Essential Information on an Essential Issue
25 September, 2000
The Digital Divide
- Falling Through the Net
- CaritasPoverty and Wealth in an Information Age
- Statistics That Matter on the Digital Divide
- International Initiatives
- New Zealand Initiatives
- Community Computer Access
- East Coast IT Initiatives
- Towards a Knowledge Economy
- Digital Brain Drain
- Beware of Technomania
- Digital Divide Network
- Internet Bookmarks on the Digital Divide
" Computers, as the central agent of change in the so-called digital revolution, can also be
perceived as the agent of division in widening the existent disparities between the `haves' and
the `have-nots' of not only America, but the entire planet."
Claude Henry Potts in The Digital Divide: Social Justice in the Information Age (1999)
" Over 80% of the people who will need jobs in 10 years are already in the workforce. There
is a need and opportunity to make effective use of information and communication technologies
to promote on-the-job and institution-based training to up-skill older workers. There is also a
need for investment in industry and community-based training both to increase the number of
workers able to participate in knowledge-based industries and to overcome `digital divide' problems
that may in future limit people's participation in society."
Ministry of Commerce, The Social Impact of
Information Technology, A Briefing to the Minister for Information Technology, Wellington, 17 December 1999.
- FALLING THROUGH THE NET
The "digital divide" is now the catch-phrase of concern throughout the world's
leading economies. While the US economy is booming on the back of high-tech productivity, and
the demand for skilled workers in the developed world cannot be satisfied there are also
clear signs that the "new economy" is seeing many people and countries falling through the net.
The growing gap between information technology (IT) "haves" and "have-nots" was
high on the agenda of the G8 Summit, held in Japan in July, and also at this month's
Millennium Summit at the United Nations.
The G8 leaders (from Britain, the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and
Japan) have agreed to create a "Digital Opportunities Task Force" (or "dot force") to help bridge
the global digital divide. The G8 communique warns: "If we fail to ensure that all nations have
the opportunity to participate fully in the network economy and society, we run the risk that
the divide between nations will grow"
A report by a panel of UN advisers to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for
the establishment of a fund to enable the entire world to have internet access by 2004. The
advisers say that the value of business done over the internet, or e-commerce, is estimated to swell
from US$45 billion in 1998 to more than US$7000 billion by 2004. But with less than 5% of
the world's population presently on-line to the internet, the digital divide between rich and
poor countries continues to widen every day.
- This digital divide is also a gap that can be found
within most developed countries, including New Zealand, as the "new economy" stretches communities along the familiar fault-lines
Last year's Commerce Department briefing paper to the incoming government pointed out
that the New Zealanders missing out on the opportunities of the information and
communications revolution are most likely to be " Maori and Pacific Island Peoples, those with lower
incomes, sole parents, people with low or no qualifications, those who are unemployed or
underemployed, and those in locations without a sound telecommunications structure, such as parts
of rural New Zealand."
The Commerce paper remarks: "If an IT-inclusive society were to be added to other
crucial elements of progress which government plays a role in advancing, namely economic
growth, social stability and good governance, and enhancing IT literacy and access were an agreed
way of achieving this, then the question arises about the best way to do this ..."
- STATISTICS THAT MATTER
Around 43% of NZ households have computers, and around 50% of the
NZ population are estimated to have access to the internet.
Last year internet subscriber numbers skyrocketed to 592,000 up 88% on the
previous year. Free internet providers are expected to substantially impact this year's subscriber figures.
Research firm Data Corporation predicts that NZ internet subscriber numbers will grow at
a rate of 20.8% during each of the next four years, topping 1.5 million internet subscribers by 2004.
NZ ranks 7th out of the OECD countries in the number of internet hosts (computers
permanently connected to the net), with 52 hosts per 1000 of population.
Internet connectivity in NZ is usually through land-based telephone wires
(although this is changing). While over 97% of NZ'ers have access to the telephone, this percentage is
less for Maori, Pacific Island and low income families.
