything that their followers take in, giving varying viewpoints and different networks to each culture.
So, what next? The newest manifestation of this network now comes in the form of the Internet, and the World Wide Web riding it. It is fair to say that the Internet represents a significant
technological revolution. Anyone in the world with access to a computer and Internet connection is able to access billions of pages of information from anywhere else in the world. On-line
encyclopedias, reference materials, and technical information are all available in minutes to anyone possessing this precious connection. Industrialized nations have utilized this medium to spur
their economies, organize their government, and empower their citizens with knowledge. It brings these productive members of industrialized society stock quotes, movie reviews, online
gambling, horoscopes, and loads of porn. These citizens thank this digital information revolution for improving their quality of life. By this, online communities have an advantage over those
that are not. This is the nasty side of the digital divide. Communities that are empowered by technology can (and as history shows, will) exponentially acquire more technology, becoming more
empowered, and so on.
Not everybody has access to this web on information, however. Thus, humanity can be divided into those who have a connection to the vast Internet, and those who have not. Usually, the
haves are the middle and upper economic classes in well-developed, industrialized nations. Most of the these have-nots are those living in third-world and developing nations. This division is
referred to as the "Digital Divide". This disparity is most noticeable between the modern Western world and the rest of the globe. Of all people online, 41% of them are in the United States and
Canada. By contrast, only 4% are in South America (Bridges.org).
However, even in America, not everyone is connected. In 1998, the U.S. Department of Commerce released a surprising report, titled Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide. This
alarmist report warned that many Americans were being left behind in the Information Revolution. It found that out of households owning computers but not connected to the Internet, most
(27.5%) cited 'not wanting to' as their reason for staying offline. 57% of Americans without Internet connections plan to stay disconnected (57, PDF version).
The Internet is a big part of what the United States is today, and where it is going. America's digital divide, and its cause, are hotly debated topics in politics. Falling Through the Net and other
reports noted a connection between minority status and those without home Internet connections. For example, it emphasizes, "A White, two-parent household earning less than $35,000 is
nearly three times as likely to have Internet access as a comparable Black household and nearly four times as likely to have Internet access as Hispanic households in the same income category."
(6 printed version) Many pundits have pointed to this disparity as evidence of a racial inequality. However, economic class has proved to be the deciding factor for minorities wanting to be
online in the United States, as a Forrester Research report in April of 2000 showed. In fact, it found that Hispanic and Asian-Americans ranked above Caucasians in online connections (Brady).
Although many people simply choose to stay offline, its cost prevents many more. An American household with a yearly income of $70,000 or more is 20 times more likely to own a computer
than families in the lowest income bracket (Brady). Only 7.2% of these upper class homes that are offline cited 'cost' as their reason, compared to 33.2% of unwired homes in the $5,000 to
Similar factors affect other nations. For most of sub-Saharan Africa, an Internet connection is hard to find. The few that are in operation are incredibly popular, despite their prohibitive cost.
There are now about one million dial-up Internet connections in Africa, and all are heavily used. For each connection, there averages about three e-mail users. However, two-thirds of these
three million users live in the country of South Africa. For the rest of the continent, there is one Internet user for every 750 people, compared to the world average of one in thirty-five, and the
U.S. and European average of one in three (Akst and Jensen). Though Westerners may take the World Wide Web for granted, it is hard to come by in these third-world nations.
It has been shown that advanced communication and access to information can empower a population. Bridges.org, an international non-profit organization working to span the digital divide,
Underneath the apparent widening and narrowing of the ICT information and communications technologies divides, the underlying trend is that privileged groups acquire and use technology
more effectively, and because the technology benefits them in an exponential way, they become even more privileged.
The infusion of ICT into a country paints the existing landscape of poverty, discrimination, and division onto the new canvas of technology use. Because ICT can reward those who know how
to use it with increased income and cultural and political advantages, the resulting digital divide shows up in increasingly stark contrast.
Therefore, ICT disparities usually exacerbate existing disparities based on location (such as urban-rural), gender, ethnicity, physical disability, age, and, especially, income level, and between
"rich" and "poor" countries. (Bridges.org Ch 2)
The domination of the United States has affected the Internet. Nearly all web pages in existence have been written in English. Because of the difficulties in translation, much of the Internet
remains inaccessible to anyone who can't read English. Also, Since most major Internet news agencies are based in the United States, they provide only a U.S.-centric view of current world
events. Undoubtably, because our media has penetrated many third-world countries, they have become more aware of the situation that they reside in. It is now as easy to watch "Jerry
Springer" in Lagos, Nigeria as it is in Tennessee. Hopefully, they are laughing at us.
Some, however, are not laughing. Anti-U.S. sentiment in developing nations has been growing since the end of the Cold War in the 1960s. During the Cold War, government foreign aid was
seen as a tool to keep communism from spreading. In 1964, the U.S. spent 9.6 billion dollars to help third world nations, or 0.6% of the U.S. GNP. In 2000, it spent only 0.1%. When
impoverished peoples see the disparity between Western affluence and their own lives, it can promote a sense of disenfranchisement. Fueling this could be the impression that Americans don't
care and take this affluence for granted (Kirkpatrick 212).
Just how important is the Internet to a civilization? It is a matter of perspective. It could be seen as only a luxury, the same way we see television. Or it could be seen as a prerequisite for
modern living, like government infrastructure and a police force. Or it is a required force for empowering individuals, as is democracy and free speech. There is no simple answer. The Digital
Divide does exist, and it is a defining factor in the development of civilizations, but it's true implications are unknown. Mick Bradly, a writer for the E-Commerce Times, wrote: "The digital
divide is not a crisis. World hunger, wars, AIDS, and environmental decay are crises. When the Internet can solve those problems, maybe everyone needs to have a computer. In the meantime,
technology is moving fast enough." Electronic communications may not be able to solve these problems itself, but it can empower people to solve them. 21st century technology is what enabled
modern nations to solve many of these problems, and it may someday help those left behind.