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    Poverty and Wealth
    in an Information Age

    from The Jobs Letter No.131 / 25 September, 2000

    by Louise May, Caritas Aotearoa

    caritasTHE INTERNET and other information technology tools are revolutionising the way many people live and the way in which societies are changing. People are getting computers and linking up to the Internet everyday. The pervasiveness of this technology is already making its effects felt in the everyday lives of people, whether or not they have access to the technology. For example, the skills that are needed in the workforce are becoming those associated with information and knowledge rather than the industrial skills of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is becoming more important to have these skills in order to gain employment, and to earn an adequate income.

    There may be a time when people will conduct the majority of their everyday business in the virtual reality of cyberspace via their computer or equivalent. Some already do. Although it is difficult to imagine that printed materials in the form of books, newspapers and magazines will disappear altogether, it is likely that much information will become solely web-based in the future.

    " Access to information technology used to be looked upon as a privilege. Today it is becoming a necessity "

    Whether or not things develop quite as some observers and commentators predict, the fact remains that information technology is having a significant impact on our world. It is important to scrutinise the changes that the technology brings and to see it in the context of the lives of people, community, and society.

  • There are debates about the degree to which there is a digital divide, for how long it will be with us, and what, if anything, should be done about it. But what is not being disputed is the fact that the digital divide does exist _ between rich and poor nations, within even the wealthiest countries, and here in New Zealand.

    The digital divide is a term that describes the gulf between those who are able to access and make use of information technology and those who are not. It not only describes a purely technological division. The digital divide has significant socio-economic meaning. The growing importance of information technology in our increasingly digitised world means that those on the non-access side of the divide risk losing out on the benefits of the technology and may indeed experience another kind of marginalisation in the Information Society. They have been described by some as the `information poor'. There is strong evidence to suggest information poverty exacerbates other forms of poverty, and so feeds into the cycle of poverty and marginalisation already experienced by so many.

  • Educational institutions, businesses, Governments, other organisations and private individuals are being linked up to the Net everyday. More and more useful information is becoming available on the internet _ educational material, government information, job advertisements, news and current affairs, and so on. In short, more of life is being put onto the Net. In some cases, the Internet is the only place you can go to get certain information and goods and services. Some people/organisations are most easily and quickly contacted via email than by other means of communication.

    Those who do not have access to IT tools or who are not competent at using these tools are going to become increasingly disadvantaged if more of everyday life is going to be conducted in cyberspace and nowhere else. It is important to ensure that people do not get left behind.

  • The research suggests that those who are on the wrong side of the digital divide are also those who are disadvantaged in other areas of economic and social life. In other words, the digital divide reflects the gaps that already exist between rich and poor, the privileged and underprivileged. The information poor tend to be those who experience poverty and social exclusion. Poverty is usually defined as an inability to share in the everyday lifestyles of the majority

    " A consistent them throughout the range of research on the digital divide is the need to address the underlying causes - poverty, lack of literacy and education "

    because of a lack of resources (often taken to be disposable income). Social exclusion is when one is (a) lacking integration into civic life not being an empowered citizen in a democratic system, (b) lacking integration into the economy not having a job or a valued economic function, (c) lacking integration into society not having access to state support, free from stigma, (d) lacking interpersonal integration not having family, friends, neighbours and social networks. And so the factors that influence access to information technology are also those factors that influence experience of poverty and social exclusion.

  • A look at the statistics of where online population growth is occurring in the world shows that, on the whole (and perhaps not surprisingly), the richer nations are taking to the Internet at a far greater pace than the poorer. IT access seems to be dividing itself along first world/third world lines. The latest figures show that 57% of Internet users in the world are from the United States despite the fact that the country makes up 4.7% of the total world population. Europe accounts for 21.7% of Internet users, Asia 17%, South America 3%, and Africa 0.8%. So, industrialised countries, which make up just 15% of the world's population, are home to 88% of all Internet users. Less than 1% of people in South Asia are online even though it is home to one-fifth of the world's population.

  • On the whole, New Zealanders appear to be taking to information and communications technology fairly enthusiastically. The percentage of households with computers has been rising steadily at a rate of around 14 percent every year since 1985/86.

