Talking about the digital divide is a bit passé. It was once a major issue. According to digital policy expert Sonia Arrison, in the late nineties “the Rev. Jesse Jackson called the digital divide ‘classic apartheid,’ the NAACP’s Kweisi Mfume dubbed it ‘technological segregation,’ and President Clinton urged a ‘national crusade’.” International institutions funded programs to study and go about closing the divide.
Yet as the number of people connected to the Internet soars year upon year – and the number of people with mobile phones increases even faster – it seems that the majority of the world’s citizens could easily be connected within a generation through market forces alone. In Digital Activism Decoded (PDF), the chapter on the digital divide, “Economic and Social Factors: The Digital (Activism) Divide,” is largely positive, noting the empowerment of existing elites, but also focusing on leapfrogging and the more subtle skills divide among people who are already connected. The Digital Divide Network, started in 1999 to build international collaboration to combat the problem went dormant in 2005 for lack of attention and was recently turned into a static archive because of the large amount of spam on its message boards. It is now a digital graveyard, a reminder of past interest in the problem, and the current lack of interest.
Yet an excellent photo essay from The New York Times Magazine reminds us of other graveyards of the digital divide. As the rich and highly -connected worry about the reception problems of the iPhone 4, children in Ghana burn donated computers in the hopes of extracting metals for resale (photo left). Not only is this another story of the terrible effects of e-waste on human and environmental health, it is also an irony of well-meaning attempts to close the digital divide: many of the computers that find their way to the Agbogbloshie dump are second-hand donations from the US and Europe. Rather than helping the children of Africa to bridge the digital divide, these machines are poisoning them with toxic levels of lead and PCBs.
There is no easy answer to this problem of the extremely poor not only being left out of the digital revolution but also being victimized by it. Much of the blame should be laid on the wasteful and insouciant consumption of the rich world, so well explained in the short film The Story of Stuff. The rich technology users of the world – myself included – should use this as a reminder of the ugly (and largely hidden) effects of the technology boom. Next time you are considering the purchase of a new gadget, remember that in a few years it will be poisoning the soil of Ghana (or India, or China…) and ask yourself if you really need it.
Image: Pieter Hugo