Digital Dividends Mean Nothing to Those on the Wrong Side of the “Digital Divide”

digital divide

Most people in relatively affluent countries take Internet access for granted: we run our businesses as well as increasingly significant parts of our personal lives with a staggering array of online utilities, apps, social media sites and the like. We use the Web to bank, to shop, to pay bills, to entertain ourselves, to communicate with loved ones, to do our jobs. We go online to buy a car, sell a house, shop around for a loan, or seek out the love of our lives. Take away our Internet and we may feel – and indeed be – crippled in our ability to function in everyday life. But many people who spend a lot of their time online are still not taking full advantage of the Internet, and millions more lack any Internet access at all.

“Digital dividends” can save you thousands of pounds a year

While many people know to go online to look for a better deal if they can’t find a satisfactory one offline, a recent UK Consumer Index report from Lloyds Bank found that around 11 million UK adults have “low levels of digital capability”. This is another way of saying that they are missing out on the significant potential benefits of online products, services, and money-saving tools. They’re not downloading vouchers and coupons, searching for online-only product and service discounts, visiting auction websites for deeply-discounted products, or perusing some of the many useful comparison and consumer help sites.

The previously-mentioned report, based upon data collected on one million people from across the UK and a separate survey of more than 2,700 people, found that roughly 70 percent of respondents used online money-saving resources on a regular basis, and by so doing saved an average of £744 per year. Fully 11 percent of respondents saved considerably more, over 2,400 per year. 82 percent of respondents saved on holiday bookings and 79 percent realized savings on insurance premiums. Other areas where respondents saved by utilising online resources included clothing (70 percent) and utility bills (65 percent).
Clearly, being digitally competent provides, as Martha Lane Fox of Go ON UK put it, “tangible financial benefits”.

But in order to be tech-savvy, you have to have the tech.

People at the lower income scale who earned less than £15,000 but accessed the Internet to save money still managed to save an average of £516 per year. However, all the talk about the monetary advantages of being tech-savvy is moot for those on the wrong side of the “digital divide” – that is, people with very little or no Internet access. And according to a World Bank report issued in January 2016, there is a growing digital divide, globally, between the rich and poor. The number of people worldwide who have Internet access has more than tripled in the last decade, from roughly 1 billion to approximately 3.5 billion, but that number still falls far short of being half the world’s estimated 4 billion total population. (Note: the page on the above link has a direct link to the World Bank report, which provides more in-depth discussion of the subject.)

We must overcome our ‘analog’ as well as our digital obstacles

On the surface, it might appear that the greatest impediment to expanding Internet access and all its benefits to that underserved majority would be the fact that the cost of Internet access and the devices required is beyond the range of what the poorest can afford. Looking a bit deeper, however, it becomes obvious that many under-developed countries lack the political and business climate and the infrastructure required to provide access to online resources or, for that matter, for the full realm of benefits available to be realised even if full access were to be provided.

Furthermore, even if universal access to online resources were achieved, much of the poorest segment of the population still suffers from a lack of basic education; the lack of basic reading skills, much less the absence of rudimentary technical skills, renders even the most powerful online tools useless.

Obviously, focusing efforts on providing universal Internet access is not enough. As the World Bank report notes, “To get the most out of the digital revolution, countries also need to work on the ‘analog complements’ – by strengthening regulations that ensure competition among businesses, by adapting workers’ skills to the demands of the new economy, and by ensuring that institutions are accountable.”

In other words: we’ve come a long way, but we’ve still a long way to go, and addressing the technical roadblocks to progress may well prove to be the simplest obstacle to overcome.

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