Bridging the Digital Divide

Every morning, I’m on my Chrome 4.1 browser checking my many email accounts (of which I have 7. Or 8. I can never remember), looking at my Twitter feed on Seesmic and Skype-ing away simultaneously. All this before my breakfast, mind you. Yet some people haven’t even seen a computer, forget knowing what a ‘trending topic’ is.

Globalization and the digital divide are such paradoxical concepts but manage to exist side-by-side in many parts of the world. On one hand the reach of the internet breaks down geographical barriers, while on the other there are a vast number of people who don’t even know what the internet is.

In this map of Internet users worldwide, you can see the internet penetration in India  as of February 2008 is only between 4.9-13%. Many schemes have been in the pipeline to bridge the digital divide between the urban and rural areas and I think a trend is emerging where mobile phones have been shown to be more useful to the people than laptops and computers. Here’s a look at some of the efforts:

This article by the BBC highlights the methods by which SMS activism is used by villagers in India to talk about issues that are most important to them.

CGnet Swara (Chhattisgarh Net Voice) is an attempt to cater to people who are on the wrong side of the digital divide, says Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former BBC journalist-turned-activist and the brain behind CGnet Swara. “We are providing a new platform which the villagers can use to talk to each other and the outside world about issues that are important to them,” he says.

Another point: would the internet even be useful to people who cannot read? There are, in India, a large number of illiterate people. According to the India Literacy Project, the literacy rate in India as per the 2001 census was 65.38%. Male literacy rate stood at 75.85%, while the female literacy rate was a measly 54.16%. It will be interesting to see what the next census results will reveal. This article on India Today shares news that a PhD researcher is trying to make mobile phones text-free – the idea is to make them visual not textual. Definitely an interesting development to look at in the future.

Statistics showing India‘s education level on tells us that as of 2007, only 7 out of every 100 Indians were Internet users while 20 out of every 100 had phones – another point in favour of using mobile phones. With this regard, read an interview with Gurudath Banavar, the Director of IBM India Research Lab on the promise of the “Spoken Web” in bridging existing gaps. He said:

This is compelling for people who don’t have access to the Internet, or are not able to read or write. Anyone with access to a phone–mobile or landline–will be able to access the Spoken Web.

Perhaps in an effort to encourage further innovation and development with regard to reducing the gap between the haves and have-nots of the digital world, the Manthan Awards ceremony was set up 7 years ago to recognize strides in the South Asian world that have contributed towards lessening this gap.

Even in 2002, covered this phenomenon where people carrying mobile phones travel the villages of India in order to connect the villagers to the rest of the country.

This does imply, to me, that the modernization paradigm of developmental journalism doesn’t work – what the western world thinks of as ‘modern’ isn’t necessarily so. Luis Ramiro Beltrán pointed out that the definition of modernity…was one elaborated by the USA and implemented by experts trained in the USA (Sparks, 2007: 41). Internet users all over the world, where penetration levels are at its highest, cannot imagine their life without it. I certainly can’t. But is the internet the be-all and end-all for everyone? Not in the least. Do villagers need the internet? Or do they simply need better connectivity? If mobile phones give them that, with more ease than the internet does, then who are we to argue?

As I’d like to say … whatever floats your boat.


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