Until recently, the digital divide1 was a big concern for the new global age of technological prosperity.
While many where discovering this new thing called the internet, a vast majority of the world population hadn’t ever used, yet–alone–owned, a computer. The $100 Laptop seemed like the most logical weapon to fight unequal access to digital technologies.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the Web: mobile phones.
It suddenly became apparent that while the original concerns where still valid, human ingenuity and limited resources had provided solutions that even surprised the developers themselves.
The change was subtle, yet important: billions still hadn’t ever seen Excel, but hundreds of millions now had access to a calculator for the first time.
While WebMD was inaccessible to those without computers, cheap mobile phones allowed the doctor in a village to call another doctor in a town and have a more accurate diagnostic faster than ever before.
Suddenly —even before PayPal had even tried it— payments through SMS started to crop out in places that didn’t even have a stable currency.
We where blindsided by our vision of a future.
The Networking Gap
Again, the fundamental concerns brought by the digital divide are still valid: unequal access to information technologies has an inverse multiplier effect that can be costly socially.
However, if the last round taught us anything, is not to limit our perception that technological innovations only occurs in a few hubs around the world.
Access to innovation seems to be the big factor.
My gut feeling tells me that greater bandwidth infrastructure should be the new $100 Laptop, something along the lines of the $10 Mbyte internet plan. But I would be making the same mistake as before, looking at a problem through my own looking glass and hindsight.
A more pragmatic approach would be to make sure things like cloud computing technologies (or whatever we are calling it this quarter) are readily available.
Even though these technologies seem to be concentrating in developed markets (Google, Amazon, Microsoft), competition forces are producing a fair number of open-source tools that might eventually trickle down.
Information Highways and Bike Lanes
However this plays out, there is one constant factor that needs attention: the importance of the open web. Regardless of connection speed, standards need to be maintained.
Do not worry about how an user without broadband is going to download that humongous file, just make sure that there is a way for him to access it.
And if we’re really smart, we should get off our roadster every once in while and observe what people on the bikes are doing.
The highway may be faster, but the bike lane has a lot more people on it.
While in college I got the chance to participate in Harvard’s Model United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force (why yes, you can call an Academic Geek). I didn’t even win a participation badge, but I did learn a lot about the two topics that year: Digital Divide and Electronic Privacy. ↩