3.14.2005

economics and the digital divide

from this week's economist:
"So even if it were possible to wave a magic wand and cause a computer to appear in every household on earth, it would not achieve very much: a computer is not useful if you have no food or electricity and cannot read."

hmm... is there another dimension to this statement, and to their overall point in this article? before i go on, i should note: the thrust of this article - The real digital divide - calls for funding to focus on increasing the availability of mobile phone technology in areas of the world that are currently without mobile networks. A few cases of shared mobile phone use are presented in order to argue that "the mobile phone is the technology with the greatest impact on development." the article concludes with the following plea:

"Rather than trying to close the digital divide through top-down IT infrastructure projects, governments in the developing world should open their telecoms markets."

asserting that, "firms and customers, on their own and even in the poorest countries, will close the divide themselves."

it's an interesting argument, and certainly one that rings true in this country where mobile phone use is not only on the rise but is fast becoming the ubiquitous mode of communication across demographic boundaries. (as opposed to within, what Gee might call, affinity groups)

but i want to return to the casual use of reading and writing mentioned earlier, and restated below later in the article: "Mobile phones do not rely on a permanent electricity supply and can be used by people who cannot read or write." as a reader, i am making the assertion that the author(s) of this piece want me to think about reading and writing in the functional sense. (is this true?) if this is true, then the resulting thinking might be something along the lines of the following thought:
- the digital divide is primarily concerned with addressing the chasm of access to technologies that afford financial viability and competition in the global marketplace

i spend a lot of time thinking about and observing literacies in practice, and in recent years have shrugged off the burden of economics placed on my liberal (progressive?) sensibilities by what i call the luxury of graduate school. that is, in my work with youth in and out of urban schools, i regularly engaged in and documented literate practice that goes unrecognized by officially sanctioned institutions and formal educational spaces. but what happens when the question is about reading and writing? what is the space between reading and literacy?

i admit that my immediate reaction to this piece was one of indignance - who "says that people in monetarily poor countries can't read and write?" and "is this a measure of their english proficiency?" these questions have not gone away entirely, but this article made me wonder: what if we understood literacy as globally situated, with local meaning? that is, given recent debates about the "limits of the local" (see Brandt & Clinton; Street) could we imagine a way of talking about literacies that is at once local and global? could we, i wonder, take up the charge presented by the economist and assert this dynamic relationship in the context of the growing telecom industry? or, perhaps it is more accurate to say, in light of the growing telecom mediated literacy practices?

these are still "bubbling thoughts" - evolving in their form and content - and in that vein, i want to pose a question to the economist:

could it be that increasing the availability of telecommunications around the world, and particularly in monetarily poor countries, we might not only "close the digital divide" from an economic perspective within these countries, but we might also establish and strengthen lines of participation/collaboration/communication between people situated across these contexts in order to reshape what we understand the be global marketplace in the first place?

more simply put: could increased telecom markets help with learning from and with the local that many ethnographers advocate for, in a way yet to be fulfilled by the promise of the internet?

i'm off to read the rest of the related articles. in the meantime, for another interesting take on the digital divide, check out: Reconceptualizing the Digital Divide by Mark Warschauer.