Text by Robert Maharajh, infographic by Ole Häntzschel
‘The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed’. William Gibson can’t remember when he first began using this oft-quoted maxim, but it was possibly around 1999, most likely a lot earlier. Given that this is a field where the accepted yardstick is Moore’s law — which states that technological capacity doubles every two years — that’s aeons ago. This blog series aims to re-assess Gibson’s words from a 2016 standpoint.
The most comprehensive global data on the spread of digital technologies comes from ‘Digital Dividends’, a recent report issued by the World Bank, which makes for grim reading. Despite the rapid spread of digital technologies, the internet remains inaccessible and/or unaffordable to the majority of the world’s population: more than 4.3 billion people worldwide do not have any internet access, nearly two billion do not use a mobile phone, and almost half a billion live outside areas with a mobile signal.
Even more striking is the fact that drilling down beneath these headline numbers shows the anticipated ‘digital dividends’ of the report’s title — growth, jobs, better government — are far from being on track. ‘Although there are many individual success stories, the effect of technology on global productivity, expansion of opportunity for the poor and the middle class, and the spread of accountable governance has so far been less than expected,’ the report’s authors say. Productivity growth has slowed, labour markets have become more polarised and inequality is rising in both wealthier countries and the developing world. And while the number of democracies is growing, the share of free and fair elections is falling.
There are a number of reasons for this, including ‘new’ risks surrounding digital technologies: vested business interests, monopolies, lack of regulation and governance. The main problem, though, remains the stark fact that sixty per cent of the world’s population is still offline and can’t participate in the digital economy in any meaningful way. But long-term solutions are far from straightforward. One of the key insights from over a decade of trying to address the ‘digital divide’ via initiatives in the developing world — where existing education structures, particularly in rural areas, were often considered inadequate — is that simply providing technology, although obviously essential, is not nearly enough.
The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program, for example, was one of the most ambitious educational reform initiatives the world has ever seen. The program developed a radically new low-cost laptop and promoted plans to put the computer in the hands of hundreds of millions of children around the world, including in the most impoverished nations. OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte was quoted as saying: ‘You can give a kid a laptop that’s connected and walk away.’ Mark Warschauer and Morgan Ames, in their 2010 study of the project: ‘Can OLPC Save The World’s Poor?’, criticise the project as one of a succession of technologically utopian development schemes that have unsuccessfully attempted to solve complex social problems with overly simplistic solutions: ‘Provision of individual laptops is a utopian vision for the children in the poorest countries,’ they conclude.
In ‘Rethinking the Digital Divide’, Warschauer proposes moving away from an ‘access’ model, based around availability of an internet-enabled device, to one that considers peoples’ ability to make use of that device to engage in meaningful social practices: ‘Those people who cannot read, who have never learned to use a computer, and who do not know any of the major languages that dominate internet content will have difficulty even getting online much less using the internet productively,’ he writes. Warschauer quotes Walter Bender, former president of software and content for OLPC: ‘Building a learning environment is hard work… To take root, it’s got to be a prolonged community effort. If you present it as, “We’re going to give computers to kids,” the story is not adequate. The key to success is to really take a holistic approach to the servers, the infrastructure, the logistics, the software, the preparation and training, the pedagogy, and the community that is using all this stuff.’
This emphasis on a wider, societally-based viewpoint chimes with Kentaro Toyama’s theory that technology merely amplifies the underlying intention of any initiative, re-opening questions around power, control and the relationship between labour and capital: old bugbears that never went away. Further perspectives will unfold as the blog series continues.
Robert Maharajh is the commissioning editor of the Not Evenly Distributed blog project. He is a writer and journalist based in London, United Kingdom. Ole Häntzschel is a graphic designer who specialises in illustrative maps. He lives and works in Berlin, Germany.