The four digital divides

Written by  Kenneth Keniston

Amongst the earliest to draw attention to the digital divide in India was Kenneth Keniston of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writing in this excerpt, of a time (2002) when India had 3% telephone connectivity, 6 million computers and roughly 1 million internet connections. Though 300 million Indians are online by end-2014, we still have a long way to go to bridge the four digital divides described in this essay

In the last decades, the world has begun to undergo a new technologically-driven revolution, allegedly leading toward what is commonly called ‘the Information Age’. Impelled by the phenomenal proliferation of computers and information devices, closely linked to an explosion of processing and access speeds, ever-lowering costs of memory and other critical components, convergence of images, sounds and writing in one digital medium, and propagated by a worldwide network of satellites and broadband fiber optic cables, this Information Age already is a reality to millions in all countries of the world. To be sure, this revolution is part of the long-term development of electronic communication technologies that includes: in the nineteenth century, the telegraph and telephone; in the mid-twentieth, broadcast media like radio and television; more recently, networks like Ernet in India or Ethernet in the US. But the last two decades have seen an explosive and unprecedented growth in these commonly called 'information and communication technologies (ICTs).'

The revolution has been as dramatic, rapid, and far-reaching as the agricultural revolution, the first industrial revolution (around factory production and the steam engine), and its sequel, based on the chemical and electrical industries. What is remarkable about the current 'information technology' revolution is the extraordinary rapidity of change it encapsulates. For example, it took at least a century before the printing press touched 50 million individuals. It took 38 years for radio to reach the same number, and 13 years for television. But the World Wide Web, in only four years, exceeded the 50,000,000 mark. Never before has a communications revolution spread so rapidly.

Like all technological revolutions, this one has inspired optimistic hopes and fantasies. It is said that the 'Digital Age' has brought (or will soon bring) transparency of government, rationality of markets, universal access to information, the riches of the world's many cultures for all, formation of new international communities, availability of life-and health-enhancing information to ordinary people throughout the world, and finally (it is implied), blessings of democracy and prosperity for all the world's 6 billion citizens.

Our purpose of this volume is to ask how, if at all, modern ICTs can fulfil this promise, especially for the 80% of the world's people in developing nations.

For despite all utopian dreams, the Information Age has so far touched only a tiny minority of the world's population. If we define household access to the World Wide Web as a criterion for joining the Information Age, less than 5% of the world's population of 6 billion had gained access by the year 2002 (doubtless, virtually every reader of this book belongs to that group). The question is how and whether the Information Age can improve the condition of life for the other 95%.

That question suddenly began to be asked with increasing urgency as the ‘digital divide’ became headline news, starting about 1999. Alongside the optimism and hype surrounding the Information Age, new voices noted that most people, in most countries of the world, remained completely untouched by this revolution. Surveys revealed massive differences between access to ICTs in economically developed countries like the United States and Australia -- differences between the rich and the poor, whites and non-whites, educated and the non-educated. Discrepancies in ICT access between the so-called ‘North’ (industrialized and wealthy nations like the US, West Europe, and Japan) and the ‘South’ (virtually all developing nations) are massive, overwhelming and apparently increasing. Our first task is therefore to try to understand the nature of this ‘digital divide’ or as I will argue, the four digital divides that separate the information-rich and -poor -- that is, the divides between those included in and excluded from the Information Age.

The four digital divides

The ‘digital divide’ is widely regarded as a unitary phenomenon. And as a first approximation, it is indeed useful to distinguish, in a general way, between the rich and powerful who are part of the Information Age and the poor and powerless who are not. But viewed analytically, there is not one, there are three digital divides -- and emerging in many nations a fourth.

