Monday, March 28, 2005

Second Generation Digital Divide

Play the audiofile. (podcast downloadable to your favorite mp3 player)

Advances in website interactivity, high-powered programming languages that create webpages with dynamic functionality, and “intelligent” file-sharing programs have made first-generation connectivity (modem or T1) hopelessly ineffectual at providing the bandwidth or speed necessary to support them. What has resulted is a "second generation digital divide."

This is unfortunate, because the paying clients in the world’s urban areas have access to high-speed connections. The fact that corporations, governments, and monopolistic providers are (depending on how you look at it) subsidizing or enabling this trend obscures a very basic issue: the populations that were “rescued” by the first digital divide, and now being excluded by a new barrier: a “second generation digital divide.”

Susan Smith Nash at the University of the South Pacific Lodge, Suva, Fiji

As probably everyone remembers, a “digital divide” was first described in the way that ( puts it: The term 'digital divide' describes the fact that the world can be divided into people who do and people who don't have access to - and the capability to use - modern information technology, such as the telephone, television, or the Internet. The digital divide exists between those in cities and those in rural areas.

For example, a 1999 study showed that 86% of Internet delivery was to the 20 largest cities. The digital divide also exists between the educated and the uneducated, between economic classes, and, globally, between the more and less industrially developed nations. (,,sid9_gci214062,00.html)

Many steps were taken in the last five years to bridge the digital divide, at least in the more industrially developed nations. Governments of developed and developing nations alike provided grants, subsidies, and low-interest loans to schools and municipalities (primarily in rural or underserved areas) for computers, Internet access, and servers. There were also a number of grants and loans by development organizations and grantmakers. They also helped underwrite Internet service providers’ investments in the hardware and software necessary to build an infrastructure that would support Internet access.

There were also programs to provide basic training for web developers, Internet users, and web-server administrators. The government initiatives and subsidy programs were, by and large, successful. Basic dial-up service became available across the globe, and although concentrated in the major urban areas, more and more smaller cities and towns gained access. Further, more individuals became capable of designing basic websites, and libraries, schools, governments, health organizations, and other entities started making public service and public domain information available.

However, the gains have been eroded in recent years with the emergence of high-level, highly interactive websites and bandwidth hogging applications, which include interactive multiplayer video games, downloadable movies, and downloadable audio files / audioblogs. It is recreating the gulf between the “haves” and the “have-nots” of the world. The new dynamic websites require so much bandwidth, speed, and memory that they do not load if there is too much traffic, not enough bandwidth, speed, or memory, or if the computer being used is an older one with an older Internet browser.

Examples of dynamic webpages containing Active-X, dynamic html, java, javascript or media components which crash systems and computers include the following:

Personalized “start” pages: These are often the portal or “home” pages offered by providers such as lycos, yahoo, msn, or a corporate or university portal page software company. They feature customized “start” pages that are, in essence, patchwork quilts of dynamic bits and chunks – feeds and info-gathers that provide local weather, financial information, stock market quotes, etc. These pages are programmed so that they send and receive millions of bits of information, effectively clogging or collapsing the network access points and conduits.

Student services: Online enrollment, online bill retrieval and payment, online grade checks are all examples of the same kinds of dynamic, interactive webpages that crash entire networks. These, however, are complicated by privacy issues, and they require robust encryption. Needless to say, these are bandwidth hogs which can effectively hobble a network with a single inquiry.

Smart shopper e-commerce: The programs store information about the customer, send the information to programs that return with data in the form of “suggested purchases.” They also can provide a shopping cart, as well as records of past purchases. Here again are the twin nightmares of simple dynamic html and encryption.

File sharing programs: A few individuals running their individual machines as network access points, from which they transmit and receive the data from streaming media (audio, video) can take down a university computer network. It sounds impossible, but it has happened hundreds of times. If these programs can take down T3 connections and the latest generation servers, what will they do to servers in Kazakhstan? The answer is: Nothing. The bandwidth required is so great that they time out before significant data transfer can occur. What results is a classic case of “second generation digital divide.”

While the industrialized world enjoys lightning-fast transmission of media files, large images, and information-laden dynamic webpages, the less industrialized nations are only able to access simple, static pages. While this may not be too consequential when it comes to being able to access 3D virtual tours of a five-star hotel and then book the room, it is very important when it comes to access to information, participation in high-quality education and e-learning, true interactivity and collaborative learning between individuals residing in different countries.

With the advent of a second generation digital divide, the groups enjoying recently gained access to “first world” or “top tier” information are suddenly returned to their previous status of ongoing marginalization and exclusion. Further complicating the situation is the fact that governments that provided funding to bridge the first digital divide may not be so eager to advance funds that seem to feed into a culture of instant obsolescence.

The advent of the second generation digital divide is potentially destabilizing to companies as well as countries. Governments will be hard-pressed to fund yet another round of capital improvements designed to provide access to the Internet. Governments uncomfortable with the web in the first place will likely be made even more nervous once they fully understand the capabilities of the new dynamic web pages.

While it is difficult to suggest a solution to what is, in essence, the problem that faces all the world when expensive technology promises to make the world a better place – if you can afford it – it is easy enough to predict the eventual denouement. Not only will individuals be excluded, those who managed to learn the ropes in lesser industrialized nations will be eager to move and abandon the countries that constrained them so. Ironically, in this case, technology accelerates the brain drain. While this is understandable, the effects on a society can be profoundly deleterious.

Because the implications are so profound, it is absolutely vital that the “second generation digital divide” phenomenon be investigated, and suggestions made that could lead to a more equitable distribution of “e-based access.”

Note: I first wrote this for back in 2003. Things have not changed -- in fact, the second-generation digital divide is a larger problem than ever, effectively blocking many users from accessing podcasts, serious games, interactive websites, and learning management systems.

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