From digital divide to digital inequality-shifting the ICT4D discourse: ACIST 2017 Keynote

Alison Gillwald, Research ICT Africa, UCT Graduate School of Development, Policy and Practice
African Conference on Information Technology and Systems (ACIST 2017)
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA, 10th – 11th July 2017

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and associated targets are intended to stimulate action until 2030 in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet. Although ICTs are not mentioned directly in any of the 17 targets, ICT are acknowledged as an enabler of many of them. Of the 167 indictors identified, there are seven ICT indicators based on ICT sub-targets. These include the primary goal of eliminating poverty, reducing gender inequality, improving inequitable education, resilient infrastructure and peaceful societies for sustainable development. Like the Millennium Development Goals before them in so far as ICT were indirectly included, the focus is on the digital divide. This divide has been conceptualised, measured and targets set in relation to ‘physical access’. The policies and strategies to bridge it focus primarily on supply side and infrastructural strategies, now to “Connect the Last Billion,” to use the mantra of the donor organisations, global foundations and multilateral agencies that have mobilized around the SDGs.

The session will start with a broad critique of the notions of ‘development’ in the SDG and explore who they are intended to serve through the lens of ICT. We will discuss some of the tensions and contradictions in the SDGs, which are pervasive in the ICT4D discourse more generally, and the approach and the measures used to monitor the progress towards the attainment of the SDGs. We will explore why connectivity alone does not reduce digital inequality and how from a policy perspective our central policy challenge is that as we increase ICT access and use as we move from voice to data services and beyond to Over the Top platforms, Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence so digital inequality is amplified.

We will examine some of the reasons why, even where we have strong supply side interventions with over 90% mobile coverage and even 40% of the population owning smart devices, in many countries we cannot reach the 20% Internet penetration rate necessary to reach the critical mass required to enjoy networks effects associated not only with economic growth and wellbeing, but also with public and social value. We will deal with the dangers of #policymaking and interventions that focus only on affordability and the consumptive dimensions of policy outcomes. Nor can public policy have a narrow sectoral focus any longer. I will argue for a shift from narrow technologically deterministic conceptions that characterise the digital divide discourse to broader notions of digital inequality.

This will require a shift from the consumptive focus to a more holistic one that recognized the productive aspects of ICTs to redress digital inequality. This requires recognition of the demand side value of improved information flows and reduced transaction costs from information infrastructure investment and to linkages and complexity of the entire ICT ecosystem.  It will also require a less instrumental approaches to technology, competition and regulation. From a development perspective, this means abandoning technologically deterministic policy approaches in favor of a rights-based approach to Internet if critical resource management is to be transformative.

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