02 June 2009

Will the Future bring Equality or a Greater Divide?

Yesterday I was struck by a thought (that led to a Tweet):
@mongkolroek: brilliant ICT futurist paper http://bit.ly/ipxcF deepens my concern about rural digital divide - will progress be equal?
The report from the first Workshop of the Foresight 2030 series Harnessing the Digital Revolution is a fascinating read and provides a brilliant vision of a knowledge enabled society, with technology and culture in harmony.

So why did this vision leave me more concerned that one might expect? I'm not a Luddite, new technology fascinates me. The issue is that I see a real possibility that any upside from this vision becoming a reality will be more than negated by the disparity and inequity it may cause in the world. Could this report in fact allude an increase in the rural digital divide?

In 1999 Subbiah Arunachalam expressed concerns in "Information Poverty" that the information revolution was actually creating a new form of poverty in the developing world. We still grapple with many of these issues described ten years ago, not only in differences between developed and developing, but also between urban and rural.

There continues to be a serious risk of the rural digital divide increasing. The much vaunted improvements in speed and capacity of technology, and reductions in infrastructure cost do not guarantee access or usability due to many other complex factors. Consider issues such as telecom regulations, pricing structures, literacy and language, individual capacity to utilize a new technology, culture, organisations, physical location, content format, economic poverty, socio-political marginalization, etc.

Without a doubt not everyone would benefit from social and technological advances at the same rate. However, without great forethought it is very likely that there will be groups of individuals who will be excluded from these benefits much longer than others. In the worst case, this exclusion will occur amongst those already the most in need of better access to the world's information and knowledge ... the poor, the food insecure, the marginalized of society.

The future may be brilliant, but we cannot be proud of illuminating one corner if it leaves the rest of the world in even greater darkness.