A new digital divide

[This was published in The Guardian’s Comment Is Free section, here. There are already quite a few comments, so perhaps continue the argument on that site]

Three years ago I had dinner with a senior alumnus of my university and he initiated small talk by commenting that in his day, they survived without email. It has recently occurred to me that I could now return to my university at the tender age of 24 and remark that in my day, we survived without Facebook. More than other social networking sites, and not just through its popularity, it has changed the way we interact and engage socially – but there is a potential cost.

I actually joined Facebook just after my graduation and so over the last three years have followed its development; but since Facebook allowed open registration, it has grown so quickly as to evolve from a community in to a society in its own right. It has changed from being a more efficient and convenient means of communicating within existing networks to germinating totally new networks altogether. People can now collect hundreds or thousands of friends based on so many more connections than merely knowing one another. We are publicly defining ourselves by endorsing groups and individuals, which in Facebook’s case might be making us more honest. And since Facebook’s codes were made available a few weeks ago, turning it in to a platform for applications, it is increasingly possible for this society to interact in ways that have never before been possible.

Complemented by other social networking sites such as Bebo, Twitter and of course MySpace, we now seem to have finally cracked the progression from being able to produce accurate simulators of aspects of life, such as driving, to producing a simulator of social life altogether. I can now share and listen to music, exchange banter with friends, even view their golf swing all through one host while thousands of miles away in Bangladesh.

Except I can’t, because I’m in Bangladesh. Facebook takes me 10 minutes to load, and to use its applications is impossible. I don’t even attempt MySpace. Communications technology has often advanced slowly across the world, improving means of interaction, but until now, not fundamentally altering the basis and nature of that interaction.

Mobile phones have enabled villagers to communicate over large distances without crossing them by foot, but villagers still have a conversation, albeit via a telecoms network. By contrast, I would consider myself a communications specialist, but I would struggle for a long time to explain the concept of life-casting to my Bangladeshi colleagues at work. It is a behavioural phenomenon, rather than a communications advance such as email or SMS texting.

This change, by which it genuinely is possible to inhabit online and “offline” worlds as independent or interdependently as you like, and fully interact in each, is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is fast creating a digital divide that is not like other social divides based primarily around the haves and the have-nots, whether it be wealth, health, or education, but between those who function in a multiplatform world, and those who are still ‘stuck’ in the real one, where you can’t fly in Second Life, share music on MOG or be friends with Stephen Fry through Facebook.

While I am against any form of external online regulation or censorship, it should be remembered by the hundreds of excited journalists recently filing copy to justify their networking adventures as “research”, that actually not everyone is signing up on Facebook. A lot of people in Britain and America are, but there are over a billion people in the world who have never made a phone call, let alone used the X Me application.

Clearly the lack of opportunity for online networking is the least of the worries for people in the developing world. And personally I enjoy not feeling obligated to check five inboxes every ten minutes.  But as new online worlds develop and prosper, I think it’s important that the rich people who use those worlds do not forget the world offline, in the world that we all still inhabit.

My earlier point that it is possible now for human society to interact as never before deserves the instant rebuttal – except in real life. And as the “hyper-connected” generation emerges, it is critical that the same generation which exists away from a broadband connection does not become further disconnected.


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