Bridging The Digital Divide

Better connectivity has encouraged socio-economic division

Today, almost four billion people have access to the internet. Placed in a global context, this number isn’t quite as big as it seems. There are over seven and half billion people living on the planet, which means that a huge number of people are still without digital access. Before the 1990s, the digital divide referred to telephone access. Now, of course, connectivity encompasses so much more. Bridging the digital divide has presented an ongoing challenge for organisations on many different levels. As so much of business strategy is focused on digital, consumers without an online presence can easily slip through the net. Businesses themselves can also be left without adequate services. So why is digital illiteracy still such a major concern, and what can be done to address it?

Deciphering the digital dilemma

Broadly speaking, the digital divide is the result of the nonuniform distribution of opportunities and resources. Whether someone has access to digital services can depend on numerous factors including where they live, how much money they have, and how educated they are. Location, for instance, is still the blight of ubiquitous connectivity. According to Ofcom, 17 per cent of rural UK businesses struggle to operate on low broadband speeds. Some people, even those who live in urban and affluent areas, are digitally illiterate. This can often be a result of their age or a reluctance to embrace change. Sometimes, it’s a conscious choice. Whatever the reasons, bridging the digital divide has clear advantages for the global, socio-economic climate – the improvement of literacy, democracy, and economic growth to name just a few.

It’s clear to see why the digital divide exists, but the real question is how to overcome these barriers. In his opening talk at DEN Live earlier this month, Nick Williams, Managing Director of Consumer and Commercial Digital at Lloyds Bank, suggested that businesses should send representatives into the community to connect with technological laggards. Companies can’t afford to ignore customers who are ‘off the grid’, and should complement digital strategies with good old fashioned conversation. Governments and official bodies have a responsibility to solve the separation, too. In Rwanda, a national fibre optic policy has enabled connectivity to surge. Even in more economically developed countries, these sorts of initiatives have not yet been taken. Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has vowed to address the gap between “those who can use cutting edge technology and those who do not.” Working with the likes of Elon Musk, who wants everyone to be able to access the Internet, could be instrumental in making these plans happen.

Mass digitalisation and disruption

Digitalisation has had some incredibly positive consequences. Bringing more people online has meant an increased talent pool, opening up opportunities for individuals and businesses that previously had to make do without. An influx of connected innovators has fuelled economies and social mobility across the globe. As the digital divide closes, this is likely to continue. Although there will be a level of predictable continuity, mass digitalisation will certainly rock the boat by disrupting technological patterns. For example, in many areas, people are dependent on smartphones for connectivity. As such, any change to accessibility could have a knock on effect on smartphone domination. Technology aside, if governments are to legislate on digital adoption, they need to be careful to respect the lifestyle choices of their citizens. Not everyone wants digital access, no matter how much corporations might like to turn them into a data point. A potential social consequence of greater digital fluency could be that people choose to interact digitally rather than in person, making humanity more insular at the same time as being more connected.

In the West, it’s easy to perceive digitalisation as a mass movement, but connectivity is yet to affect around half of the world’s population. More can be done to encourage digital literacy, and this must be a combined effort. Even so, it’s unlikely that the digital divide will ever be fully eliminated. For a start, there are those who actively avoid any involvement with online products or services. Due to their location, economic position or culture, some don’t want or need to join the digital revolution. . . and there will always be those who won’t be able to, even if the intent is there. Nonetheless, the digital divide is slowly closing. This is likely to accentuate the existing social and economic trends that have already come with digitalisation.

How else can governments and companies tackle the digital divide? Will increased digitalisation make humans more insular? Share your thoughts.