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Digital Divide: The Other Side

Blograrians overseas are debating whether the term "digital divide" should be retired. It all started with "Digital Divide - Tired Old Cliche" and continued with "On the Digital Divide," "The Poor Will Always Be With Us" (don't forget to read the comments), and "the world is not flat." The last is the only one with input from someone in the developing world.

Well, I've written in the past about how very few Filipinos have access to the Internet; I've asked whether a librarian is truly computer-literate if s/he doesn't know what a search engine is; and I've ridiculed the suggestion that the study of information technology does not belong in the LIS curriculum. But I haven't written about the digital divide. Let me correct that now.

"Digital divide" suggests a division between the "haves" and the "have-nots." But what exactly do the haves have and the have-nots don't? Is it just computers? Not exactly. The ability to use computers? Still not quite right. The haves, in my opinion, are those who have the capacity to experiment with and use the latest technology. The have-nots are those who don't know that technology can make their lives easier and, if confronted with a machine, think that pressing the wrong button will cause it to explode.

I have referred to "technology," instead of just "computers," because the digital divide also separates those who use cellular phones and those who don't. And then there are those who can withdraw cash from a machine and those who can't. For a concrete example, see what Peachy Limpin, Filipina Teacher-Librarian, wrote recently in "ATM Literacy."

Is the division caused solely by the lack of access to resources? Well, the rich are more likely to be haves because they can afford the latest technology, but there are still many of them who can't—or won't—use something new because of fear that it will cause problems later on. Our family is not all that rich, but my mother only agreed to get a credit card many years after her three children already had theirs. She is also now able to use a cellular phone, but still doesn't know how to use a computer. And no, she has never withdrawn cash from a machine and still constantly updates her bank passbook.

It might also be said that the poor are more likely to be have-nots, but there are more than just a few who are able to embrace and learn the latest technology. How? At work, in school, and because of Internet "cafes," which are very common in the Philippines, but are hard to find in developed countries. In the United States, if someone doesn't have access to a computer at work or at home, s/he can go to a public library. Here, where public libraries are lucky to have even one computer, s/he pays for access at an Internet cafe.

And then there's employment. "School on wheels cruises QC" by DJ Yap (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 27 August 2005) shows that individuals with basic computer skills are more likely to get hired than those who don't. It also presents anecdotal evidence that the digital divide is not just a function of age.

This article reminded me of my 1995 trip to Culion, Palawan—which, at that time, was an "offline" island: no telephone calls could be made to Manila except through a pay-per-call provider, and television sets were used only to watch videos because there was no signal. It was there that I met Dario Saniel, a Jesuit priest, who brought computers from Manila so that he could teach the locals how to turn them on, use programs and print documents. Why? Because it would get them hired if they wished to work in Manila.

Ten years later, the technological landscape has changed, but the digital divide is still there. No, it's not just a matter of having computers (as some of our congressmen think); it's about knowing how to use the available technology to accomplish more. Maybe the term "digital divide" has become an over-used cliche, but we have to call it something. Some people talk about it, some even study it, but here in the Philippines, we live with it.

Category: Information Technology

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