Tales of the Chinese Railway: The Digital 1%, Vint Cerf’s Internet as a Human Right (Not), the Digital Divide and Effective Use

Posted on January 16, 2012


There is a very widespread belief that the increasingly ubiquitous availability of mobile communication and through this, access to wireless Internet, is somehow the resolution of the “digital (and other) divide(s)”.

Thus, a current news story from China:

To ease people’s woes, the central government this year launched a new online “ticketing system to curb long lines at stations and prevent scalpers from selling them in the black market.

To incentivize online buyers, the railway ministry increased the number of train seats available through the Internet and ticket hotlines.

However, …the new system has caused more grief than relief. Not only does the site crash on a regular basis, but most elderly and migrant workers — those who often struggle to buy tickets to begin with — find the system discriminatory, according to travelers at the Beijing station. “It’s not really fair. Most migrant workers don’t know how to go online and the ticket hotline is always busy. So all we can do is come here and wait in line,” said Qin, who works as a laborer in Beijing.

“Maybe the railway ministry can find an easier way or a solution for migrant workers to get tickets during the New Year.”

The new digitally-enabled system (presumably oriented toward mobile access as is much of the Internet in China) appears to be aggravating existing divisions between social and economic “have’s” and “have not’s” that is between those who have ready and usable access to the Internet and those who do not.

Thus, while I generally agree with Vint Cert’s argument that the Internet is simply a tool, it should I think, be seen rather more in the manner of the opposable thumb as a tool rather than as a 3d replicator or whatever. I also agree with his point that the Internet is an enabler of rights. However, the question I think, is not whether the Internet is a right (or a tool) or simply an enabler of rights but rather whether the Internet as a fundamental platform (and “opposable thumb”) for ensuring economic, social and even political participation in the 21st century is accessible to, and usable, by all.

After writing an open letter to complain that the online system gave the poor less of a chance to buy tickets because they were Internet-illiterate and didn’t have access to computers, Huang was given free airline tickets for his Spring festival journey to his hometown of Chonqging.

Others like Qin, who only holds a primary school education, haven’t been so lucky. “Sometimes, wealthier people have connections who can buy them tickets or computers at home, so they can go online,” said Qin.

“We could always buy plane tickets, but it’s a financial sacrifice for migrant workers and not so realistic.”

After more than a week of visiting the train station to wait in line for tickets and leaving empty-handed, Qin Yun has given up. He and his wife, both migrant workers in Beijing, hoped to buy tickets that would take them more than 2,000 km (1,242 miles) home to the southwestern province of Sichuan to spend the annual Spring Festival with their parents and teenage kids. On Monday, Qin managed to buy a train ticket for himself — a standing-only ticket on a cramped train for more than 40 hours. It’s been a year since the two of them have gone home.

“Standing is better than nothing,” said Qin. “My wife isn’t strong enough to stand for so long, so she’ll stay behind and spend the holiday alone.”

Among the possible “divides” suggested by this article there is that between those who have access and can pay for the physical devices delivering the Internet including in-home computers or mobiles; those who can afford to pay for the digital data/Internet service which in many locations is quite expensive relative to local incomes; those who have the literacy, numeracy and conceptual training and manual dexterity to master the use of the devices, the software and the applications (such as this one); the elderly and women who in many environments lack access to education and technical skills development; and those who do not.

I really have no idea what the end number would be if one cascaded all of the “divides” indicated in the above to find what overall proportion in a country or globally was in fact, able to make use of the various “opportunities” and benefits being offered by mobile and digital technologies. However, in the absence of winning the lottery (or being such a visible embarrassment that someone has to buy you off), or having a rich friend or relative, the reality of the online world (as with the world of the 99%) is that a very few will travel by plane or bullet train (or high speed Internet); rather more will find themselves standing for 40 hours waiting for their access; while many, even most others will not be “strong enough to stand for so long, so (they) will stay behind and spend the holiday (and the digitally enabled economy/society/polity) alone…”

There has been a justifiable celebration of the remarkable advance in communications and digital “access” via mobiles. Unfortunately this has been accompanied by a profound diversion of attention/interest and ultimately financial and programmatic support away from responding to the various divides of the digital era. While these divides have shifted with mobiles, it should be clear from the above example and many others that these have not disappeared.

Some ten years ago I argued the need for giving policy and programmatic attention to what I called “effective use” beyond the Digital Divide (DD). Regrettably the profound technology advances of these ten years, and the accompanying attention being given to the social, political and cultural significance of these technologies has not to my mind changed the conclusion that I drew at the time:

What is needed is both access (bridging the DD) but also the means for using technology in an effective way to respond to real crises in health care, education, economic development, and resource degradation. For these issues to be successfully addressed through the use of ICTs, attention will need to be paid not simply to “access” but also to an entire range of supports for “effective use”.