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The Digital Depth

21 Jun 2018

I already wrote an opinionated article in De Standaard with a colleague in the mid Nineties on the social consequences of the upcoming internet. At the time, the digital divide was mainly based on accessibility, between “have” and “have not”. That digital divide has only widened since and multiple other divides have even appeared. Even stronger, we can now really speak of a “digital depth”.

Of course the accessibility problem still exists. Maybe less and less in Belgium but it is definitely present at international level. It is most obvious on the African continent. The digital divide has become a real global divide, between Western countries and developing countries. Easy and affordable material access is the prerequisite to share and enjoy the benefits of a connected society. Accessibility is one thing, followed by the motivation to participate. The sociologist Manuel Castells rightly states that origin, age, ethnicity, income and education play a great role in this. Those five elements define whether people are more or less motivated to develop digital skills, and those five elements are the base of equal number of digital divides. Add the fact that social media and a whole array of apps have confronted us with a legislation that is lagging behind (the regulating divide, where the authorities still act too much analogue), with Cyber criminality, and with the borders of our personal life (the privacy divide). Whole books could be written about each of these divides. That is a short analysis. Which solutions could there be to make digital inclusion a reality?

It is rather likely that time will simply bring lots of solutions, especially in Europe: disappearing ageing, battle against poverty, the public authorities that clearly become digital, adapted and more accessible education. However, it would be too easy to simply let time do its work. Technology develops at unprecedented speed. Computer power now proliferates and keeps requiring new digital competences. And that is actually the widest divide. There already is an extreme shortage of digital specialists: a talent divide, in other words. The sector federation Agoria Digital Industries has calculated that there is a shortage of some half million digital specialists in public functions and companies. But that is not the end of it. The internet in all its forms includes a Matthew effect which means that differences in knowledge and training in various population groups continue to increase. I think there is only one remedy: training from a young age, independently from restrictive factors like income or origin. Targeted investments in education at all levels should be the base here.

In his book “Thank you for being late”, Thomas Friedman describes how three phenomena will jointly define our future: globalisation, the technology race (with artificial intelligence as the new steam engine) and global warming. These three phenomena make people doubt and make it more difficult to understand what is happening exactly. This causes misunderstanding, resistance and fear of change. That is the true darkest place of the digital depth: the refusal of educated and intelligent citizens to evolve in conjunction with the new opportunities that digitalisation provides. Purely shifting the blame on politics or the authorities is absurd. Big Tech companies like Apple, Amazon and Google (but not only them!) have a crushing responsibility here. Digital disruption challenges our social fibre and can lead to a democratic deficit. These are companies that are the origin of technological progress and globalisation, but also of global warming actually. The business world plays a crucial part in bridging the many digital divides, and that is brushed aside too lightly. A policy and assorted actions on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) are on the back burner for many companies and definitely not on the agenda in the board room. Sustainable enterprising is an undervalued tool for reaching digital inclusion, and too few company leaders are sensitive to it. Let’s start with that.