Jonathan J. Klinger, Adv.
One of the material issues when social order is in discussion, is the Digital Divide, which is the connectivity of a specific population to the Internet. Such divide is used to show that social gaps are maintained through digital means. However, when every smart phone is a mean to access the internet, and when connectivity costs were reduced, and every corner has wireless internet connection, the question is not where someone has a right or ability to access the web, but a completely different one.
In my opinion, in this brief text, I shall claim that there are two problems: the first is digital literacy: meaning, the ability of a certain population to use the technology it holds (or is able to access) for social mobility, and the other is accessibility: meaning, the (in)ability of a certain population to use the web, even though it is accessible.
A digital divide, in brief, is like any other social divide, and deals with the difference between different populations to advances technologies such as internet access, presence of computers in homes and accessibility to electronic text books. The assumption is that access to such advanced technologies enables these groups access to digital content and use of the technology to acquire education and work. For example, the assumption is that when a person is connected to the internet in his home he can work from home, participate in video chats to the office and receive emails. In contrast, his disconnected friend cannot do so and shall be required to commute every day.
The assumption is that internet connectivity and the use of technological means can support social mobility: a person that could use his personal computer to author a book, for example, can also use the internet to sell the book or establish a small business in his home, and mobilize through social groups.
In the beginning of the millennium, the Israeli parliament discussed the digital divide as a discussion on social gaps in general. The results were that the gap between “the top ten percentile and the lower ten percentile is three-fold (where the upgrading of computers and software was not checked) and in internet subscribers the gap was twenty-fold”. In 2006 the results were a bit less concerning, where the lower 10% moved from 2.5% to 15%. In 2010 the picture was brighter, where 38% of the homes in the lower 10% were already connected to the internet. Indeed, this is not the closing of gaps, but the issue of “Digital Divide” is near to bridged today. Meaning, if in the beginning of the decade the discussion was on how many people were connected, I shall claim that the question is wrong, and should be how people are connected.
I shall explain: indeed, a result of 40% connectivity in the lower percentiles is not a satisfactory result but it does not testify for a thing. Today, the model changed from end to end in light of the cellular revolution; moreover, more than 90% of the homes in the lower percentiles have cellular phones (one or more), where a cellular phone is used to a mobile apparatus to connect to the internet (for example, more than 50% of the traffic to Facebook is driven from mobile devices). Meaning, the accessibility to the internet exists at least in 90% of the homes in potential (and the question is whether it is used). Another application called WhatsApp allows sending billions of messages a day for free, and is also installed on mobile phones.
Now, the result is that the growth of connectivity results from different reasons: the price drops in the last decade, the changing of the web to a material part of our lives. There is not one specific variable that could explain the divide’s reduction, but there is one. The assumption is that a cellular phone that is constantly connected to the internet not only saves costs, but also increases the use and connectivity.
For example, we can assume that every home today, even in the poorer homes, has the ability and technology to connect to the web. As for the financial ability? Well, this is a material expense (which might change in 2012 as a result of Moshe Cahlon’s cellular revolution): The monthly expense on communication and transportation was 13.5% in the lower classes. We can assume that the price changes during the last year may cause a reduction of the expense, but also an increase in their quality. Meaning, in theory, that the lower class’ ability to purchase communication services and access the web shall increase and the digital divide shall be reduced even further. Let’s commence with the trend: the lower classes multiplied their accessibility twenty-fold, and I expect that they shall be equal to the upper classes in the near future.
In the meanwhile, many public entities act in order to make the internet more accessible through public places: the Tel-Aviv municipality shall soon allow free wireless access in parts of the city. The Israel rails will soon also do the same. In this case, the question we should ask is whether such accessibility comes solely to the wealthy, or do the lower classes also have what to gain from such connectivity? Does a person who cannot afford a laptop or smart phone even able to enjoy the shortcuts that the technology provide him?
For example, if to access the free wireless internet in the Israel Rail Service we need a laptop or a smart phone, that cost thousands of Shekels, what is the advantage that the lower classes obtain from such free access? Can a person enjoy this network in his own home, which is in the less established parts of Tel-Aviv if the wireless network only threads through the tourist section of the city? I assume not. Thererfore, it seems that at least in these cases, when the public authorities come to bless, they hurt the lower classes, that need internet access.
But this is not the question, as an admired political leader said. The question is how do these parts of society use the internet and what is their digital literacy. Digital Literacy is exactly what is sounds like: the ability of a certain population to understand the technology and utilize it in a beneficent matter. As a person who purchases thousands of books cannot use them if he cannot read, so does technology: while the people race through who has the newest, biggest, thinnest, fastest phone with as much mega-pixel as possible, the question is what the heck do people do with the phone?
Meaning that if two children in the same school get the same tablet computer to use and read books, the question is what occurs in their homes: does the child use the computer to further educate himself and does he get instruction from his parents, or will he get home, put the computer down and play soccer (not that there’s anything wrong with that. The assumption is that those who cannot be instructed on how to use the technology, will find himself with a gentle brick.
For example, do people use the power of the web to obtain information on how to reduce the home expenses by using price comparison or on-line stores, or is it used to contact relatives? We can find many surveys on the exposure to different websites, but none of these surveys are tiered by social groups and do not provide information on how they are used.
While we know that the upper classes are educated by the internet and know how to reduce their expenses more and more on communication or other things, and in contrast the lower classes get stuck with old technology.
A distinct example is the Cord-Cutters. If we see the cable/satellite expenses, the monthly expense is around 250ILS per month. Now, if the same, educated person is willing to infringe copyright and download movies from the internet using file sharing technologies, then he can save this cost: 3,000 ILS each year to cut the cords. The lower classes, that do not use this technology, cannot harness it to its power and spends more. This is absurd, as he who has less pays more, because he doesn’t know how to play the game.
In the same method text books may be a reduced expense. While electronic text books may soon be a part of the curriculum, where the cost will be at least 40% less (of the hundreds of Shekels paid each year). This means that if a person buys his child a tablet computer for a few hundred shekels, he can save the cost of the tablet by buying cheaper books. Now, the lower classes are unaware of this: it lives in a different conception, of living day-by-day, stasis and such a purchase is too expensive.
In theory, a one-time installment of computing products and educating about them is efficient to the lower classes: if they can save up to one monthly salary each year for communication by cutting cords, and if they can save hundreds of more Shekels on text books, why won’t they do it? Well, the problem is digital literacy: not inaccessibility but lack of knowledge. Today, the technological alternatives to access are so cheap; apartment buildings cant use the same internet connection, families can share a few computers and tablets cost less than 500 ILS. But this is not enough. The use of technology is social mobility. This means it can be used wisely, where lower classes can harness it for mobility, information, cheaper services and development.
Meaning, if we want real social mobility, a mobility that may allow us to use technological means to mobilize, we need technological education in schools: teach children to use technology, write Wikipedia entries, learn how to develop applications and how the market goes; the right way to do it is by the technology as a melting pot. Until we do it, the rich will keep on using the technology to spend less money and the poor will use it to pay more. It’s not a wonder that in Israel the poorest groups are too poor to use unlimited cellular plans, because they think of it as luxury, and not as a way for social mobility.
Jonathan J. Klinger is a Cyberlaw Attorney & Board Member of Eshnav: People for Wise Internet Use.