Let’s Talk About a Digital Transition Rather than a Digital Divide

Posted on April 2, 2010

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One benefit of the kind of multi-country intra-region travel that I’ve just completed is the opportunity it provides to do some sort of (superficial?) comparison as between the various places visited.

Focusing as I was on ICT and Development and as a consequence having a somewhat unconventional set of access points to the various countries visited one element jumped out at me as I was moving from country to country.  I’ll term that issue the “Digital Transition” (not to be confused with the use of the term in various countries to describe a shift from analogue to digital television signals!).

What I mean by a “Digital Transition” in this context is when a country (and this seems to be more or less a national rather than a local matter) shifts over from a pre-digital—largely manual framework of communications, information and logistics management and transaction management—to one that is digitally (generally but not exclusively Internet) based.

The transition has occurred when there are electronic/digital means for communications between individuals, individuals and businesses, businesses and businesses, individuals and governments and so on.  In this area as in others while cellular communications is an element in the transition a country which has total penetration of cellular but minimal penetration of Internet will not in fact have gone through the transition since cellular communication is in these countries is primarily for inter-individual synchronous (real time) communication (including with individuals in businesses and governments) but is not of a nature to provide the kind of communication required for asynchronous (not real time) communication which is in fact, the preferred mode of communication to, from and between governments and businesses.

What this means is that in a country which has gone through the “transition” there are digital means for gathering information from and communicating with companies and governments as for example, through the availability and widespread visibility of web sites and their e-addresses as well as email addresses for individuals and enterprises of various kinds.

As well it means that there is the possibility of conducting and managing digitally based and asynchronous communications and transactions again between individuals but particularly between individuals, businesses and government as for example, through online registrations, form filling, purchasing, and so on.

Countries which have not gone through this Digital Transition are effectively hamstrung since they are unable to for example, handle fairly complex multi-party communications or transactions; handle fairly complex transactions requiring asynchronous examination, offline records, external data lookups and so on; or support information processes requiring access to multiple information sources, international references and sources, rapid interlinking of information sources.

The overall effect of this being-on-the-wrong-side of the Digital Transition (pre-Transition) is that a country is unable to move forward with anything like the speed or the virtuous cycles available to those who have made the transition.  While relatively simple information management and transaction processes can be accommodated within exclusively cellular communication interactions, the more complex processes for example those involved in logistics or transaction management either at the individual or business level is extremely difficult and time and resource consuming.

Once the Transition has taken place, the processes of interaction between individuals and institutions and between institutions themselves, will begin to increase at an accelerating rate. As well, they will set loose a set of self-supporting economic and social processes towards a Digital Transformation where digital and Internet technologies provide a basic platform on which is built (or rebuilt) the range of economic, social, political and cultural activities of which daily life in a digital society is constituted.  As part of this transformation digital processes will begin to take hold in the variety of other sectors including education, commerce, government and so on (of course at varying rates depending on resource availability, government policy, private investment and so on).

However, in the absence of the basic Digital Transition all of these developments will be fragmentary and delayed and excessively costly and ultimately unsuccessful in realizing the transformational benefits which have been anticipated and which were the ultimate goal of the individual investments which have been made.

Achieving the Digital Transition would seem to be the result of positive government policy and the absence of restrictive policies.  Thus for example, positive policies supporting:

  • the widespread availability of low cost connectivity
  • enabling and legalizing of electronic transactions
  • providing widespread access to government information online
  • the development of online functionalities of wide public interest and value as for example, government registrations and documentation, and
  • policies and programmes supporting widely available public access

as well, where there is an absence of restrictive policies as for example:

  • requiring manual or paper based documentation
  • restricting competition, cost or availability of Internet service
  • restricting access to government information

will all either promote or delay the Digital Transition.

I first started thinking about the issue of a “Digital Transition” when I went directly from Malaysia to Sri Lanka and from an environment which was very similar to that which could be found in Canada or any other digitally developed country to one where communication via cell phone was pervasive but where there seemed to be relatively little broader based digitally enabled information or communications management or digitally enabled transactions.

In a pre-Transition country government information may be available online but there were very limited opportunities (or requirements or incentives) to access these; credit card use is very limited; there is little access to computer training in schools (or even colleges apart from for fee training courses) and overall the public discourse including among the young does not include a “digital dimension” (a good indicator of being pre-Digital Transition would likely be a low percentage of young people participating in social networking sites like Facebook!).

My thinking about the Digital Transition was further reinforced when I had the opportunity of attending a major event as part of the Digital Bangladesh initiative.  What occurred to me regarding Digital Bangladesh is that what they are seeking with this initiative is in fact a Digital Transition even in a context (or perhaps because of a context) where cell phone communications is almost pervasive and reportedly the least expensive in the world.

Even with the all pervasive cell communications Bangladesh (as with many other pre-Digital Transition countries in North and sub-Saharan Africa for example) lacks is an integrated digital network of communications as an underpinning for information and transaction management and distribution.  In these contexts the entire economy is restricted in its development as for example through the inability to purchase airline tickets online or the unavailability of URL’s for the distribution of information on or remote access to businesses or governments.  In these contexts access to the Internet is so limited particularly in rural areas where the bulk of populations in these countries reside that even with digital development in the urban (and “Developed”) portion of the economy the absence of access and use among the overall majority of the population means that there is little demand (or incentives) for or pressure to achieve a widespread Digital Transition.

This absence goes beyond the notion of the Digital Divide since it suggests that for pre-Transition countries even those parts of the economy or society on the “Developed” side of the Digital Divide are restricted in their opportunities for or capacity to realize the benefits of digital devices and the Internet. Thus, simply looking at these issues as those of a “Digital Divide” may lead to inappropriate or inadequate policy or programming. By focusing simply on extending digital access to those currently excluded from this in a piecemeal way there may be a failure to recognize that the issues involved and which need to be overcome because of  the related negative effects they have on economic development have to be addressed in a holistic rather than a programme or sector specific way.

Perhaps more important this suggests that even in a context where there is almost universal cell phone access this is not sufficient to bring about the Digital Transition which is necessary to begin to achieve the broader systemic benefits of digital and Internet access and use and ultimately to overcome was has been termed the Digital Divide which is currently dividing both societies within themselves and the world at large between digitally enabled countries and those that have not as yet realized these benefits.

Posted in: ICT Policy