Deepmala 22 – Bridging the Digital Divide

Twenty first century will be the century of knowledge. Knowledge will be a driver of economic growth as well as social transformation. The existing disparities, which today are measured in terms of comparative economics, living standards, etc. are moving into other domains too, and this includes knowledge. The issue of ‘digital divide’ is being hotly debated, due to several emerging disparities.

Whereas one in two Americans is on line, only one in 250 Africans is on line. More strikingly, one out of the two citizens of this world has never had the luxury of making a telephone call! Entire Africa has only 14 million telephone lines, which are less than those in city of Manhattan alone.

Where does India stand? Not in a good position at all. All over India, the total number of personal computers do not exceed 5 million, which means one personal computer per thousand. Compare this with Singapore, which is reaching one personal computer per two students.

The first is that the technology is changing at breathtaking pace. The costs of transferring information, sending a communication and so on are plummeting. The second is that India is a late entrant and, therefore, our investments have not been locked in old infrastructure and old technology. We can take advantage of the front line technologies and leap frog. Thirdly, the new digital medium is providing unique opportunity to ‘reach the unreached’, that is those that are distant (due to the death of distance) or those that are uneducated or those that are economically poor. The fourth is that innovative sharing of infrastructure is one that can bring down the costs enormously. And finally there is a welcome change in the leadership in the country, where the importance of Information & Communication Technology (ICT) is being understood and promoted at all levels including the Centre and the States.

But let me empahsise that it is not technology alone that will bring down the costs. Rapid deregulation and reforms are equally important.

32 % of our population is still illiterate. Only 7% of our population is matriculate and only 5% of our population is English speaking. Can we avoid the digital divide under these circumstances? ‘Yes’ is the answer, if one is to draw lessons from the famous ‘hole in the wall’ experiment by Sugata Mitra of NIIT. He was able to experiment with the children from a slum adjoining NIIT. He provided internet access to them with a touch screen. A video camera recorded what happened. No instructions were given to the children. They experimented, learnt on their own and reached ‘functional literacy’ of internet within ten days. The children were able to access the Hindi music films, play cartoon games and land 747on a flight simulator. The powerful digital medium has the power to carry text, picture as well as sound and remain interactive even for the illiterate. The medium thus has the power to ‘reach the unreached’.

Let us look at the issue of access. In India, we always have had a practice of joint family, which embodies the principle of sharing. One newspaper is read by 10 people. One e-mail address is used by 10 people. Individual ownership is not what we keep on fighting for. What is, therefore, important is to create not ‘individual ownership’ but opportunity for ‘shared economic access’. Provision of internet at public institutions, libraries, local and regional government Offices, ISD and STD booths will do the trick. We have 800 thousand STD/ISD, which can provide a great outreach.

The economic access will also increase as the technologies as well as devices will become simpler. One wonderful development is a ‘simputer’, which is a ‘simple computer’. Can you imagine a computer which could be used by someone who does not know English, or who does not know how to read or write? Can you imagine a device, which is portable with a standard PC, which can keep your accounts, get e-mails and help you browse your net. Scientists from Indian Institute of Science have done precisely this by creating a device, which uses natural interfaces such as touch and sound and use of local languages. Whether ‘simputer’, which is slated to cost less than Rs. 10,000, will be a commercial success or not is not known. But what is sure is that it is technologies such as these, which are relevant to the developing world, that will make the final difference in bridging the digital divide.

India has a unique chance to covert the threat of a ‘digital divide’ into a ‘digital opportunity’, if we back up technology with reforms and investments with political will.