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Digital inequality in the Global South

By TT Sreekumar

Studies which focus on information and communication technologies (ICTs) as tools for new forms of instrumental communication and information processing take a technocratic view of technology, providing a perspective that understands notions such as ‘efficiency’ or productivity as the essence of technology (Bertot, Jaeger & Grimes, 2010a; Bertot, Jaeger & Grimes, 2010b; Lea, 2004). Generalisations about the imperatives of technology appear prominently in this approach.

 

It is pertinent to compare and contrast the views of Aristotle and Karl Marx in this context. Aristotle argued that ‘instruments are of various sorts; some are living, others lifeless; in the rudder, the pilot of a ship has a lifeless, in the look-out man, a living instrument; for in the arts (techne) the servant is a kind of instrument’. (Everson 1996: 15) He meant that the slave is a detachable tool, the tool an inanimate slave. Marx on the other hand argued that ‘Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraph, self-acting mules etc, they are organs of the human brain, created by human hand’ (Marx 1973:706). He views technology as part of the human body.

In both these views we can see that instrumentality has been highlighted. It is no wonder that most studies on ICTs follow these traditions. Another set of studies examine ICT diffusion, comparing  cross-national or cross-cultural attributes with a focus on determinants of ICT diffusion, adoption, domestication, patterns of use, feedback loops, incremental innovations etc. Yet another approach looks at the successes and failures of specific ICT initiatives (Finquelievich et al, 2004). But the problem with such studies is that the effects of ICTs, as Adorno famously noted about television, ‘cannot be adequately expressed in terms of success or failure, likes or dislikes, approval or disapproval’. He argues that the attempt should be to crystallise a number of theoretical concepts by which potential effects including impact upon various layers of users could be studied. Further, there are several studies which examine ICTs as a new mediator and enabler of older complex social interactions, mixing global and local, individual and collective experiences (Graham, 2002; Misuraca, 2006). These studies are mostly motivated by the need to explicate the empowerment potential of ICTs at different levels. In addition there are also studies which look at the cultural dimensions of ICTs (Frissen, 2000). Particularly important are studies which explore how ICTs impact cultural behaviour, how they create new social norms, customs and practices and radically alter older ways of living and modes of existence (Baddeley, 1997). Similarly, there is great interest in understanding the political dimensions of ICTs. Such studies range from examining the connections between hegemonic ideologies and perceptions of technologies, the impact of ICTs on resistances, social and political mobilisation and for propaganda. ICTs have different impacts on different groups such as classes, gender, castes and races and these differences are very important in themselves (Goggin & Newell, 2006; Green & Adam, 1998; Nadamoto, 2005). Studies which focus on the political and cultural dimension of ICTs highlight the fact that the social impact of ICTs will not be identical or consistent across different socio-cultural and economic groups (Day, 2001; Eubanks, 2011).  Representation of new technologies in new and old media such as films, television soaps, fiction, cyber and print media constitute yet another area of research which provides insights into the social dimensions of ICTs.

At a macro level, development issues related to ICTs are addressed differently in different approaches within development studies also. Modernisation theory would understand ICT diffusion from north to south as an important aspect of levelling the gap between poor and rich countries. ‘Leap-frogging’ development used to be one of the most repeated metaphors in the context of ICT diffusion in the formative years of the development discourse on ICTs. On the other hand, the dependency theory of development would view such diffusion itself as problematic. Poststructuralist, post-development theories would question the assumptions and notion of development and progress that underlie the discourse on ICTs as a panacea for solving poverty and bridging the digital divide.

ICTs in development discourse

In development discourse, ICTs are often heralded as prime movers of economic progress (Heeks, 2010; Inglehart, 1997; Schech, 2002; Torero & Von Braun, 2006). More ICT, in this discourse, is unproblematically associated with more development. While it is undeniable that in some parts of the world, the adoption of ICTs has been associated with progress and modernisation, this correlation cannot automatically be equated with causation, especially when we take into account settings where ICTs, far from advancing the economy, have actually resulted in more costs than benefits and even created new divides. A retrospective reflection on the efforts of scientific institutions, communities and activist researchers to address the contradictions of historical impediments to development through ICT innovations provides deep insights into the complexities of developmental innovations and helps emphasise the need to problematise the question of technological change in terms of structural dimensions rather than as a matter of choice (Wade, 2002).  

In particular, less developed countries, it may be argued, are at a distinct disadvantage when ICTs are introduced with little critical assessment of the context of their implementation (Boas, Dunning & Bussell, 2005; Kuvaja & Mursu, 2003). At both local and global levels, it has been shown how the bases are loaded against these countries. Global information infrastructure, for example, is creating new zones of inequality because of its dependence on US trade interests. Thus the digital divide manifests not only in terms of access to computers within developing countries in comparison to developed countries, but the cost of connectivity on a global scale (Weber & Bussell, 2005). Because prices are structured according to US corporate interests, developing countries end up paying more, or getting marginalised if they cannot afford to pay to overcome the drawbacks of poor telecom infrastructure, to lay high-cost undersea fibre-optic cables, or to access satellite links. Not all languages are represented on the internet, and English enjoys a dominant presence. This excludes non-English speakers, and those who lack the linguistic dexterity to manage the default keyboard. Given these inherent inequalities, the global nature of the internet via its infrastructure actually ends up resembling a new form of US-driven imperialism rather than empowerment of developing countries (Main, 2001).

