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Zones of Silence

May 2, 2010

Over the past decade the digital divide has been the subject of much attention from development agencies, researchers, NGOs, governments, and the private sector. Yet, digital divide work frequently ignores information about what it is like on “the other side of the information highway”.

Check out my article from 2006 on that topic in the international communications journal First Monday (full text available). The issues raised in this article led, in part, to our 2009/2010 study for the FCC on why approximately 1/3 of Americans don’t have the internet at home, and to subsequent work focused on using research to bring perspectives that haven’t been considered to the decision-making table.

The article starts out like this:

As the designer of a Web site for a project connecting Canada, Brazil, and Angola I began to become concerned with how, and if, it would be useful to all three project teams. The project’s goal was to develop and share knowledge about building food security (people’s ability to access affordable and acceptable food) through online courses, workshops, and local pilot projects. Communication by the Internet was key to the project’s design, but besides our language differences, I realized that I knew little about the context in which the Web site and its resources would be used outside of Canada. According to statistics, Internet and computer access differed significantly among the three countries, but what did this mean? What sort of information would be most relevant to each partner? How useful would resources written only in English be? Where and how would project team members access the Internet? Did their access to and use of computers differ from my own?

Perhaps one of the most exciting possibilities of the Internet is the potential it has to connect people who have ideas, stories, and advice to share with each other. Currently, technology funds for development projects are aimed at enabling this. Making access possible to computers and the Internet is seen as a means of overcoming the “digital divide”. Or, as a way of alleviating “information poverty” by helping those in the countries, communities, or households where access to new information and communication technologies (ICTs) is not easy — to have the same type of information resources that information “haves” enjoy. With access to new resources and experts, it is argued, people will be able to solve many of the issues they face at a local level.

Over the past decade this issue, the digital divide, has been the subject of much attention from development agencies, researchers, NGOs, governments, and the private sector. Given this attention, I expected to find a good deal of work on what it is like to live and work on “the other side of the information highway”, the places where access to computers and the Internet is tricky or presently non–existent, and where development agencies, corporations, researchers, and others believe such access would improve lives. Listening to stories from or of these places, I felt, would help me to begin to learn how to work with my project partners in Brazil and Angola by showing me what questions it might be important to start by asking.

Yet, finding these stories was difficult. Current research provides very few images of what it is, in fact, like to be a “have not”, or to live and work on this “other side” of the divide. These non–connected spaces are defined in most cases as the places, communities, or households in need of ICTs. The simplistic view of these regions as, lacking, poor, and voiceless reflects the binary “have”/“have not” logic of the digital divide. This is not to say that people working on digital divide projects necessarily share this point of view. Many do not, but wider perspectives are difficult to articulate within the discourse. More troubling, the lack of attention to these spaces points to the ways that the digital divide is in some ways a continuation of “the West knows best” (modernization) paradigm in development. The digital divide discourse does encompass ideas about the importance of local context, for example, by promoting projects that provide communities with ICTs to access information to “solve their own problems.” Yet, digital divide work often assumes, one, that ICTs will be helpful, and two, that they will be used for educational, economic, and other “worthwhile” projects. As with the technology transfer programs of the past, the West’s ideas about technology’s usefulness and how it will be used, are not necessarily accurate (for example, see Dagron, 2001; Gunkel, 2003; Prahalad, 2005).

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Policy, Projects, Social Impact, User Experience