The United Nations General Assembly just held its 72nd session in New York City. Leaders from all over the world were in town, including representatives from the 193 UN governments, as well as businesses and civil society. Apart from the main UNGA, there were plenty of other high-level gatherings organised in the margins — several of these focusing on the future of online life and digital technologies.
I had the chance to participate in some of them. I engaged in discussions around the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And I listened to pledges to advance internet access globally, to increase digital skills, and to further digitise social and government services to improve the livelihood of people worldwide.
It seemed as if everyone was on the same page. It also seemed as if there was no shortage of financial (or political) commitments that go along with this.
In fact, there is an amazing range of initiatives to increase access and digital literacy globally. Here are just a few:
- The World Bank is providing significant grants across the field for improving and teaching the skills necessary to successfully participate in a knowledge society.
- The ITU and ILO are investing in a global campaign to train 5 million youths with the digital skills needed to succeed in today’s job market, i.e. the digital economy.
- The Digital Opportunity Trust is championing “Digital Ambassador” programmes that train local youth and entrepreneurs to become teachers and champions of digital skills in their own communities.
- Mozilla has developed a web literacy tool providing an adaptable, baseline curriculum to teach and advance individual skills, such as navigating the web, reading, and writing online.
- The DQ Institute is currently working on a global DQ [i.e. Digital Intelligence] Index study, which aims to establish a global standard for digital citizenship focusing, in particular, on children.
- Microsoft runs the YouthSpark Hub, which aims to provide access to computer science classes and other coding and skills programmes.
- The Alliance for Affordable Internet has developed an overview of policy and regulatory good practices that can help guide the adoption and further improvement of access and broadband strategies.
- Geeks without Frontiers is also working to address regulatory barriers to the adoption and scale of broadband and satellite-powered internet access, notably in hard to reach communities.
- The Berkman Klein Center is building a global network of data collection vantage points to enable the measurement and reporting of internet censorship in near realtime, which allows users to strategise about circumvention as well as advocacy efforts.
- The Digital Impact Alliance is investigating the challenges and opportunities arising from an increased use of platforms and messaging services in digital development work in an effort to identify safe and effective communication channels.
But what does all this mean? How are all of these initiatives connected and what is the impact, the change that they really bring about? Do “digital skills” necessarily refer to being able to code, or is it simply about being able to navigate the web? Is it sufficient to have internet access in libraries or should everyone be able to access the web at home? Can you truly be a creator if you only access the web via your phone? At what point does the quality of your access come in and how does that relate to circumventing censorship or surveillance measures?
There are plenty of questions underlying the proclaimed effort to bridge “the digital divide”, not just the clarification whether you intend to primarily bridge the device, the access, the gender, the age, or the skills divide.
In other words, in spite of all this enthusiasm and the many well-intentioned initiatives, I always feel the need to remind myself and everyone around that technology and digitisation are not a goal in itself, they’re always just a means to an end: A means to advance individual empowerment and a better life for all.
If we lose sight of this ultimate goal, we risk what Nikhil Pahwa recently described when discussing tech policy in India: “We’ve gone from technology giving people choice to technology robbing people of choice: the way technology is being implemented by our government today is an attack on freedom and choice.”
It is not enough to simply bring more people online. We also need local content and regionally relevant services. Digital skills must go hand in hand with an understanding of the benefits the internet may bring as well as cultural acceptance. The infrastructure itself will hardly initiate the socio-political and economic improvements we aspire. For that, initiatives to advance access and digital skills globally must also consider non-discriminatory financing models and regulatory frameworks that foster competition and do not infringe on users’ rights.
In short: the challenge is complex.
We need financial commitments and we need political will. But we must not give in to the idea that launching digital initiative after digital initiative will nourish empowered citizens. It is not the system that needs more skills, it’s the individuals that need agency to design their own lives. Technology can help, it won’t make it happen.
For each and everyone of us, this means there is one action item to get done today: Teach (and inspire) at least one person around you. Just be your very best self. Be a role model.