Despite these inequalities, the persistent theme of ICTs being causally linked to development leads to the phenomenon where the failure of ICT projects is viewed as a matter of insufficient training in the use of these technologies, and not as a result of inappropriately prioritising ICT development over other types of development. In addition, not only are ICTs in many cases not leading to the hoped-for efficiency, they become integrated into existing inefficiencies and become even more of an encumbrance. More importantly, there is a new type of dependency on the West rather than the expected liberation, as the skills, resources and impetus for developing new types of hardware and software rest in the developed countries, and developing countries are trapped in a perpetual game of catch-up that they cannot win. With Western aid for development being tied to conditions of good governance (defined by the West), and this aid being provided by large ICT-related companies, there evolves a situation in which developing states are governed in line with Western corporate values. What may be needed is not so much the technologies, but a critical technological education that allows for the questioning of dominant discourses related to ICTs. Bridging the digital divide, Robert Wade argues, far from being a new route to development, may in reality be a new form of dependency, as ICTs are assumed to be a top development priority, developing countries are disadvantaged in their access to the global information economy by ICT regimes and technologies, and even having a voice in organisations where ICT standards and rules are set means little when they have no real backing or power.

ICTs and urban divides

The ICT and development discourse is skewed by the imbalance between the Global North and the Global South, with attention focused on closing this gap by improving capabilities in the developing world. As has been pointed out, however, there are other axes of inequality, such as that between a transnational techno-class living in gated communities in developing countries, and their counterparts beyond the gates. What is often not acknowledged, beyond this, is that similar imbalances have been created in developed countries as well (Servon and Nelson, 2001; Servon, 2008). Graham (2002) analysed the ways in which new technologies tended to ‘extend the reach of the economically and culturally powerful’ (p 36), looking at it as a divide in terms of equipment as well as skills, with those from lower economic groups and ethnic minorities being at a disadvantage. He argues, further, that the internet ‘is directly involved in the restructuring of those cities that drive its development’ (p 38), with the creation of gentrified cyber-districts that house a technologically advanced upper class, while the urban poor are expelled from these areas due to rising rents. The importance of investment in infrastructure is also a factor, and Graham shows how technology corporations' operations at a transnational level make it less likely that they will cater to the development of telecommunications networks in poorer areas of globally connected cities. The result is a pattern of inequality that mirrors that between North and South, and plays out in structurally similar ways in both regions.

Today, the issue of access to digital technology seems to have been addressed, with the proliferation of mobile devices that access the internet even among the poor (Aker and Mbiti, 2010; Rashid and Elder, 2009). The growth of cybercafes in places where individual ownership of computers is still a problem due to prohibitive costs has led to some new types of theorisations of development and inequality (Rogers and Shukla, 2001; Gomez, 2011). Yet there are patterns of marginalisation that persist, and in many cases remain invisible because of the continued power of the framework of access equity in which the problem is perceived. Eubanks (2011) examines poverty in the context of the United States, problematises the conceptualisation of the digital divide, and argues that aggressive social equity policies are needed to correct the real inequalities that lower-class women face in increasingly technologised societies. According to Eubanks, the US is trapped in a distributive paradigm that understands high-tech equity only in terms of availability of information products and resources. The concept of the digital divide needs to be reframed to one where the problem is not so much lack of access to technology as power asymmetries in experiences with technology -- people from the lower classes in developed countries experience technology from positions of powerlessness.

There are more optimistic accounts of a closing North-South gap as knowledge economies flourish, because unlike industrial economies, digital economies are not based on finite resources in a zero-sum game, where one must lose if the other is to win. Yet critical examination reveals that new inequalities emerge. For example, within developing countries not all benefit equally from the new technologies. Thus it is an elite, technologically savvy and transnationalised group that emerges, whereas there is a lack of any progress for the large majority of people. Enclaves develop that bear more resemblance to Western technological centres than to terrestrially proximate regions. An additional area of concern is that although there are examples of states that have been leaders in technological development, there are also states that have lagged behind.

Transnational communities

There is a great deal of variation also in how ICTs are positioned in terms of a model of development. They may be transferred from the source to begin with, but for them to be sustainable it is argued that not only must they be adapted to local conditions but there must also be a model for their appropriation and evolution as ground-up technologies, for example through venture capital and open source software. Ultimately, whether these ventures succeed may depend on the extent to which home-grown products can gain an advantage under local conditions, meeting local needs in integral ways. However, the question of whether intellectual property rights can be governed in a manner that protects the interests of developing countries is an issue that needs to be carefully considered.

Another aspect of ICTs in the global context is their role in forming transnational communities in the face of increased migration. These communities are significant in development because they can mobilise the sort of social capital and technological knowledge needed to develop open source software to overcome Western technological hegemony, but also because the sense of community allows them to make demands of the state – an affordance that, unsurprisingly, attracts less state support than the act of software innovation.

