Communication Technologies Old and New

Tony Salvador and John Sherry, ethnographers for Intel Corporation’s People and Practices Group, spent four years traveling the world to see how computers are used. In a recent article the document some of their findings:

In fact, only about 10 percent of the people on the planet are familiar with the Internet and what it can do. Most of them live in industrialized countries, or if they live in developing countries, they are part of the well-off, well-educated, and often English-speaking minority that resides in urban areas. Few come from the poor and sometimes illiterate masses.

The split between those with and those without access to digital technologies is referred to as the digital divide. But that phrase hides the complexity of the problem, because it focuses on the “having” and the “not having” of technology. Instead, what really matters is the ability to benefit from technology, whether or not that technology is personally owned.

I find it exciting to read about the many ways in which people are using these technologies. And I think this article does a great job at dispelling some of the myths about the “digital divide.” For more stories like this I suggest reading World Changing, an excellent blog which regularly reports on issues of technology and development, including some of the stories covered here.

But why do we talk about the “digital divide” so differently than we do other communications technologies? Would anyone seriously argue that writing was unimportant for the thousands of years that literacy was restricted to the elite? Mass literacy is a modern phenomenon, and yet literacy itself has played an important role in human society for … well, for as long as we have a written records. Moreover, nonliterate people have always “used” literacy in the same ways that we find people now using the internet. You go to the village scribe and dictate a letter which he will then send for you. Even the printing press was first used as a means for reproducing texts used in oral performances – read aloud from village to village – not for private reading by the masses, which came much later.1

My doctoral advisor, F. Niyi Akinnaso, wrote a paper in 1996 documenting what he termed “vernacular literacy” in Nigeria.2 He uses this term to describe literate practices which reflect local language practices, values, and social organization, rather than those of “mainstream literacy as it functions within dominant institutions.” He provides an example of a local legal document that was “authored” by two illiterate half-brothers. For instance, while the letter follows a somewhat standard template, used by the scribe who wrote it down, it does not contain an address, which is not deemed necessary in a small community where everyone knows everyone else. The two brothers were also “using” literacy in an interesting way. The very fact of producing a written document carried certain associations, dating back to British colonial rule, and thus had greater weight than oral arguments. Whereas the particular property dispute discussed in the letter had remained unsettled for 16 years, it was quickly resolved following the creation of this document.

I suppose the digital divide seems so much more significant because expensive machines are required to connect to the internet. That’s why some people dream of a cheap laptop for the world’s poor. And yet, most people in the developing world are likely to be connected to the internet not by a laptop, or even a desktop, but by a cellular phone. With the cost of cell phones so low in many parts of the world, and new cheap wi-fi solutions for internet access in rural areas, I can’t help but wonder if literacy doesn’t actually present a greater hurdle for many people than does connectivity?

Of course, the two are not unrelated. The internet can be used to bring education to remote areas, and in some cases may be a more cost effective way of doing so than what has been done previously. But I believe we can better understand the impact of new communications technologies if we emphasize the similarities, rather than just the differences, with older technologies.

1 The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein.

2 Akinnaso, F. Niyi. 1996. Vernacular Literacy in Modern Nigeria. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 119 43-68.