Internet Inequality

28Mar07

A technological revolution is transforming society in a profound way. If harnessed and directed properly, information and communication technologies (ICT) have the potential to improve all aspects of our social, economic and cultural life. ICTs can serve as an engine for development in the 21st century, yet the majority of the world’s population has yet to benefit from the new technology”- UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, 2002

My section of this blog will investigate inequality in Internet access. Why study the Internet? Well, I’ve long been interested in the Internet–especially as a technology of empowerment and resistance. Lately, though, I have been asking myself about the actual potential of the ‘Net. Will it enable the oppressed to coordinate their fights? Will it increase transparency in government and reduce corruption, exploitation, and all those other bad -tions? Or will it devolve into interactive television? Is it no more than interactive television now?! I don’t think so; I hope not; this blog is not for naught!

Inequality in Internet access. Of course, it’s not the access that matters, but the benefits gained from said access. Because of course access can be detrimental: any parent who has ever tried to detach a lethargic teenager from his or her marathon online session of gore and murder video games can attest to that. As could this guy, and this guy too (if they were around to tell us).

Despite the dangers of digital technology (which certainly extend beyond gaming addictions—I think of awful Thai soaps full of negative stereotypes of ethnic minorities in Laos, which is seeing satellite television dishes pop up alongside new electricity lines) many argue that without equal global access, the Internet will only serve to perpetuate global socio-economic gaps, instead of being “the great equalizer” that so many envision it to be. Internet access inequality (often referred to as the “digital divide,” which refers to technology in general) parallels many preexisting inequalities we have seen even before the invention of this marvelous tool. Those without money, literacy, electrical power, proper training, and phone/broadband infrastructure have been excluded from the (equalizing?) resources of the Internet, which include education, retail and marketing opportunities, organizing, entertainment and long-distance, real-time communication. Of course, this includes most people on earth. What’s worse is that these inequalities fall along race and gender lines too. Black people own fewer computers than whites, men have many more tech jobs than women, and the poor have less access to the Internet than the wealthy.

The latest available figures show that there are just over a billion Internet users on Earth. That’s an astronomical figure! The Internet as we know it has only been around for twelve years or so. A billion users. Unfortunately, we must remember that there are over six and a half billion people on the planet, and the distribution of users among us is highly unequal.

Consider these stats from Internet World Stats: Usage and Population Statistics. They use the term “population penetration,” which is the percentage of Internet users in any given population. User does not imply ownership of a computer and a connection, only that there is some access. Internet World Stats uses this definition:

(1) The person must have available access to an Internet connection point, and
(2) The person must have the basic knowledge required to use web technology.

So here’s the global breakdown:

Africa: 3.6 %
Asia: 10.7 %
Europe: 38.9 %
Middle East: 10%
North America: 69.7%
Latin America/Caribbean: 17.3%
Oceania: 53.5%

Global: 16.6%

Of course, as we know, not all knowledge is good. It is not necessary or desirable to plug everyone in. Many have argued that the Internet is simply the new frontier of neocolonialism, especially since the ‘Net is dominated by English-language writing and Western worldviews. However, I argue that to deny communities the choice is to deny their basic agency and intelligence as human beings. Let people fill their minds with garbage if they want. Or give people a chance to change their futures.

This is a global issue, but a local approach here in Washington, DC will be illuminating. It is true that North America has the highest penetration, but the divisions are present here as anywhere. Hopefully you’ll see the fruits of my future efforts to contact some people working at CTCs (Community Technology Centers) in the city… Using interviews, I hope to get their viewpoint–people who have dedicated so much to sharing the benefits of access. They’re the ones who are trying to turn the Internet into the equalizing force it could be.

“Revolution is impossible until it is inevitable” – Albie Sachs

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37 Responses to “Internet Inequality”

  1. 1 patty

    So youve brought in the dark side of the internet that i had never thought up. Thats a look into the future that is grim. Either way those who desire this technology must have it so it does not turn into a tool of power.

  2. 2 Jarlath

    Blacks do not own less computers than the whites. They DO own fewer computers(smile). Current access to DSL is also another problem unless they are willing to hop on the bus out of their neighborhood to access it.

  3. 3 neuroism

    I think it’s certainly interesting to think of the internet as a world…or a nebulous like jungle that one can scrape through. The idea of it and what it affords is definitely a point of intrigue, especially by way of its paradox- bring people/ideas together electronically, while at the same time driving people apart physically. [Side note- it’s sort of wild to think, people fall in love over the internet]

    Nevertheless, regarding your topic of internet inequality, I feel as though you’re building up to a grand point… Are people deprived of the internet and oppressed in terms of their use of it? I have heard a little bit about this from examples like China where access is limited and observed…and even here, in the States under decree of the glorious Patriot Act, which allows the government to observe and scrutinize our every act.