While a 1998 survey showed nearly 30% of NZ households overall had
computers, only 23% of Maori households and 17% of Pacific Island households had computers.
An AC Neilson Survey has found that just 15% of NZ'ers earning under $30,000
have ever accessed the internet, compared with 60% of those earning over $80,000.
While a recent study showed that 43% of farmers had computers, a reason that
fewer use the internet is that electric fences interfere with the sending of data down telephone
lines which makes e-mail and data transfer difficult if not impossible.
NZ schools compare well with their international counterparts with respect
to connection to the internet. A recent survey shows that 96% of primary and 99% of
secondary schools report some type of connection to the
- INTERNATIONAL INITIATIVES
Initiatives to address the digital divide are springing up in many developed countries.
In Britain, Chancellor Gordon Brown earlier this year pledged a big expansion of
information technology opportunities for the poor. He says the government has a responsibility to ensure
that the benefits of new technology are shared across the community to prevent Britain becoming
a two-tiered society divided between a "wired-up superclass and an information underclass."
Brown's plan will see one million British people, who are out of work and claiming a
benefit, offered free computer training courses within the next two years. Brown: "Britain is now
embarking on the biggest public education programme on offer in our history, opening up new
opportunities for millions of people"
- In the US, President Clinton is setting a national goal of making computers
and internet access available for every American, and has directed the US Commerce Department
to devise a national strategy to achieve that goal.
More than 50% of America's schools and over 80% of its classrooms are now wired for
the Internet. The Clinton administration's goal is to have all schools connected by the end of this year.
A US Commerce Department report last year documented the wide digital divide existing
in America. It found that black and Hispanic households are only two-fifths as likely to have
internet access as white families. Households with incomes of $75,000 and above in urban areas are
more than 20 times as likely to have internet access as households at the lowest income levels.
In targeting these gaps, the Clinton administration wants to expand computer access to
low income families and has proposed spending as much as $100 million to provide computers
and internet access in as many as 9 million households. The administration also proposes
extending high-speed technology to rural communities and sending hundreds of tech-savvy
AmeriCorps volunteers into low-income neighborhoods.
- NZ INITIATIVES
Here in New Zealand, a Deloitte Consulting report on government services shows that
all but one of the twelve departments and agencies surveyed are, or are considering,
delivering services electronically. This may include everything from paying fines, to applying for a
passport and checking tax records. This also brings with it the obvious governance questions of
guaranteeing access to these services across all sections of our communities.
State Services Minister Trevor Mallard is keen to emphasise the role that schools can play
in providing public access to government services delivered over the internet. He says he is
considering "putting quite a lot of funding" into the school system next year to allow schools to open
for longer hours and provide supervised access to the internet for the public at weekends.
- COMMUNITY COMPUTER ACCESS
An example of how to help bridge the digital divide at a local level can be found in
New Plymouth's Community Computer Access Centre, recently opened by the Taranaki
Employment Support Foundation Trust. The centre contains four second-hand (pre-Pentium) computers with
a range of business software, and an internet connection.
Centre trustee Elaine Gill says the centre is aimed at disadvantaged people, who generally tend
to be those in lower socio-economic groups and are mainly women. Visitors to the Centre
can explore the world of computing and follow training courses on their own, or ask for help from
a part-time supervisor.
Gill says a lot of women who might be wanting to return to the paid workforce grew up
with electric typewriters and needed to be computer literate to apply for jobs: "A lot of people
simply can't afford to pay $5 for 15 minutes on a computer in a cybercafe or to do a polytech course"
- EAST COAST IT INITIATIVES
The Tairawhiti Development Taskforce, which brings together central and local
government, Maori and private sector leaders to work together for the economic development of
the East Coast, has also set its sights on closing the local digital divide.
The Taskforce is distributing around 2000 computers to local schools and community groups
to help them extend and improve their use of new technology. The computers have been surplus
to the requirements of various government agencies such as Winz.
