COVID-19 pandemic has shown how critical this Information Revolution has been. ABOVE: A researcher works on the development of a vaccine against the new coronavirus COVID-19, in Belo Horizonte, state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Image Credit: AFP

Knowledge is Power.

This eponymous quote by Sir Francis Bacon in the late 16th century finds itself justified as we live in the Information Age, the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The internet has upended our lives over the last couple of decades like a very few discoveries have in the past century.

The term ‘global village’ is apt for these times. Communication between two points of the earth is now a click of a button. Any form of information is just ‘googled’ and millions of pages will show up on screen. The Information Revolution has opened up new vistas, new avenues of life never imagined before.

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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also shown how critical this Information Revolution has been. Families split between various corners of the earth have been able to see each other. Students, bereft of attending school physically, have managed to keep their learning on track through online classes. With airlines coming to a standstill, virtual meetings have kept businesses running. ‘Work from home’ has become commonplace across sectors, unlike being limited to the technology sectors only a few months ago. Shops may not be open, but online retail is booming. This is especially the case with grocery shopping, with multiple apps offering fresh food deliveries

So far, so good.

Now, let us look at the darker side. While we extol the virtues of a connected world, it is also a hard truth that millions worldwide remain cut off from the ‘information superhighway’. In a previous article, I mentioned the UN children’s agency saying at least a third of children couldn’t access remote learning when the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools, creating ‘a global education emergency’.

At the height of lockdowns meant to curb the pandemic, nearly 1.5 billion children were affected by school closures, UNICEF said. Thus, we can well imagine if these vast numbers of children remain cut off from the education grid, what impact it will have on their prospects in life.

The problems go far beyond education. As the internet proliferates into every aspect of our lives, the phenomenon of ‘digital divide’ is getting more stark, widening the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in this sphere as well. Again, economics come to play in this issue. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the specialised agency of the United Nations (UN), warned at the end of 2019 that almost half of the earth’s inhabitants — some 3.6 billion people — do not even have access to the internet, according to a report by Iberdrola, the Spanish utility.

While one part of the world talks of 5G, internet of Things, smart gadgets, there remains a vast portion of our planet where — forget the internet — access to basics like electricity and potable drinking water is a luxury. According to Our World in Data, almost a billion people, or 13 per cent of the world’s population, do not have access to electricity. A ‘connected world’ is a joke in poor taste for these teeming millions. And since participation in the modern economy is largely conditional on access to information and communication technologies (ICT), these people are likely to be bereft of the development that comes hand in hand with these technologies.

According to the Digital Divide Council, digital inequality is evident between communities living in urban areas and those living in rural settlements; between socioeconomic groups; between less economically developed countries and more economically developed countries; between the educated and uneducated population.

The Council identifies three critical aspects of the problem:

1. Gender Divide: Men in low-income countries are 90% more likely to own a mobile phone than women. This translates to 184 million women who lack access to mobile connectivity. Even among women owning mobile phones, 1.2 billion women in low and mid-income countries have no access to the internet.

2. Social Divide: Internet access creates relationships and social circles among people with shared interests. Social media platforms create online peer groups based on similar interests. This by definition creates an aura of exclusivity and thus social stratification. Non-connected groups are sidelined since they don’t share in the internet benefits of the connected groups.

3. Universal Access Divide: Individuals living with physical disabilities are often disadvantaged when it comes to accessing the internet. They may have the necessary skills but cannot exploit the available hardware and software. Some parts of the world will remain segregated from the internet and its vast potential due to lack of digital literacy skills, low education levels, and inadequate broadband infrastructure.

The problem of digital divide does not limit itself to the less developed countries. A report published last year by Microsoft estimated that 162.8 million people in the US — about half the country’s population — don’t use broadband internet, whether because it’s unavailable where they live or they can’t or won’t pay for access.

As a predominantly economic problem, the question of affordability remains at the heart of the digital divide. Let us take a typical case of a middle-income family with two children. Even taking into account that the family income has not diminished due to COVID-19, there would probably have been one laptop at home, as is the case in most households. But now, with the father working from home, and both children studying remotely, there would need to be three smart devices. Not only that, there would be the need for a reliable internet connection. All this together would put severe strain on the family finances, resulting in a possible disruption in the children’s education if these are not provided for. “Low-performance computers, limited broadband speeds and limited access to subscription-based content widen the gap,” the Digital Divide Council says in a report.

In this mad rush towards the latest and fastest tech, let us spare a thought for those in their twilight years. With the COVID-19 pandemic stalling global travel, many of our parents and grandparents are in limbo, without being able to call or speak to their loved ones. Yes, it’s all fine that the gadgets are available, but who will teach an 80-year old how to use a smartphone?

What is to be done? One solution being talked about is ‘software as a service’, Saas for short. The idea is to treat access to the internet as a basic infrastructural need, on the lines of electricity and water. If this is implemented, that would address the issue of affordability to an extent. But then the question would be how to pay for the vast infrastructural cost? Telecom majors who would invest in these networks would naturally need to recover the costs. As it is with depleting government revenues around the world, this question becomes critical in seeking solutions to this problem.

If we are to be truly connected, let us not forget those we leave behind. The digital divide is creating a new group of people segregated from the rest of the world. This exclusion is not only a matter of loss of economic opportunity, but of social mobility for billions. The issue needs to be addressed as a foremost policy challenge for governments around the world. Concerted global action is needed to ensure inclusiveness.