The first divide is that which exists within every nation, industrialized or developing, between those who are rich, educated, and powerful, and those who are not. For example, income and education in the United States distinguish dramatically between those who own computers and those who do not, as between those who can access the Internet and those who cannot. In the United States, where household telephone penetration is about 95%, in 1999 households with incomes over $75,000 (roughly, the top 10%) were 20 times more likely to have Internet access than those in the lowest income brackets: 80% of the rich and 5% of the poor had access to the Internet. If we analyze home ownership of computers, rich households were nine times more likely to own one. If we compare Americans with four years or more of university with those who have six years or less education, computer ownership figures are 69% versus 8% and the Internet access percentages are 49% versus 3%. Similar results were found in a survey in Australia.

As of mid-2002, no comparable studies have been conducted in India, where telephone connectivity is extremely low (about 3%) and the installed base of computers and Internet connections even lower. But the overall pattern is clearly similar to that in America. As of early-2002, there were approximately 6 million computers in India, of which perhaps two-thirds were in businesses, schools, government offices, etc -- leaving, at a high estimate, 2 million computers in households. In mid-2002, there were probably about a million Internet connections in India, again most of them in institutional settings rather than individual households. A figure of 1,000, 000 Indian Internet-connected households (out of about 200,000,000 households) in 2002 would be on the high side.

Assuming three computer and Internet users per household, we arrive at a figure of 6 million Indians who have computer access at home and perhaps 3 million who have Internet access. (This compares with well over 70% household computer saturation and 60% household Internet connection in the US in 2002.) In India, then, in mid-2002, with a 1 billion population, less than 1% has home access to computers, and at most 0.5% of the population has home access to the Internet.

Who are the 'connected' in India? Obviously, as a group, they are a small, rich, successful and English-speaking minority. For all of its ancient cultural wealth, despite the persistence of old elites and the emergence of new elites, India remains one of the world's poorest societies. Details are known to all Indians and are available in any almanac: hundreds of millions go to bed hungry; more than 40% of the population are illiterate; tens of millions of children are not in school; as many as 50% of all Indian newborns are born below ideal birth weight; preventable diseases cause millions of deaths; and in many regions, corruption is widespread and stands in the way of well-intentioned programs reaching their intended beneficiaries. Telephone connectivity in India is about 3% and will not rise much above that level unless the cost of connections (the so-called 'last mile' cost) can be lowered. The obstacles are economic, as Ashok Jhunjhunwala notes in this volume: not much more than 3% of the Indian population can afford to pay the real costs of a new telephone line. This group is, by definition, the most affluent group in India, concentrated in the major cities where connections are most widely available. Despite the success of PCO/STD/ISD booths (manned pay phones) in cities and villages, and despite repeated government promises to provide telephone connections to all of India's 700,000 villages, many Indian villages remain without any. As a result, most rural Indians have never made a telephone call. In short, there can be no doubt of a massive digital divide in India based on income, related to education and urban residence, and correlated with economic, political and cultural power.

A second digital divide, less often noted, is linguistic and cultural. In many nations this divide separates those who speak English or another West European language from those who do not. But even in the United States, where well over 95% of all inhabitants speak fluent English, there are large differences in access to ICTs among different ethnic and cultural groups. For example, in 1998, Asian American households (largely of South Asian or South Pacific Asian extraction) had 55% computer ownership, white Americans had 52%, while Americans of Hispanic origin had 25% and blacks 23% respectively. An even larger gap separated Asian Americans and whites from blacks and Hispanics with regard to Internet access.

It might be argued that these differences in the US are the simple corollary of the income disparities between Americans of European or Asian origin and Americans of African or Hispanic origin. This inference is only correct in part. For example among American households with annual incomes below $35,000 (below the median), in 1998, Internet access among white and Asian American families was more than three times greater than among black or Hispanic families. Similarly, among college students, 80% of white students but only 40% of black students had Internet access. I know of no study that examines the 'culture' of American Web sites; but few sites in the US specifically address the interests, concerns or assumptions of African Americans or Hispanic Americans, while most take for granted the prevailing outlook of the dominant, English-speaking 'Anglo-Saxon' culture.

