From Digital Divide to Knowledge Divide: the rocky road to “Digital Citizenship”

The last 10 years have transformed the world. The arrival of the first iphone in 2007 coincided with the arrival of the first Kindle, disrupting our worlds in ways we could not have fathomed at the time. Facebook opened up to anyone with an email address — and “fake news” was not yet “big news”. Twitter was also born that year, a microblogging service to tell your friends what you had for breakfast, a service not yet known to any US president. And of course very quickly afterwards AirBnB and Uber forever changed the way we booked accommodation and transport.

We became the “always on, always trackable” generation, leaving traces of ourselves everywhere we go. We have radically changed the way we consume media: listening to music, watching movies and reading books on our own terms — anywhere and anytime and with no delay. We have instantaneous access to staggering amounts of data and have transformed the way we engage socially, romantically and economically.

This “Digital Revolution” has given users unprecedented powers of influence. It has enabled political revolutions. It has brought together suppliers and consumers, giving rise to the “shared economy”, jumbling the relationship between employer and employee. It has changed the way we learn and teach.

But there is a price to pay for all these opportunities. Digital Technology has raised hitherto unheard of questions that society is still struggling to keep up with, questions around privacy, copyright and trade, as well as ethics. It has had a huge impact on the economy, creating, but also destroying, many jobs in the process. And it has also opened up a chasm between those who have access to technology and those who don’t, bringing about an inequality called “Digital Divide”.

Access to high speed internet became a necessity, not a luxury — something akin to having access to running water, gas and electricity. At first, this was an infrastructure question, very similar to the above sources of energy. But access to infrastructure is only part of the story. Knowing how to use the technology became critical. But even then, it quickly transpired that it was not enough to know how to use a keyboard or a phone. Slowly, a new divide emerged, separating those who produce and manage “knowledge” from those who consume it, (the “Knowledge Divide”). Data, or the use of data (“knowledge”) has become the “oil” of the new economy. Those who produced or managed it had a head start in life. Our attention should now be focussed on removing the Knowledge Divide and providing equal opportunity to all.

The challenge that we face is that we are learning to pilot the plane as it is flying. For there is no “master plan” and the past is not predictive of the future. Technology morphs into new uses that are far from the original intention. Twitter was intended to stay in touch with friends, not with the president of the United States. Today 70% of all Americans use Facebook as their main source of news. The dangers were apparent at last year’s US presidential elections, with the advent of “fake news”.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Knowledge Divide also concerns the young. Even though they are at ease with technology, sharing videos and photos as if it’s second nature and generally opening up their intimacy to all, do they realise the long term consequences of these actions? Today’s young often outpace their parents, who are at a loss as to how to offer advice (and often need help themselves). We all use applications without a second thought to the Terms and Conditions upon which we absent-mindedly signed off. Do we realise that we have given Facebook and Instagram the permission to use any of our public posts and photographs for anything, anywhere in the world, without paying us? But it’s not only social media. We communicate by email thinking that our messages our ephemeral. But do we know that in fact, once we hit that “send” button, we have committed these messages eternally in cyberspace and they can (and will) easily re-appear many years later?

How do we master the new Knowledge economy, giving equal opportunity to all? How do we encourage innovation? How do we become socially active, participative, members of society, judiciously using these new capabilities to secure a bright future of our democratic society? To address the issues outlined above, I believe three things need to happen:

  • Education: our education system has basically not changed since the Industrial Revolution, with classroom style learning the norm. We need to adapt it to the Digital Revolution, not only leveraging the new capabilities technology provides us, but also rethink the curriculum content and update it to today’s new world. Are we preparing our children to be full digital citizens of tomorrow, equipping them with the right tools to confront tomorrow’s transformed society?
  • Legislation: we need to move from a reactive mode, where we hurriedly adapt our laws to take into account new issues popping up, to a more proactive mode, setting up the environment that fosters innovation and protects our privacy and security.
  • Country CIO: we need digital savvy political leaders, who are comfortable with technology and are able to guide us in leveraging it for our country’s needs. As this is a longer term objective, in the meantime, we need a country CIO who ensures that we are always “ahead of the curve”, looking at that “crystal ball” and leading us at being proactive.

In only 10 years, the Digital Revolution has opened up staggering new opportunities that were the stuff of dreams not so long ago. The advent of Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Big Data Mining tells us we are only at the beginning. By managing this path we’re on, rather than just drifting within it, we become full digital citizens of tomorrow.

Ten years from now our worlds will again not be recognisable. Let’s make sure that it’s a future we want to live in.

2 thoughts on “From Digital Divide to Knowledge Divide: the rocky road to “Digital Citizenship”

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  1. The possibly dire consequences appear to be all too true. And innovation, or perhaps “inventiveness” of people to use technology for their own gains perhaps trampling others’ rights (e.g., to privacy) does indeed point to a divide. It has been this way throughout history – the plausible story (which I have not verified) of Rothschild making a fortune by finding a way to receive crucial information more rapidly than others by use of homing pigeons, comes to mind. The difference today lies in the pervasiveness (broad and deep) of our digital fingerprints, which speaks to broader possible consequences. Whereas in the past, most were innocent bystanders, today we are (usually unwitting) participants or even contributors. It would be easy to consider the digital world itself as the culprit, but I think it would be an error in determining the cause. Could it be that the “cure” lies in the digital world itself? A “CIO” at national level, if she were well chosen, could certainly have a role for good as you imagine. But imagine one appointed by leaders in, say Russia, Turkey or the USA today and the influence they could have on ensuring a more “unified” view of the world, one which is more aligned to the leaders’ personal views of right and wrong. It seems our education system could be of help. Perhaps we could conjure up Socrates to teach again… Or perhaps he is the cause of all this….

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