Is Tech making us Free or Dom?
Nelson Mandela met F.W. de Klerk for the first time in 1989 and subsequently, South Africa began steps towards freedom. During the same year, Tim Berners Lev laid out his vision for what would become the web in a document called “Information Management: A Proposal.
He designed it to bring people together and make knowledge freely available. It has changed the world for good and improved the lives of billions. Yet, many people are still unable to access its benefits and, for others, the Web comes with too many unacceptable costs.
Fast forward to 2021, it has enabled some to access huge benefits from business and access to information. For some, the status quo has remained the same. The pandemic has shown who are the main beneficiaries of the tool created by Berners-Lee, it has also shown those who still need to be freed by the web. In 2020, this was clear in the case of education and commerce. Many in South Africa when schools were not accessible due to lockdown could not learn at all, while some could still access education online.
The same is true for some businesses that continued to trade online despite the lockdown whilst some in the township could not do business at all.
At the heart of this digital divide, the challenge is the cost of connectivity in South Africa. According to a report by Cable.co.uk, a UK price comparison website, South Africa ranks 148 out of 228 countries on the price of mobile bandwidth. The average price of 1GB in SA is R88 or $4.30. That puts us in the same region as Japan (137th) and Germany (140th). Mobile bandwidth in South Africa is more expensive than large parts of Africa, including Nigeria (58th), Kenya (41st), Tanzania (23d) and Rwanda (64th) claims the report.
Another key factor that fuels the digital divide in South Africa is digital literacy. Just knowing that one can access education online or trade online is standing in the way of many to derive benefits from the information highway. Knowing how to access and use these tools is preventing people from using digital tools that could make a difference in their lives.
There are however signs that the tide is turning. In December, the Competition Commission ordered MTN and Vodacom to slash their mobile data prices, which the commission found to be prohibitively expensive. The is has led operators to lower their prices by an average of 33%. One service provider in South Africa has lowered the price of 1GB of data from R150 to R100.
We are beginning to see e-commerce becoming another layer of business in South African townships which is a major development.
The web has a long way to go before it can level the playing field. More needs to be done to ensure that people across the spectrum can truly benefit from the web.
A new area of concern are the 4th industrial revolution technologies. In the same way as the web, they are promising major benefits for society. They are also presenting similar challenges that we’ve seen with the web. There are clear beneficiaries who will reap the rewards and at the same time, there are potential losers who will miss out on the great promise of technology. Technologists this time around have a responsibility to ensure that technology can deliver on the freedom promise for all. Failure to address the digital divide will lead to an unequal society which is something that should be avoided at all costs. More and more people will lose their jobs, some businesses will die, some societies will be left behind as tech races ahead with those who can run faster with it.
The inventor of the Web has identified some of the challenges brought about by the web. Some business leaders including the World Economic Forum have also identified the potential risks of the 4th industrial revolution technologies.
These efforts however are not enough to address the challenge at hand. Solutions to these challenges are too far to where it matters most. In areas where the digital divide is likely to have greater impact leaders have little understanding of the implications of implementing technologies while reducing harm. The digital divide will only be addressed when it's viewed as a challenge along the same lines as other major challenges such as crime, corruption, and climate change. There were noble intentions for establishing the web and implementing some technologies that we enjoy today. The benefits have not trickled down to all yet.