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The Digital Revolution: An Era of Inequities and Digital Divides

“Today high speed broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.” – President Obama

If you are reading this article, wherever in the world you are, it means you have access to some form of Internet and are probably using it in a manner that is likely having a histrionic impact on your overall output and quality of life. If you live in one of the core Internet hubs you have instant access to infinite information at your beck and call affording you the ability to converse, cooperate, and trade in ways that would have seemed like a dream few years ago.

However, like everything else in life, this digital era too has its “haves” and have-nots” and not everybody is on the same side as we are. In fact, of the 7.2 billion or so people on this planet, roughly 4 billion do not have Internet. That disparity accounts for an enormous digital divide that separates people along socio-economic, geographic, technological and educational lines.

As with all things it’s important to get the complicated picture, no matter how unsettling, rather than stare agape at a simple black and white version. There are serious economic, social, and global consequences that emerge from an ever-growing digital divide.

The Vast Disconnect

For those on the losing side of the digital divide, the impacts are life altering. Entire countries have been unable to catch up, starting with infrastructure. This affects business development, state economies, access to information, and the way information is shared.

Part of the problem is that the Internet does not span the entire globe as shown in this map sourced from the United Nations Global Development:

In Africa, for example, the disconnect is more noticeable generationally and socio-economically. Just think that the top 60 percent are about 3 times as likely to have Internet access compared to the bottom 40 percent; and that urban youth is over 2 times as likely to have access than older and rural citizens.

The people who are connected reap tremendous benefits. They conduct business, gain new knowledge, and piece together a global perspective, while leaving their disconnected counterparts in the dust. This exacerbates traditional inequalities and puts the dispossessed at greater disadvantage.

It may seem that these gaps are easy to bridge. Just create more infrastructures. But consider that electricity isn’t even available worldwide. Electricity has been in use for over a century and yet about 1.2 billion people—or 17 percent of the global population—was without electricity as of 2013.

The World’s Internet Hubs

In any case, the infrastructure alone isn’t enough to bridge these gaps. For those who are connected, cross-border Internet traffic tends to be limited by proximity.

In 2014, 2/3 of active cross-border bandwidth was intraregional. When diagrammed it reveals that the world’s Internet connections are more hub-like than web-like.

When looked at from a bird’s eye view, Internet connectivity appears concentrated among a few core countries, or hubs. They then service broader regions drawn together by commonalities such as language, culture, and history. The core countries are the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Germany, Brazil, France, India, Italy, Japan, Spain, and Russia. All this according to research published by Barnett and Park, both of whom examined the network structure of the global Internet by evaluating hyperlink connections, cross-border bandwidth, and shared website use.

This highlights the need for governments and companies alike to arm the connected with tools to fully exploit what the Internet has to offer. It isn’t enough to connect the world; we must also teach people how to wield it to their benefit.

One Size Does Not Fit All

And yet, even if the infrastructure were there, and the government willing to rally behind its citizens, there is still the issue of content.

The majority of content emanates from particular countries and is geared at particular countries, especially advanced economies. Consider that the United States alone accounts for more than 50 percent of the content stream—Europe comes in second. This despite the fact that there are still several dark pockets of slow or no Internet here in the US! See below the Internet access map from the Council of Economic Advisors issue briefing of the White House:

This poses a huge barrier to entry and limits the benefits that connected and fluent users can extract from Internet content. All of this compounds to significant obstacles in these dark US pockets as well as worldwide, and if we hope to bring everyone along for the digital ride, we must work to close the gap.

Conclusion

Further, what all of this makes patently clear is that many offline disparities and inequities are carried into the digital world.

Fortunately, digital structures and the Internet itself are still in the infancy stages. As opposed to electricity, it has expanded at a much faster rate. Just 15 years ago, cross-border data flows were nominal.

As the infrastructure itself continues to expand, more users will jump on-board and demand connectivity. I hope that we can remedy these issues at the local, government, and state levels before we are forced to confront even greater stonewalls.

Published on Retire.ly with permission from Anurag*