The Taskforce is also working with Telecom to establish CommunityNet centres which
will provide computer and internet training and support for people in the region. CommunityNet
will involve an internet start-up package of two free phone lines and two years free phone
rental, $1,500 cash grant, and a free Xtra internet connection for two years. The Tairawhiti
Taskforce will provide accommodation and computers for the programme.
Taskforce Chairman and Deputy Prime Minister Jim Anderton: "These community-based
initiatives are just the start. But they are a good start for the Tairawhiti area"
- TOWARDS THE KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY
Prime Minister Helen Clark has also taken a direct interest in combating NZ's digital
divide, partly sparked by attending a two-day conference on "progressive governance" hosted in
Berlin in June by German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The gathering of heads of state from 15
countries also featured discussions on the impact of information technologies on the delivery of
Two months ago, Clark established a new think tank, called the Science and Innovation
Advisory Council (Siac), to help steer NZ's progress towards a knowledge economy. The council aims
to promote a long-term strategic direction for NZ's research, science and technology sectors,
and also address local issues of the digital divide. It will meet every three months and report
directly to the PM.
The members of Siac include Rick Christie of investment company Rangatira; John Blackham
of software developer Xsol; Vicki Buck, a former Mayor of Christchurch; Kate Frykberg, of
internet company The Web; Donna Hiser of information consultancy Innovus; Michael Matthews of
Tatua Dairy Co; Stephen Tindall of The Warehouse; Sir Angus Tait, electronics pioneer; and
Michael Walker, a leading Maori scientist.
- Some of the indicators in the NZ knowledge economy are very healthy. In ownership
of personal computers, the cost of international phone calls and mobile phones per head, the
number of internet hosts per head and public expenditure on education NZ rates well against its
peers in the OECD.
But, according to Neil Richardson, chairman of the government's Foundation for
Research, Science and Technology, NZ ranks abysmally low in perhaps the three most important
indicators of a knowledge economy: the percentage of exports that are high technology and high
value-added, the number of technical graduates (computer science, mathematics and engineering)
per head, and the amount of money spent on research and development.
Richardson: "The knowledge economy may be the key to New Zealand's prosperity in the
21st century. But right now, it's a myth. We are lagging behind the rest of the developed world in
a race we cannot afford to lose" Richardson's list of concerns include:
Around half our total exports are commodities whose prices fluctuate widely on world
markets. The real returns on these commodities will continue to decline.
Only 11% of NZ'ers have a university-level education, well below OECD averages.
We turn out more lawyers than engineers and struggle to keep talented technical people
Although our researchers are a highly productive group (responsible for as
many scientific publications per head as the Americans), the number of researchers in the NZ
labour force is low by international standards.
While Government investment in Research and Development is higher than the
OECD average, private investment in R&D is so low that the total public and private spending
falls behind every OECD country except the Eastern European countries, Spain, Portugal,
Turkey and Mexico.
- DIGITAL BRAIN DRAIN
Keeping talented and skilled people at home will be an increasing challenge of the
international digital divide. Britain, Europe and the United States are already changing immigration
laws in order to attract skilled workers from South East Asia and the former Soviet bloc. And
these moves are also expected to further exacerbate the "brain drain" of young high-tech
employees from Australia and New Zealand.
The US Congress last year raised the cap on special work permits for highly
skilled immigrant workers from 65,000 to 115,000 per year. Already there are moves to see this
cap pushed up to 200,000 work permits per year. Germany has just instituted its first "green
card" scheme to encourage up to 20,000 foreigners to fill the skills gap in the IT sector.
Britain is proposing changes to its immigration laws in order to address chronic IT
skill shortages. (Health and education professionals are also in critical demand). Newspaper
reports suggest that more than 100,000 professionals will be allowed to immigrate each year
signalling the first relaxation in immigration laws in the UK for more than 30 years.
Startdate.com, an internet job search site representing 4,500 British recruitment
agencies, says that anybody with a work permit even with limited experience in web design or IT,
could be out of work in the UK for no longer than a week. Managing Director Philip Rawlinson
says that salaries are "highly negotiable" especially for Kiwi's and Australians who have
very good reputations as workers.
