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GI, digital divide and the Indian information society

Michael Blakemore
I-DRA Ltd & University of Durham, UK
[email protected]


If we are to focus on any one divide in the Geospatial community is has to be a focus on achieving e-Inclusion – using ICTs in helping citizens to overcome the varied and changing exclusions from knowledge, skills and services within the society and economy. Underpinning that will be achieving the widest possible access to Geo-Information, and in communicating effectively to policy-makers

Let me start this contribution by admitting that I tend to be very sceptical about the term ‘digital divide’. However, it has become deeply embedded in political and organisational thinking, and has been the subject of extensive research. At the global level the World Summit on the Information Society and UNESCO put great emphasis on this term, which at its most basic implies a binary cleavage in society – a cleavage which follows on nicely from the development theory discourses of rich/poor, developed/developing, north/south. I often wonder whether these cleavages exist only because we often tend to think in simplistic electoral binaries of voter/non-voter and government/opposition. Binaries are growing in strength with the disturbing re-focus of political attention on global terrorism, on patriot/enemy and the societal dilemmas where we are now told to choose between privacy or safety – we are told that global terrorism can only be confronted if we give up our privacy with our information embedded into the protective technologies of identity cards.

So, at the outset, I want at least to use the plural term divides, and to talk of a ‘bricolage’ of divides that, when aggregated, describe the unevenness of an information society. A bricolage can be thought of as a landscape of many layers and patterns, as is admitted in the recent Indian Government statements about eGovernment: “PC penetration in the country was low, teledensity as low as 8% and IT literacy even lower” (Anon 2005a). Divides of many dimensions can then co-exist: at all scales from global to local; access to primary infrastructure, gender, old age, ethnicity, health, educational levels and capabilities, and by access to better technologies than others have. In February, in the Indian media, the commentator Barun Roy has even stated bluntly “the real digital divide is in the attitudes, the ‘ruler’-versus-the-‘ruled’ mindset of colonial administrator”.

Rather than the cleavage of ‘divide’, I prefer to think in terms of exclusion, of ‘unevenly changing unevenness’ in the information society, where the unevenness can be thematic and spatial, operating in many ‘spaces’. By spaces I mean the space of a family, extended community, of public and private spaces, of public spaces that have restricted access through privatisation, and many others.

New unevenness can be created as others are overcome. For example, on recent visits I have visited some of the new shopping malls that are being constructed in Delhi. The malls are new spaces of exclusion, where the guards at the entrance to the car park, and those patrolling the inside of the Malls, are ensuring that only the people who are ‘suitable’ (that is, have the money to spend on products and services in the Mall) are allowed in.

These spaces are sanitised spaces (cleaned both of rubbish and the wrong type of customer) that are similar to the Mall spaces throughout the world. One intervention to overcome a particular exclusion may actually create another, and one intervention may address the symptoms of exclusion rather than the causes.

The danger of using the term ‘Digital Divide’ is that is invites a focus on digital technologies. It leads us to assume that the primary cause of societal exclusion in an information society is lack of access to technologies. As a result many of the early interventions were what we can term ‘device focused’. Here, I want to make a clear differentiation a device and a technology, using the argument of Andrew Barry that a technological device becomes a technology within a human context, and “effects emerge from a combination of persons and materials” (Barry 2001, p.9 andp.11). My mobile phone may be the same model (device) as the person next to me, but we use the devices very differently, and therefore we construct very different technologies. This distinction is seldom understood by policy makers and national politicians, who are strongly influenced by the ‘technocapitalism’ and ‘technoscience’ belief set, articulated by IT gurus such as Bill Gates. To be ‘modern’ is to embrace the latest technologies, and to many nations in the world this is a constant game of playing catch-up with ‘advanced’ economies, not only in technology, but also in the foundations of governance – the World Bank mantras of deregulation, privatisation, competition etc.

It is in this context that many Government interventions meet problems, since there is a general assumption that device intervention will lead to linear outcomes. The European Union has a goal of building an ‘Information Society for All’, and in its Framework Programmes has focused strongly on interventionist projects that use ‘advanced technologies’ in projects that have focused more on building technological devices. This focus is in strong contrast to that of India, which has two fundamental strands in its information society: the development of IT skills through the education system, and on locally-focused projects that use ‘appropriate technologies’ within a social context – a theme to which I return at the end of this article.

Planned, linear outcomes of technologies are often difficult to achieve. The history of information technology is littered with the outcomes of the ‘dimensions of unintended consequences’ (sometimes also termed ‘network effects’), where “each time we try to reduce a risk, or gather more information to monitor something, we generate unintended consequences” (Lash 2002, p.50).