The great digital divide

Casey Park – Johannesburg – Picture courtesy of BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-45257901

When the pandemic first hit in March 2020, there was this joke doing the rounds on social media. It went something like this:

Who is leading Digital Transformation in your business:

The Chief Executive Officer?

the Chief Digital Officer?

Covid19?

Covid19 amplified the speed at which companies adopted digital technologies with the promise of huge benefits through remote working and improving the ability to telework. At the time the pandemic hit, I was studying an online international Diploma in Innovation and Design Thinking through Emeritus/MIT. We had a phenomenal bunch of people on our small but global team. One of our team members was an executive working at major global software company in the USA. In conversation, he mentioned that the company had been struggling to close deals over the past two years, however, in the first two months of the pandemic, they closed more deals than in the past two years. This was apparent in the their share price, where sales rose 15% and topped all analysts’ expectations.

While remote working is an amazing feat of human ingenuity and design, where we have the ability to stay in the comfort and safety of our own home and continue to work, at the same time, there is another reality. This reality was evident driving around Johannesburg while doing grocery shopping during level 5 lockdown. It was heart-wrenching. While the streets were deserted and the cars parked in their garages, there was an air of despair with people loitering the streets, looking more desperate than ever. Car guards, who usually make a few bucks each day, had nothing and could do nothing about it. There were ladies with children wrapped in blankets across their back, down-trodden, with practically nothing, and no hope, standing around, waiting for a small miracle.

While these scenes are present in everyday society, it reminds me of a quote by Susan Sontag, “To photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude”. When you exclude the hustle and bustle of everyday life, when the streets lay bare and exposed, the focus is enhanced, and images that are usually blurry, start to become clearer. 

The growing disparity was also apparent in images that hit news sites, of people in the Townships queuing for kilometres to get a food parcel and some sustenance in their stomachs.

While the pandemic has created a growing social, economic and industrial divide, the speed at which this new industrial revolution is occurring, the faster and more extensive the inequality becomes.  

This stark divide was most noticeable in the schooling systems. My daughter and her class transitioned to online schooling; teachers created excellent content; they experimented with different tools and technologies. The children embraced these technologies, and while it was good, I don’t think it was great. The school understands that good face-to-face and in-person teaching trumps good online learning.  At the same time, I believe that good online learning will be better than bad face-face learning, particularly in countries where good teachers are in short supply.

At the end of the final term, in our parent teacher’s meeting, I implored my daughter’s teacher to make all the content developed, freely available to other teachers online. This simple act is one step with the potential to help bridge a digital divide.

I firmly believe that technology brings equality. Any person across the world, armed with a smartphone and data, has access to the same information, the same content, and the same talks and presentations as leading CEOs. She could, for instance, go to YouTube and subscribe to talks presented at the World Economic Forum. She could learn to code, from programming languages designed for kids, such as Scratch to hardcore Machine Learning using Python. If need be, she could even learn how to manicure nails and create a small business doing that.

Students and workers who don’t have online access or the means to use digital tools and knowledge to participate in this new gig economy are at risk of being excluded.

As leaders, more often than not, we assume that people have ubiquitous internet access. The reality is that data is expensive. According to Cable.co.uk, which assess worldwide data prices, South Africa ranked 148th in terms of cost of data globally. The cost to access the internet in South Africa is on average about $4.30 for one gigabyte. Comparatively, in India, the cost of one gigabyte is on average $0.09. Given this disparity, South Africans have limited data plans, and relative to their earning, it is just not affordable.

Many businesses today, in order to reduce bandwidth costs, use web-filtering tools to block access to certain sites, particularly streaming services such as YouTube. The belief is that that if opened, there will not only be abuse, but it may take essential network resources away from “business-critical systems”. While abuse is inevitable, it is often the exception and not the rule. Additionally, the more senior or important people tend to get higher levels of access, with the general worker often getting limited access. They do not have an opportunity to participate in using these new learning platforms. In these instances, again, it’s the have-nots that have the most to lose.

In the age of digital, we do need to prioritise our most critical business systems, and I am of the opinion that people are our most critical business systems. They may be a complex adaptive system, but a system, nevertheless.

 In his book, Ready Player One, Ernest Cline creates a future, set in 2045, with a virtual world, called the OASIS. Anyone can connect to the OASIS with a VR headset and a haptic feedback suit. Their avatar in the OASIS has access to all books ever written, all TV shows and movies ever made, access to all games that were developed, they have access to the best virtual teachers and learning content, and can interact with anyone, across the globe. An equal and diverse society where anyone can be anything they want. People can even create their own personal virtual Worlds, not unlike Minecraft and Fortnite Creative today.  The story revolves an orphaned boy, Wade Watts, who, through his OASIS avatar, Parzival, must to find clues and solve puzzles to win a competition, where the winner gets ownership to the whole of the OASIS. Wade, a kid that has nothing in the real world, except a little food from his aunt, and a basic VR kit, has an abundance of knowledge, information and social interaction in this virtual world. Wade and his misfit friends team up to win the challenges, intending to keep the OASIS free. The adventure goes head to head against a huge corporation, run by businessman Nolan Sorrento, who also wants to win the competition to own rights to the OASIS. Instead, Sorrento intends to monetise the platform, charging people for all content accessed.

This story is indicative of where we are as a society; it is at this precipice where we have to make a decision. Do we build technologies that further divide humanity into the haves and the have-nots, do we become the Nolan Sorrento’s of the world, and prioritise profit over purpose, creating a greater digital divide?

Or do we strive to develop and upskill our youth and prepare them for a drastically different labour market in the future? Do we build technologies and solutions that help create a more inclusive society, one that encourages all to participate and contribute, a society less focused on short-termism, but rather built on inclusivity and sustainability. Do we instead build towards a vision of a better future for all?


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