These cultural disparities, dramatic in the US, are far more notable in India, where they are compounded by linguistic issues. An estimated 60-80% of all Web sites in the world are in English while almost all the rest are in one of the major 'Northern' languages like Japanese, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and increasingly Chinese. But in India, like the rest of South Asia, only an estimated 2-10% of the population speaks fluent English while the rest (more than 900 million Indians and about 1.2 billion South Asians) speak other languages.

For Indians who speak no (or little) English, the barriers to the Information Age are almost insuperable. All widely-used operating systems require some knowledge of English or one of the 'Northern' languages. Thus, in practice, unless Indians know English, which most Indians do not, no matter how wealthy, brilliant, educated, prosperous or motivated they may be, computer use and Internet access are effectively out of the question. The result is a self-confirming prophecy: since there is so little software in any language other than English, virtually everyone in South Asia who uses computers knows English. Therefore, software manufacturers can argue -- not incorrectly -- that 'there is no market' for Indian language software.

Of course the 50 or so million Indians who speak fluent English by no means constitute a representative sample of the Indian population: they again tend to be prosperous, urban, highly educated, concentrated in technical fields. They are, in a word, members of the Indian elite, where English is the lingua franca. For the great majority of Indians, however, computers are linguistically inaccessible and therefore useless. As Professor Vijay Chandru of the Indian Institute of Science commented, half seriously, at the 1998 conference, 'The reason Indians don't have computers is because they are so smart. What can the average Indian do with a computer?'

To linguistic inaccessibility in India is added the absence of culturally relevant content. The number of Web sites in 2000 in India is small in any case, but the number of sites in Indian languages is miniscule. To be sure, a few gifted programmers are attempting to change this, and sites are beginning to appear in languages with vast populations of mother tongue speakers like Hindi, Bengali or Tamil. But to all intents and purposes, the many, ancient, rich, and sophisticated cultures that make up India remain almost invisible on the Web. And absent good, low-cost Indian language software, the technical challenges of producing a Website in Telegu, Tamil or Hindi guarantee that these cultures will remain almost invisible. What is remarkable is that a handful of dedicated Indian programmers have actually begun to overcome these challenges.

In short, related to the digital divide that springs from wealth and power is a second divide related to the dominance of the English language and of what is loosely called 'Anglo-Saxon culture.' Most Web sites in the world originate in the United States, in predominantly English-speaking nations like Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, or in the English-speaking populations of nations and city-states like India, South Africa, Singapore, and Hong Kong. A few writers have spoken of "American cultural imperialism" on the Internet; a less tendentious phrase would be "Anglo-Saxon linguistic and cultural hegemony."

The third digital divide follows inevitably from the first two -- it is the growing digital gap between the rich and the poor nations. The 1999 United Nations Report on Human Development devotes much of a chapter to the widening gap between the information-rich nations of the North and the information-poor nations of the South. At one extreme are the United States and the 'Nordic' countries like Sweden, Germany, Finland, and Iceland, where household telephone connectivity is well over 90%, computer saturation is over 50%, and home-based Internet connectivity averages over 50%. At the other extreme lies most of Africa, most of South America, South Asia, China, Indonesia, and so on -- the 80% of the world where telephone connectivity is 3% or less (less than 30 million/1 billion in India), home computer ownership is 1 - 2% and Internet connectivity less than half of that.

The reason why the digital divide between nations is increasing seems clear. If widespread access to ICTs gives a nation an advantage, and lack of access leaves it at a disadvantage, then the maxim, "To those who have shall be given" applies with special force to the international digital divide. The international disparity in access to ICTs is of course an aspect of -- indeed a reflection of -- other disparities between rich and poor nations. But insofar as ICTs are themselves enabling, facilitating, and wealth-creating, the international divide in information technology widens the already great gulf between North and South.

