• Christopher Haggarty-Weir

Technology, Ethics & the Digital Divide

This blog post is going to look at the role of information technology in globalization, the 'Digital Divide', and how ethics factor into information technology. This is an important topic given the recent fracas regarding Facebook and Google. It is also important since many are starting to feel that tech firms are not taking social responsibility and ethics seriously.

How does Information Technology factor into Globalization?

As Thomas Friedman points out in his book ‘The World is Flat’, we are living in what he calls Globalization 3.0 (Friedman, 2005). Thanks to the technology of ultrafast internet connection and social media, the so-called connected world is not tiny. To really drill home this point, we can demonstrate the impact of information technology on globalization through a 6-degrees of separation lens. 6-degrees of separation describes the idea that all people in the world are a mere six or fewer interpersonal connections away from each other. What is amazing is that currently the degrees of separation are approximately 2, based on a current global population of 7.2 billion. So clearly the developments in information technology have led to a level of globalization never before seen, and is functioning to further the development of more interpersonal connections. Furthermore, development in business information technology has allowed more businesses to operate continuously throughout the 24-hour day, and expand their customer base to a truly global reach.

The digital divide and Nielsen’s three stages.

The digital divide is simply the division between those who have access to internet-based technologies and systems, and those who do not. According to a 2016 report by the World Bankthe number of people connected to the internet has more than tripled in the past decade, from 1 billion to an estimated 3.5 billion. In many developing countries, more families own a mobile phone than have access to electricity or clean water’. And while this sounds fantastic (and to a large extend, truly is due to the new opportunities created), the fact remains that ‘4 billion people – or 60% of the world’s population – had no access to the internet’. Therefore, there is a serious and significant risk of creating a new ‘underclass’ of sorts, which governments must take heed of. The risks of ignoring the digital divide and failing to act on behalf of those affected could lead to significant societal chaos and for many people to turn their backs on globalization and capitalism, which would lead to an increase in poverty, hardship and a sharp decline in the quality of life.

In 2006, web-usability consultant Jakob Nielsen outlined 3 stages of the digital divide: the economic divide, the usability divide, and the empowerment divide. Let us now take a moment to examine each of these stages in more depth.

1. THE ECONOMIC DIVIDE: In its simplest form, the digital divide is manifested in the fact that some people are unable to afford a computer and associated technologies (i.e. required software and hardware). In 2006, Nielsen estimated that for the poorest of the developing countries, computers would remain out of the average person’s reach for 20 years or more. Whilst the penetration rate of computer ownership has significantly increased in the households of the poorest nations since Nielsen made his estimation, he remains correct since around 64.5% of households in the most impoverished nations are without a computer. However, efforts are being made to address this, such as turning smartphones into laptops of sorts, and the development of $12 laptops for schools by MIT students.

2. USABILITY DIVIDE: Whilst innovation is helping make computers more affordable, an arguably more pressing and difficult issue to address is the complications of trying to effectively use technology. Low literacy and numeracy rates around the world are a large reason for this, with around 14% of the global population illiterate (scaling up to figures like 63.5% in poverty-stricken countries like Niger). Low literacy is identified as being the Web’s largest accessibility problem. However, current trends show that global literacy is increasing 4% every 5 years, and various initiatives such as UNESCO-Pearson Initiative for Literacy exist to help combat the issue of illiteracy. Though, Nielsen does point out that progress on tackling the usability divide has been overall quite slow, and more effort is needed.

3. EMPOWERMENT DIVIDE: The hardest to tackle of all of Nielsen’s 3 divides is the empowerment divide. As Nielsen points out ‘Participation inequality is one exponent of the empowerment divide that has held constant throughout all the years of Internet growth: in social networks and community systems, about 90% of users don't contribute, 9% contribute sporadically, and a tiny minority of 1% accounts for most contributions’. Even most people in highly developed nations like the United States do not use or ever learn how to use advanced features of the internet, potentially leaving them open for exploitation. To help tackle the empowerment divide, Stanford University students have proposed a global need for more community access centres and training, well-trained staff to deliver said training, and a change in public attitude towards technology.

What is information systems ethics?

Information systems ethics refers to a system of ethics developed to protect individuals, groups and society at large via the responsible use of information systems. New technology has profound effects on humans, their behaviour, and social systems, and so a set of moral principles should be given thought and developed regarding information systems. The creation of and adherence to a code of ethics by large technology companies involves in digital information is highly important, and something that some companies seem to be skirting (Facebook and their role in the retardation of Western democracy is a key recent example). Additionally, the development of acceptable use conditions can form part of an ethical framework for information systems.

So what do you think? What should be done to help combat the digital divide? And what role do both corporations and governments have regarding the ethics of technology?

Phone: +44 (0) 7501 448 220

©2018 by Haggarty-Weir Consulting