ICTs have been linked to social development in the health, education and other sectors. However, without attention to critical areas of inequality, developing countries will always remain consumers rather than producers of technology. Where social development takes place with aid from corporations, the conditions under which this aid is rendered and the particular values that are valorised require scrutiny.

The theme of ICTs and development is not only pertinent in the context of North-South comparisons, or within developing countries. Even in the Western world, we see the link between, for example, the networks that ICTs afford and the building of community through these networks (Jankowski, van Selm & Hollander, 2001). The expectation is that community networks can contribute to the development and improvement of the localities in which they are based. The objective may, for example, be to build a sense of community in a local context where immigration has resulted in diverse groups of people in an urban setting. Such digital community-building efforts have been portrayed as building social capital in the form of components such as interpersonal trust, social norms and association membership in computer mediated communication (CMC) environments. Yet there are concerns here as well that such networks cannot build social capital where none exists – in a classic pattern of ‘the rich get richer’, studies have shown that communities that already enjoy high social capital are more enriched in this aspect by the community network, while those that do not enjoy such high social capital do not benefit in this regard. As with the introduction of ICTs in developing countries, it is clear that the notion of technologies as prime movers in any regard is problematic. Pre-existing conditions continue to make their presence felt, even as possibilities are explored for the inclusion of groups excluded from older forms of community media, such as women.

A critical perspective

I have argued that in the context of developing countries, the relationship between ICTs and development should not be viewed in a linear manner, because there are inequalities arising at both global and local levels, not despite the relevant institutions, but because of them (Sreekumar 2007, Sreekumar & Rivera–Sánchez 2008, Sreekumar 2011). This pattern is mirrored in developed countries, where it can be seen that policies related to funding of ICT projects, for example, can create difficulties for community-ICT initiatives. Taking for granted the necessity of relying on market forces to speed up the development of the knowledge-based economy and information society leads to new types of social exclusion. Market logics of competitiveness and consumerism then dominate over the less profitable issue of citizen rights. Early policies concentrated on access and skills development among the commercial and government sectors, while some communities still lagged behind in these areas. Analysis of information-society policy documents in fact reveals underlying priorities of economic efficiency and competitiveness, and highlights their inherent techno-economic determinism. More recently, steps have been taken to develop more community-based ICT projects, but the exercise of consciously delinking ICTs and development in this regard remains vital. Viewing the introduction of ICTs and their impact on society as a revolution needs to be tempered with consideration of how they align with the ethics of social justice and democracy, for example. The prevalence of experts in ICT discourse means that citizen participation is reduced to the use of technological affordances rather than involvement in any policy relating to them.

Solutions proposed have included the development of ground-up ICT initiatives in communities to replace prefabricated projects parachuted in by distant experts. They have also zoomed in on the short-term, competitive nature of funding policies and argued for longer timelines and less competition. The problem of traditional partnership models disempowering citizens of local communities because these models are based on power structures at higher levels has been targeted with suggestions to include local citizens in decision-making processes as equal participants. In addition, communities need to be equipped to evaluate and articulate their own needs if they are to be empowered to have a stake in their own digital presence.

These solutions are based on a view of policies related to the development of a knowledge economy as having the potential of being fundamentally undemocratic as long as they are based primarily on market logics. Exclusion, in this case, relates to the inability to participate in the democratic process. It has been pointed out that this exclusion may be by design rather than accident. The French case, in particular, highlights the way in which a focus on technological development in line with the knowledge economy allows the state to resolve a political crisis by subsuming political issues under techno-economic ones (Mattelart & Ross, 1988). Providing economic leadership via the link between ICTs and development becomes a means by which the state is able to rationalise a mechanism of depoliticisation. Significantly, this is effected through the bridging process of casting ICTs as having democratising power, not just developmental power. However, when this democratising power is only manifested in terms of the right to be informed rather than, say, the right to produce one’s own information, then exclusion finds new forms in the knowledge economy. Complicating the picture further is the pressure exerted at transnational levels of corporate and government power.

It appears then that the need to disconnect ICT discourse from development discourse is one that is relevant globally. The exact nature of the discourses varies from North to South, but boils down to similar sets of actors and processes. Promises of inclusion meet realities of exclusion, hopes for progress imposed from above come up against impediments rooted in the ground below, and institutions that are invested with the task of urging the development process onward are often the very reason why ICT initiatives fail. Similarly, solutions seem to be based on common principles such as locally developed initiatives, a reflexive awareness of the risk to public good that arises from the adoption of market logics as a developmental paradigm, and a refocusing of attention to pre-existing inequalities and social conditions.

T T Sreekumarm holds a PhD in Science, Technology and Society, and is Associate Professor and Chair, Fellows Programme in Management-Communications (FPM-C), Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad. His research interests include new media and technoculture, the impact of internet in developing countries and mobile communications. He is the author of ICTs and Development in India: Perspectives on the Rural Network Society, Anthem Books, 2011.

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www.netpehchaan.in, January 2014