To these three digital divides we can add, in countries like India and America, yet a fourth: the emergence of a new elite group, which can be called the ‘digerati’. By ‘digerati’ I mean the beneficiaries of the enormous successful information technology industry and the other knowledge-based sectors of the economy such as biotechnology and pharmacology. Time and again in India, for example, brilliant graduates of Indian Institutes of Technology or major engineering colleges and universities who chose to concentrate in the natural sciences, mechanical engineering or chemical engineering comment that their equally gifted classmates who entered computer science or biotechnology are now earning many times their incomes and living in an altogether different way.

Unlike older Indian elites, the privileges of the new digerati are based not on caste, inherited wealth, family connections or access to traditional rulers, but on a combination of education, brainpower, special entrepreneurial skills and ability to stay on the ‘cutting edge’ of knowledge. The lifestyle of the digerati tends to be cosmopolitan: they provide the clientele for the boutiques, the coffeehouses, the travel agencies, the pubs, and the international airways that whisk them to vacations or assignments in Singapore, London, Zurich, Mauritius, San Jose or Kathmandhu. On the outskirts of Chennai, Poona, Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi, and Hyderabad luxury apartments are rising to house this new group. Although initially concentrated in information technology, this new digerati are also found, to varying degrees, in the biotech, pharmaceutical and other high-tech areas. In India, their salaries are still relatively low by Western standards, but, with annual salary growth rates of over 20% for the last five or ten years, far above those of their otherwise equally educated classmates in India.

In America a similar phenomenon is visible in areas like Silicon Valley, Austin TX, the Research Triangle of North Carolina, and a dozen other ‘high-tech’ areas. Before the market correction of ‘Dot-com’ stocks in 2000, it was said that in Silicon Valley, 64 people became millionaires every day. The world of high-level programmers, systems analysts, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists has a culture, a lifestyle, and a level of affluence that distinguishes itself from older American elites. AnnaleeSaxenian's paper in this volume suggests that a similar culture may be emerging with a distinctive Indian flavor in cities like Bangalore. The emerging digerati are to be found not only in nations like India and the US, but in Israel, Ireland, Taiwan, and other countries or city states with vibrant information industries. Of the prosperity of this elite there can be no doubt; similarly, there is little doubt that given worldwide labor shortages in the information technology industry, this prosperity will continue and increase.

The critical question about the fourth digital divide, however, is whether the prosperity of this new digital elite spreads to the rest of society, especially to urban poor and to rural villagers, or whether it creates an increasingly separate, cosmopolitan, knowledge-based enclave. In India, in the immediate surround of the IT industry in cities like Bangalore, there are of course visible ancillary benefits to workers in supporting industries: to the builders of the new apartment buildings, the employees of the boutiques, coffee houses, and shops, the owners of the travel agencies the digerati patronize, and the drivers and servants whom they employ. But it is a long way from these IT-related enterprises to life in rural villages less than 100 km. away. Similarly, whether the newly-minted millionaires of Silicon Valley of the American IT industry will improve the conditions of life of the laborers who actually make the computer chips on which the millionaires' prosperity is partly based is a moot question. In neither country has a systematic effort been made to share the wealth generated by the digital revolution.

The point is that the digital divide is really at least four divides, all closely related. The first is internal, between the digitally empowered rich and the poor. This gap exists in both the North as well as the South, although the baselines differ. The second linguistic-cultural gap is largely between English and other languages, or more generally, between ‘Anglo-Saxon culture’ and other world cultures. The third is the gap exacerbated by disparities in access to information technology between rich and poor nations. Finally, there is the emergent intra-national phenomenon of the ‘digerati’, an affluent elite characterized by skills appropriate to information-based industries and technologies, by growing affluence and influence unrelated to the traditional sources of elite status, and by obsessive focus, especially among young people, on cutting edge technologies, disregard for convention and authority, and indifference to the values of traditional hierarchies.

(Excerpted from the introduction by Kenneth Keniston to IT Experience in India: Bridging the Digital Divide, edited by Kenneth Keniston and Deepak Kumar, Sage India, 2004. The complete document is available at, February 2015

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