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With a focus on open source and digital rights, Simon is a director of the UK's Open Rights Group and president of the Open Source Initiative. He is also managing director of UK consulting firm Meshed Insights Ltd.

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The New Digital Divides

Overcoming infrastructure inequalities is no longer enough to solve the "digital divide". We have to address skill and social inequalities as well - at all levels.

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The EU is worried that too many people have no internet access, and that's a valid concern that does indeed need attention. But it doesn't go far enough.  I was particularly struck by a blog by Danica Radovanovic over at Scientific American today.

In it, she considers the phrase "digital divide" and challenges us to reconsider it. If you've heard the expression before, it's probably in the context of a direct have/have-not separation between rich and poor, probably in the developing world.

But Danica explains that today, while basic connectivity remains an important issue, there's a new digital divide emerging; a digital skills gap. We may have a large number of households that have great connectitivity, but they use it for "notworking" - surfing, downloading and social-network-idling - instead of as a key part of their intellectual life and citizenship. She concludes:

"What is important to emphasize is that these digital divides, that go far beyond the pure infrastructure issues, need to become a key focus of engagement for-profit and nonprofit organizations as they continue their missions to develop programs for social and digital inclusion."

I think she's on to something really important here. Just making sure everyone has broadband doesn't buy us much if we don't have the freedom to use it to its full potential. Every home in country could get fibre access to the Internet, but that won't help if society is still in the grip of a digital skills divide.

Danica gives some categories that apply: "lack of awareness and promotion, digital illiteracy, lack of motivation, information gate keepers, human and economic factors". To make that more concrete, some examples that spring to my mind include:

  • teaching children how to use specific proprietary software instead of teaching them transferrable concepts and skills using a variety of open source software;
  • adults who think anything mediated by a computer is "just too geeky" and ask others to do the searching, reading, shopping, finances and more for them;
  • putting up internet blocks (like our mobile carriers keep doing) in the name of protecting children or catching terrorist which actually do neither while making every worthwhile search for information difficult;
  • insisting that public data needs to be paid for because some companies might profit from it, with the result that only companies who can profit from it can use it;
  • privacy controls which pretend that "privacy" is a synonym for "keeping secrets", rather than "the ability to assert control over a social situation" as one researcher insightfully observes;
  • politicians who, lacking most of the skills and insights necessary to legislate for the technology society, believe it's purely commercial and consider only the input of the lobbyists surrounding them.
These new "digital divides" are hugely important, and we have very little national focus on addressing them. That has to change.

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