Gästinlägg, Guest Post // Digidel were pleased to meet with Ken Coates - Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation and Carin Holroyd - Associate Professor of Political Studies, both from the University of Saskatchewan for an interview about Digidels aim and organization. With a global perspective on digital content production they wrote the following guest post about digital inclusion and its possibilities and obstacles.
Guest Post: We had the opportunity to visit the Stockholm offices of Digidel 2013 in June 2012, and left very impressed with Sweden’s effort to expand Internet access and usability. Digidel 2013’s efforts to reach out to the economically disadvantaged and the technologically challenged and to those cut off by age or infirmity from regular access to the Internet is an extremely valuable initiative. Indeed, it is one of the world’s more innovative approaches to making the digital age mean something important to Swedish citizens at large, establishing a strong foundation for the growth and evolution of the Internet-based, information-rich society.
A global perspective without user perspective?
For the last four years, we have been studying the development of digital content and digital media in a comparative context. Our work has taken us from Malaysia and Japan to Turkey and Estonia and to many other countries. We have been impressed with the diversity of government programs and industry initiatives and perplexed by the comparative lack of attention to the user side of the digitization equation. The vast majority of the activities targeted at building digital societies have focused on technological matters, particularly expanding the reach of the Internet, improving speed and quality, and providing access to computers or other digital devices. Countries have made fewer efforts to support the creation of digital content – beyond moving traditional materials (books, movies, television programs, music) online – even though this has become a crucial part of the digital economy.
An effort to offer free Internet access
Much has been written over the years about the “digital divide,” or the gap between those citizens with access to the Internet and those without. Various development agencies are working very hard to put digital devices in the hands of school children around the world, through such initiatives as the One Laptop Per Child program. The advent of inexpensive wireless Internet in Africa, South Asia and Latin America is already having transformative effects on these regions. In the developed world, the effort to bridge digital barriers focuses primarily on the poor, with significant investments in school-based computers and Internet access and with many communities providing free Internet access (computers and wireless) in libraries and other public facilities.
Why the question of digital inclusion?
While these initiatives are of vital importance, laying digital foundations for future generations, only a handful of national initiatives are focused on dealing with contemporary digital divides. The issue is of societal and not just personal concern. An individual who is not digitally-comfortable will have trouble navigating a world that is increasingly Internet-based.
With banking moving to computers and mobile phones and the wealth of information available primarily in digital formats, the digitally disengaged will have trouble connecting with the society at large. For those seeking employment or education, digital illiteracy means isolation from the job market, modern learning and, increasingly, government information and services.
There are broader concerns, however, when significant portions of the population are digitally disenfranchised. National efforts to catch the “digital wave” will be seriously hampered if many citizens are not able to participate. Estonia’s quite remarkable digital initiatives are predicated on the population as a whole having access to and taking advantage of digital technologies.
If governments and businesses are required to provide services in both digital and traditional formats, the major benefits of capitalizing on new technologies are lost. Imagine, for example, if Amazon.com was required to maintain bricks and mortar bookstores as well as its formidable on-line presence. The economics of the system break down.
This is essentially what is happening for most governments, providing services on line while maintaining costly traditional services. Moreover, attempts at nation-wide innovation, at sweeping transformations based on new and emerging technologies, will be stalled in their tracks if a significant portion of the population is unable to participate or resists the shift to new technological systems.
A switch to new technologies need also to ensure that people are brought along
Countries around the world are competing for leadership in digital implementations and national digital competence. The opportunities available to nations that are able to put their old ways of doing business behind them will benefit enormously from the switch to the new technologies (provided, of course, that the growing crisis related to Internet security does not overwhelm the system). But smart governments and societies realize that the people have to be brought along with the technologies. It is not enough to simply present a new technological system as being “state of the art” and therefore of benefit to consumers or citizens. Instead, a society has to ensure that the population at large is prepared to use the new system, has appropriate and inexpensive access to the technology and is enthusiastic (or at least not overly resistant) to the transformative implementations.
In some countries, the United States being the best example, national enthusiasm for Internet-based innovation has not yet been matched by systematic efforts to ensure citizen engagement, beyond some excellent school-based programs aimed at youth. In Asia, particularly Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, governments and businesses have established extensive initiatives to ensure widespread comfort with new technologies. In these nations, as in Sweden, there is considerable recognition that disadvantaged groups have to be brought gently into the digital age, which represents a major uprooting of the existing order and which can be extremely intimidating for the technologically-unprepared.
A challange but a world of possibilities
As governments wrestle with the challenges and opportunities of the digital age, it is vital that they expand their thinking well beyond the technology and infrastructure of the Internet and digital appliances. Important as fiber optic cables, computers, tablets and mobile phones may be, these technologies are only as valuable and effective as the people using them. Moreover, if government and business move too quickly, and become too enamoured with the potential of the Internet in general, they will spark resistance from those citizens who have not yet been drawn into the digital circle. The time, money and effort devoted to public education, specialized training for the technologically disadvantaged and the development of new devices for those who are unable to capitalize on the existing technology will likely pay off many times over in terms of public acceptance of digital service and the ease of shifting from traditional to new economy models.
Carin Holroyd, Associate Professor of Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan
Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation, University of Saskatchewan