    I guess my question/point for you– is that it does not seem as if you’re suggesting we should “liberalize” the internet as in, give it to everyone, every group, cultural affixation (very much like the failed “modernizing” attempted of indigenous civilizations…but what should we do? Recognize there is a disparity as such.

    An anthropology book I read once said that nomadic ingenious tribes will disappear from the world by 2010, that we’ll all be civilized? and modernized- internet users?
    Regardless, Keep on keepin on my friend– this is a sweet subject.

  4. 4 Micah

    Great posting. I’m getting started on my anthro research in Ghana. I’m doing a project at a Liberian refugee settlement – studying control and use of visual technologies (digital cameras and internet). The settlement has about 50,000 people living in there. From my initial fieldwork, I am speculating that access to such technologies is quite stratified. People are using it in really interesting ways and are able to tap into friends, families and organizations outside of the settlement. There is some literature pertaining to data on other communications technology (radio etc, and a bit on internet) in Africa.

  5. 5 sasc

    neuroism-

    Grand point? I wish. So far the answer seems far, far away. In my own fantasy world, I would love to see the Internet available to all, which would of course be the driving force behind the devolution of the capitalist nation-state and the transformation of the world into some kind of utopia…

    But the cynic within argues that we shall never be “civilized,” by which I mean we will never act civilly towards each other.

    Micah-

    I hope you find that Internet access is, in general, a good thing for people at the crapping end of capitalism. Equality is the goal, not further control. Thanks for commenting.

    Jarlath-

    Thanks for catching. I promise it won’t happen again. : )

  6. 6 neuroism

    sasc: re: fantasy world in which you would “love to see the Internet available to all…” I feel like it’s because the Net’ 2.0 (as TIME likes to call it) may be the greatest apparatus for the exchange of ideas that human beings have ever had…strait on down to the individual (i.e TV really doesn’t do it in regards to individual interaction). As such we are struck with a Habermasian assertion (what does this man really say?): that everyone agrees with the universal validity of a claim if they expound it in their discourse or through the action, esp, re: morality…

    Along these lines of desired universal validity (or recognition), of course we would want everyone to have access to a communication apparatus (the internet) because according to Hab (and Annie’s going to kill me for this, for she remembers the troublesome Hab of academic semesters past)….every person must be participate in communicative discourse so as to perpetuate the evolution of society…or our morals. But! maybe you’re not looking to talk about internet access in terms of morality…Nevertheless, surely Habermas is applicable in terms of his idea of communicative rationality and action: “valid norms freely accepted by all of the individuals who are affected by them.”

    As such, it continues: we want everyone to have the internet if it is going to be a mode by which universal norms are asserted (through communication)….

    …On the net’ the world is unbound…people are not seperated by overwhelming geography and sometimes even the cultural ones can begin to break down- such as those of language due to accessible translations at a variety of urls.

    Ah ha! but in thinking along these lines…I feel like, while the internet may represent the greatest transfer and exchange of information– a true “great” exchange is hindered in several ways… The first of which you write on, the disparity of use (not everyone can partipicate); and second, the idea that people are mostly introverted in their exchange….We’re bubbled into online shopping, personal emails, personal use– reading the online news, but not blogging about it- which is innocuous, but not a great exchange per se. I mean, the internet represents the perfect platform for Habermas’s communicative action project– but because it allows us to exchange on everything the process is discursive… (just like in discourse outside of the internet).

    Is the internet’s purpose really so great that we are compelled to say everyone should have use? For instance, few intentionally use the internet to consciously purport claims of univeral validity. So, it is the flipside– we want to give the world the internet so they can buy and sell stuff on eBay… My hunch is we’re somewhere in the middle– i.e the deprivation of net is essentially deprivation of knowledge…along with all the other “introverted uses” (eBay)

    Oh golly, oh gosh, so sorry! I appear to be having a love affair with Habermas and taking it out on your internet project…and am wanting to bang and rattle the pots that you all have stirred…intrigued by the debate of usage disparity, and your fantasy: good or bad??? cynical or clincal…we’ll talk about utopia later.

  7. no! let’s talk about utopia now! is there ever a better time?

  8. 8 Thad Bell

    They burned the Libary at Alexandria, I for one, wonder why? Welding is illegal/state controlled in Cuba, Why? In the old Eastern Block you could go to jail for posessing a Dynamo labeler and carbon paper, Why? Why does the Government of The PRC control copy machines?
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