Bridging the digital divide

OECD Observer

The digital divide debate was lively, informative and interesting. There were six speakers, all of whom had slightly different perspectives on the digital divide, from the policy end, to business, to outright rejection of the concept.

The divide has existed for some time, Mr Donogué pointed out; most of the planet (80% of the world’s population) still does not have a telephone. And 90% of Internet users are in OECD countries.

There is also a digital divide between businesses, those that are wired in and those that are notm between those who have the basic services and those who have the most sophisticated versions.

These divides can be overcome as technology prices fall and types multiply.

First condition is to be physically connected, which poses its own challenges (network investment is a basic condition).

Rather than speak of digital divide, we should talk of Digital Bridges, or Digital Opportunities.

Dae-Wan Chang, president of Maeil Business Newspaper (1 million daily prints), reported on initiatives taken in Korea to narrow the digital divide: wire people up and get them online. Included PC donations to schools, giving away 10 million Internet Ids, educating housewives, senior citizens and soldiers. Some impressive figures: eg 2 million housewives signed up for courses. Internet use up from 3million in 98 to 15 million by 2000.

Mr Dae Wan Chang spoke of lightly regulated cybercafés (17,000) that are the backbone of the internet society there. Used by students, businessmen and consumers. Impressive stuff.

Christine Herron’s (Mercurey 2) business is dedicated to help businesses “cross the divide”. FACTS: 30% of traffic Net is international; 46% of orders are not fulfilled (customs, payment); 85% of sites cannot take international orders (language etc). That means helping exporters to deal with the logic of e-business: such as how to handle smaller, multiple orders, rather than traditional large bulk orders, how to handle digital goods, how to get equiped for the global market (eg tax tables). Ms Herron spoke of barriers to e-business development: regulatory, economic, scale (many small businesses), financial (raising finance) and political, and called for more coherence between countries.

Saeed Hussain Al Muntafiq described how the Net has grown rapidly and transformed the challenges and outlook of his country (Dubai) and region. Determined investments like Dubai Internet City have helped increase Net penetration. Saeed Hussain criticised the most widely cited data for being out of date: data from 1998 from most sources (NUA, but OECD implied) failed to capture the speed and the extent of the transformation he was talking about. He said that English was a barrier to the Net’s global development and noted an increase in software in Arabicv. Saeed Hussain announced that his country would host a Forum next year in conjunction with OECD which would devote itself to emerging markets and the digital divide.

Ylva Johansson is president of European SchoolNet, a project linking 20 European countries. She prefers to talk about a Knowledge divide. Information is not knowledge, and so the quality of the teaching comes in to play, both at school and for adults. She emphasised that e-learning was not distant learning, but a new way of handling knowledge and its dissemination.

Kent McGuire from US government educational research, said there was good news and bad news in the US experience. Connectivity was rising and teaching was being improved. BUT the quality of that connectivity was uneven. The main determinant was income: poor schools had less classroom connectivity than better off ones. White schools are more likely to be connected than Afro-American or Hispanic ones, though controlled for income the disparity lessened.

Mr McGuire’s main point was about quality of teaching, that it should be improved. Technical and technological issues were less important over time.

Guy Sorman, writer, publisher and academic, rejected the digital divide as being no worse than any other divide and no more important. Poor countries, India included, were more concerned about access to water. He said the digital divide was part of US ideology, a tool to keep markets primed for new technology. Though claiming himself not to be an anti-American, he said we were all hostages of US imperialism. He did not believe in quick fixes and rejected that idea that ICT was a short cut to development. The digital divide was also a clever US political trick to give the government reason to intervene, as if the market could not resolve the problem itself. Internet, Mr Sorman concluded, could end up hurting us, and he regretted that the OECD had become a mouthpiece of the new jargon.

(Mr Dunogué on the chair reminded Mr Sorman that there were many non-US companies behind the new economy.)

First evening session, 4.15-5.30pm, Diderot

Moderator : Jacques Dunogué, Secretary-General, Groupe Alcatel, France

©OECD Observer June 2000 

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