On this year’s International Day of the Tropics, Ann and her colleagues will present their focus report for 2021 titled, “The Digital Divide in the Tropics”.
Over the last decade, the use of digital technologies in society has grown exponentially. The COVID-19 pandemic expedited that growth as many of us left our schools, workplaces, and social settings and became more dependent than ever on technology to connect us to the outside world. This sudden and extreme increase in dependence has sparked many conversations about the “digital divide” that exists between populations who have access to digital technologies, and those who do not.
However, the notion of the digital divide is not a new one; the State of the Tropics leadership group had already chosen it as a focus before the arrival of COVID-19.
“It was in 2019 and it was actually the last time that the State of the Tropics leadership group was able to meet in person,” Ann says. “We were discussing potential focus points and we recognised that the role of digital technologies, or lack of digital technologies, throughout the Tropics would be an important focus point in the following years.”
The digital divide can be observed through three levels of impact.
The first level of the divide is the matter of access. Understanding this level is like asking: As a person living in the Tropics, do you have access to digital technologies? What do you have access to? Can you access a telephone, a radio, a television? A step up in the access level is access to a mobile phone, internet communications, broadband, and satellite communications.
The second level is the matter of utility. As a person living in the Tropics, if you do have access to digital technology, do you know how to use it and understand its utility? This understanding is referred to as digital literacy. “In some cases, access to technology doesn’t change the way people operate in the Tropics because they don’t necessarily need to use it or know to use it in a way that reinvents or benefits their everyday life,” Ann says.
The third level of the divide is the matter of content. If you have access to digital technology and the digital literacy to use it effectively, is its content relevant to you? Will it bring greater convenience into your life? Will it help you make more money? Will it keep you safer?
The digital divide is further complicated by regional differences within the Tropics. Ann suggests that for the majority of the Tropics, the divide is apparent even at the first, most basic level.
“The very latest data that we have, which is from 2019, says that less than fifty per cent of people in the Tropics use the internet,” Ann says. “For us, coming from a place where the internet is ubiquitous and we use it every day, that’s a challenging thing to think about.”
Despite being considered an essential tool for the running of our workplaces, schools, health systems, and everyday life, the internet is something completely irrelevant to half of the Tropics’ population. If the issue is a matter of access, then our greatest asset isn’t even an option to the people living and working in those regions.
“When you consider how countries develop, how economic systems work, or how political systems work, the internet changes all of those things. If half of a region’s population can’t access that, then you have an unbalanced share of opportunities and quality of life.”
State of the Tropic Project Manager, Ann Penny