Delivering Internet Connectivity may not deliver Equality

by Matt Klassen on January 28, 2016 arrival of the Internet to the unconnected billions promised to bring with advances in health, education and governance to the 2/3s world, allowing developing nations to close the gap with the wealthier nations and bringing with it hope for a brighter future. In fact, listen to Facebook’s promotional campaign about its initiative, and you’ll immediately get the sense that technology, particularly Internet connection, is good for all, bringing with it untold rewards, advances and riches.

Not so fast, says the annual World Development report issued by The World Bank. In fact, the report has found that while digital technologies continue to spread rapidly throughout much of the world, the so-called digital dividends, “that is, the broader development benefits from using these technologies,” are less apparent, lagging significantly behind.

While the report cites “information inequality” as a key differentiating factor—that is, slower Internet given to new users who don’t have the necessary skills to make use of it—there is also the real danger that by the time the unconnected billions gain the skills necessary to truly make use of connected technology, it will be far too late anyway, as then we’ll have a much greater issue on our hands, massive global unemployment brought on by the widespread arrival of robotic automation.

On the positive side there is no question that Internet access is spreading rapidly around the world, far more rapidly, in fact, than any other previous technology. Not only that, but Internet access is bringing with it benefits for certain groups of people, notably farmers. As a BBC report explains, “In Pakistan they have been able to shift to more perishable but lucrative crops because of information they get from their phones, while in Honduras getting market prices via text message is reported to have given them a 12.5% increase in the prices they receive.”

Further, gender equality has received a significant boost as well, as women around the world are finding it much easier to set up businesses online than in the ‘real’ world, offering them opportunities previously unavailable, without the censorship or controls that real world societies can impose upon them.

But The World Bank report also found that, “The lives of the majority of the world’s people remain largely untouched by the digital revolution.” That is to say, most people in the developing world have no access to the Internet, or if they do, they don’t know how to use it. It is this knowledge and accessibility gap that the report labels “information inequality” and it will likely be the reason that Facebook’s utopian vision of boys in rural India having their lives improved and their dreams made reality through Internet connection is exactly that, a dream.

In fact the report has found that technology and Internet connection has had little impact on the majority of the work force in developing nations, and by the time that impact has a chance to develop, we’ll likely see the onset of robotic automation, a trend that will eliminate the need for many jobs around the world, manual labour and other such jobs chief among them.

All that to say, it’s a less than inspiring message to tell the developing world that the Internet will change people’s lives, only to have the benefits of this connectivity so slow to arrive that by the time they do, the negative impacts will have already started to emerge. Let’s see Facebook make a commercial about that.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. Follow by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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