    In New Zealand around 50% of the population has access to the Internet. The percentage drops dramatically for low incomes groups and those with fewer educational qualifications. There is an expectation that unequal access to, and therefore mastery, of IT between different groups in the population will be smoothed out by the education system.

    But the education system is not yet equipped to do this. Most schools are now connected to the Internet, but this does not yet mean that all students get much individual access to it, or that they are able to use it in the advanced way that other students are able to. While a high level of staff in schools are regular users of the internet, less than 30% of schools in New Zealand have significant use of the internet by students. In fact, students report that, overall, they use computers more at home than they do at school. Often the technology they have at home is more frequently updated, and therefore more advanced than what is available in the formal learning environment of the classroom. This confers a significant advantage on those students whose families can afford to provide IT tools at home. The one-fifth of students who only have access through their school are at a distinct disadvantage.

  • Over 80% of the people who will need jobs in ten years are already in the workforce. Given the increasing importance of IT-literacy in terms of employment, and given that there are people in the workforce who are not IT-literate, it is likely a number of the job-seekers of the future will require education and training in information and communications technologies. Our society needs to provide assistance for people in or entering the workforce who are without IT access at home (and who would find it very difficult to acquire this) and who will also miss out on reaping the benefits of future IT initiatives in our schools.

  • Soon, it will become not enough to simply have Internet access. The type of connection one has to the Internet will also determine the ability of users to participate on an even playing field with the rest of on-line society. Those who are not able to access high-speed data lines will find themselves at a disadvantage. New Zealand's rural business stands to lose if it is not able to gain the cost and marketing advantages that high-speed data access can provide. The ability to access adequate bandwidth has implications for rural and isolated Iwi in terms of their development of IT capability. It is important for the survival of rural communities, which have been hard hit in recent years, not to be left behind in the information age.

    As a speaker at a recent conference on 'Claiming Internet for the Community' in Wellington said: "Having reasonable access to a telephone, a postal service and broadcast services are generally accepted as basic rights in advanced societies. Having reasonable access to email, discussion forums and other interactive environments should be considered equally fundamental."

    As a country, New Zealand will want to address this issue for a number of reasons. One of these is related to the effects upon the rural regions. Being on the wrong side of the digital divide has the potential to make it difficult for rural business to compete in the international arena and may therefore exacerbate rural unemployment. There is sufficient evidence that a growing gap between the "haves" and "have-nots" contributes to marginalisation of one group and so is likely to have spin-off effects including increased violence and crime in the community borne of frustration, anger, marginalisation, and isolation.

  • A consistent theme throughout the range of research on the digital divide is the need to address the underlying causes - poverty, lack of literacy and education. If people struggle to meet basic living costs, it is unlikely they will be able to afford to purchase a computer, to pay the lines charges for internet and email, to pay for IT support when something needs fixing, or to replace equipment. If people cannot read, they cannot use IT. If people lack education, they are less likely to have access to, or the skills or inclination to use IT, or the future income to purchase it and to pay for the support of it. The digital divide is representative of gaps in wealth and development, the gulf (which has been growing) between rich and poor. It is here where we must start if we are to be effective in closing the technology gap.

  • The fact that many people are missing out on the information revolution highlights the need to eradicate poverty in our world. We have an individual and collective responsibility to help bring down the barriers to human development and the progress especially of poorer nations, and the poor and marginalised in our own communities. It challenges us to seek ways to help get information technology, and training and support, to those who cannot get access, whether because of personal income, national poverty and lack of infrastructure, or other factors. It suggests that we may have to form partnerships with other sectors of the community, locally, nationally or globally, in seeking imaginative and effective methods by which to do this.

    caritas bookletSource - The Digital Divide: Poverty and Wealth in the Information Age, by Louise May for Caritas Aotearoa. Booklet No.5 in the Caritas Social Justice Series, published for Social Justice week 17-23 September 2000.

    Full copies of the booklet are available for $4 each from Caritas Aotearoa NZ, P.O.Box 12-193, Wellington 6038 phone 04-496-1742 email

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