- BEWARE OF "TECHNOMANIA"
If computers are the answer are we asking the right question?
Not everyone feels the urgency to bridge the digital divide.
Turning Point, a coalition of eighty US non-profit organisations, is asking whether we are rushing towards a high-tech future
without fully considering the consequences.
The coalition is calling for wider public debate on the social, environmental, economic
and human health consequences of embracing various new technologies.
Over the last few months, the coalition has been publishing a series of provocative
full-page advertisements in the New York
Times, warning of the effects of "technomania" on
Turning Point criticises the rush to put computers into schools as happening under
an "atmosphere of hysteria", and warns that it will mean fewer teachers, less teacher
training, more "distance learning" and less face-to-face, human centred or environmental experience
The coalition is also critical of the push to convert the "bricks and mortar" economy into
e-commerce. It says that large corporations want governments to subsidise e-commerce
activity by banning taxes and tariffs on internet transactions.
Turning Point's concern: as more and more shopping shifts to the internet, the tax income base of most nation-states will decline ...
threatening their ability to provide health, education and social services.
more on the Turning Point "technomania" campaign can be found
- DIGITAL DIVIDE NETWORK
The Digital Divide Network argues that now, more than ever, unequal adoption
of technology is excluding many people from reaping the fruits of the global economy. The
US-based non-governmental network sees the digital divide as a complex issue with no singular
cause or effect. Addressing the digital divide will require a multi-faceted approach involving:
Affordable access to information tools for the elderly, the poor, the disabled,
and those living in rural areas.
Economic development of communities developing an infrastructure
of telecommunications facilities and cultivating a well-trained workforce so that communities
can remain competitive in attracting and retaining businesses.
Internet content that is relevant to and produced by communities
addressing the availability of community-relevant information, overcoming language and literacy barriers,
and promoting the diversity of cultural voices.
A society devoted to lifelong learning developing the learning skills which
will enable all generations to adapt to constantly changing times.
- INTERNET BOOKMARKS
on the Digital Divide
New Zealand: Flaxroots Technology Conference Report (April 2000)
The Social Impact of Information Technology, A Briefing to the Minister for Information
Technology, Wellington (December 1999)
The Digital Divide Network
Clinton Administration Digital Divide Website
Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide (report)
SOURCES Ministry of Commerce, The Social Impact of Information
Technology, A Briefing to the Minister for Information Technology, Wellington, 17
Washington Post 28 January 2000 "Clinton Sets Final-Year Goals";
USA Today 15 February 2000 "Gore proposal could narrow `digital divide'";
The Dominion 18 February 2000 "British poor to get free web training" Daily Telegraph
"Exploring the Digital Divide" Rural Bulletin, June, July, August 2000, MAF Policy, Wellington,
The New Zealand Herald 24 June 2000 "NZ losing knowledge race" by Daniel Riordan;
The Dominion NZ Infotech Weekly 26 June 2000 "Net subscriber numbers tipped to hit 1.5m by 2004" by Amanda Wells;
The Dominion NZ Infotech Weekly 3 July 2000 "Clark taking up digital divide challenge" by Tom Pullar-Strecker;
Washington Post 14 July 2000 "Panel urges bigger pool for tech jobs";
Press Release Jim Anderton "Information Technology initiatives for the East Coast".
Washington Post 23 July 2000 "G-8 Leaders Call For Solutions to Rich-Poor Divide" by Doug Struck;
The New Zealand Herald 31 July 2000 "Siac to tackle education and `digital divide'" by Daniel Riordan;
The Daily News 04 September 2000 "Bridging the digital divide" by Neil Ritchie;
The Guardian (UK) 4 September 2000 "Skills shortage prompts immigration rethink" by David Henke;
Scoop archive 28 September 2000 "Kiwis could benefit from British Immigration Drive" by John Howard;
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