Unsettling the Digital DivideJan 25, 2015
If you would ask me today what poverty is, you would probably get an answer shrouded in ambiguity. However, as a child I would have been able to answer in a fairly straightforward manner. For, like most children growing up in the West, I had been taught to think of poverty in clear-cut material terms. Poor children, I learned, did not have nice clothes, they played with toys made out of garbage, and they never watched television. Now I know that this depiction is not only overly simplistic and fraught with materialistic assumptions but also, well, slightly off.
While doing anthropological research in one of Dhaka’s slums it often struck me that all houses I visited were furnished more or less according to the same formula, consisting of a double bed, a cupboard, and last but not least: a television. In fact, on the occasional nights I stayed over in the slum I found myself watching lengthy episodes of random TV shows with my host family and their neighbours. Hence, my childhood version of poverty which did not allow for televisions or entertainment seemed in desperate need of some revising.
From the above example it may become clear that poor people are by no means totally cut off from global flows of entertainment and information. Nonetheless much attention has recently been paid to the so-called ‘digital divide’ and its relation to poverty. The question therefore arises how this divide actually manifests itself.
Our contemporary world is a world of increasing interconnected-ness and technological innovation. This does not only affect our access to certain forms of entertainment, such as TV shows, but also to valuable chunks of information. Alain Modoux has argued that, nowadays, information lies at the core of all areas of human activity: “information on prices and goods enables markets to function; information on diseases, disease prevention and treatment is the basis of any health policy; information on the world in which we live is a source of education”(1). In other words information is not only power but also, potentially: wealth, health and education.
Taking into account that information is an increasingly important resource, it goes without saying that not having access to it can be a major disadvantage. It is this discrepancy of access and the socio-economic inequality that coincides with it, that is usually described as the ‘digital divide’. This divide, however, is not a rigid, binary distinction between ‘haves and have-nots’. The scholar Mark Warschauer(2) has pointed out that there are, in fact, many subtle gradations when it comes to accessing information. He illustrates this point by comparing a professor at UCLA with a high-speed connection in her office, to a student in Seoul who occasionally uses a cyber-cafè, and a rural activist in Indonesia who has no computer or phone line but whose colleagues in her women's group download and print out information for her.
Thinking about the ‘digital divide’ as a clear-cut distinction between ‘haves and have-nots’ is not only misleading because it glosses over the degrees of possible access to online material, but also because it frames this form of inequality solely in material terms. In fact, the digital divide is not merely about ‘having’ certain things, such as phones or computers, but also about being able to use them. Gaining this knowledge requires technological as well as social resources, including a community that values and enables the sharing of media knowledge. Nimmi Rangaswamy and Sumitra Nair(3) have argued that building such a community depends on the creative agency of ICT adopters who are able “to convert material and social resources into a dynamic techno-human network of peers and partners”. In slum settlements this role of the ‘digital pioneer’ is often taken up by micro-entrepreneurs who run local photo studios or cyber-cafés and thereby (informally) facilitate opportunities for technology usage and skill-building.
UPPR has strived to further develop techno-human linkages in slum communities by establishing places where people can make use of computers, internet and telecommunication services. These Community Resource Centres (CRCs)(4) provide a meeting point and information centre for the urban poor to learn about job opportunities and government programs. The aim is for these CRCs to start functioning as self-sustaining nodes of an expanding information infrastructure, which will generate revenue through charging service fees. CRC facilitators, moreover, receive substantial training in internet browsing and e-mailing In order to be able to take up the role of ‘digital pioneer’.
However, when it comes to establishing digital linkages in slum communities it is important to recognize that poor people are by no means passive recipients of technological training and knowledge. For, most slum communities include a great number of inventive micro-entrepreneurs, who show great potential as the innovative agents and producers of ICT products and services(5).
1) Read Alain Modoux’s full article ‘The “digital divide” could lead to the creation of a gigantic “cyber ghetto” in the developing countries’: http://www.itu.int/wsis/docs/background/themes/digital_divide/modoux.pdf
2) Read Mark Warschauer’s full article ‘Reconceptualizing the Digital Divide’: http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/967/888/
3) Nimmi Rangaswamy and Sumitra Nair have written an article on PC use in a slum community in India, titled: ‘The PC in an Indian urban slum: enterprise and entrepreneurship in ICT4D 2.0’ (2012). For access, see:
4) Read more about the CRCs in UPPR’s 2014 Progress Report: http://www.upprbd.org/projectrpts.aspx
5) This point is also made in the aforementioned article ‘The PC in an Indian urban slum: enterprise and entrepreneurship in ICT4D 2.0’ by Nimmi Rangaswamy and Sumitra Nair.