Professor Soraj Hongladarom Issue: Asia-Pacific I 2015
Article no.: 2
Topic: Mobile devices present a new set of challenges to the Digital Divid
Author: Professor Soraj Hongladarom
Title: Chairman
Organisation: Digital Divide Institute (Asia)
PDF size: 390KB

About author

Soraj Hongladarom is Professor of Philosophy at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, and Chairman, Digital Divide Institute (Asia). He has published books and articles on such diverse issues as bioethics, computer ethics, and the roles that science and technology play in the culture of developing countries. His concern is mainly on how science and technology can be integrated into the life-world of the people in the so-called Third World countries, and what kind of ethical considerations can be obtained from such relation. A large part of this question concerns how information technology is integrated in the lifeworld of the Thai people, and especially how such integration is expressed in the use of information technology in education. He has organized the second and third Asia-Pacific Computing and Philosophy conferences at Chulalongkorn University in 2005 and 2007. His works have appeared in The Information Society, AI & Society, Philosophy in the Contemporary World, and Social Epistemology, among others.

Article abstract

Even with a 150% penetration rate, many sectors of Thai society still do not enjoy the benefits of the latest technology, as they still lack access to mobile devices or personal computers. 

Full Article

The digital divide is a serious problem because it shows a gap between those who are able to make use of information and communication technologies, and those who do not. As the technologies are powerful tools which enable people to connect and to learn more, the gap is worrisome because it appears to accentuate inequality, not only of access, but also to the wealth that the technologies bring to their users. When the term was first coined a few decades ago, the internet was still in its infancy and the gap was clearly visible. However, when more and more people all over the world are getting connected especially through their mobile devices, the gap that was clearly there some twenty years ago narrows down considerably. As smartphones and tablets are becoming ubiquitous and are able to connect through mobile connection it cannot be fully said that there is a prominent gap of the digital divide in the same sense as it was some twenty years ago. This is the case not only in the developed North, but also in the developing South where there has been a tremendous growth in mobile devices. In Thailand, for example, mobile penetration rate is as high as 150%. This means that there are three mobile numbers for every two Thai citizens, so many Thai people have more than one phone number. And Thailand is certainly not alone in this. And what is more significant is that the ratio of non-voice to voice use has surpassed 50% for the first time in the latter part of 2013. This shows clearly that mobile phones are being used more and more to get connected to the Internet. The digital divide in its traditional form appears to be closing due to the huge expansion in the use of mobile devices across the globe, or at least in the West and the Asia-Pacific region. Even in Africa, there is a tremendous growth in mobile devices too.

The digital divide happens when one group of the population enjoys the benefits of ICT’s while another does not. However, the very high penetration rate of mobile devices and the ability of these devices to get connected to the Internet appear to erase this type of divide once and for all. However, the mobile devices have problems of their own, and the high penetration rate only accentuates the problems that are already existing with the traditional personal computers. It is not adequate merely to provide people with access to the technology. What is crucial is how the technology is going to be used. In the old days when there was a rush to provide the most people with the physical infrastructure, the emphasis was on the actual provision of the technology, and the secondary problem of how the technology is going to be used was left as a second thought, something one should come to think about only after the physical infrastructure is more or less complete. However, with the very high mobile penetration rate across the globe the situation where the physical infrastructure is complete is very much at hand; hence it is now time to think about this secondary problem. The problem can be seen when the benefits of universal access that were supposed to happen do not seem to happen. In Thailand, even with more than 100% penetration rate, these supposed benefits still are quite elusive. What has happened?

The supposed benefits of closing the digital divide are, for example, economic and social equality, attainment of education, equal access to information and so on. Even with more than 100% penetration rate, Thailand still remains as unequal as ever. Part of the problem may stem from the very unequal distribution of mobile devices across the country. Even with 150% penetration rate, many sectors of the Thai society still do not enjoy the benefits of the technology as they still lack access to the mobile devices or to personal computers for that matter. However, this problem appears to be receding, as people in the rural sectors have earned more and thus come to join the mobile bandwagon. However, there is still a significant amount of inequality The larger and more intractable problem concerns how bandwidth of data on mobile devices are used. According to a study by Thaweesak Koanantakool, most Thai people use the Internet for entertainment purposes. The most popular website in the country is sanook.com, a site that contains a variety of entertainment such as movies, music, horoscopes, shopping, and some news. Thus many Thai people use the increased penetration and bandwidth primarily as consumer of information. There is nothing wrong with being a consumer of information, but being a passive consumer could lead to a situation where a gap exists between the provider and the consumer. This was not among the visions entertained by those who discussed the digital divide two decades or so ago. What they would like to see was the situation where people obtained information that was useful for their work and that they became more responsible citizens as well as those who know how to use the technology to advance their career and to get ahead economically and socially. Being a totally passive consumer of information, on the contrary, does not seem to help realize that vision.

That is certainly a difficult challenge. But clearly this represents a challenge for policymakers now that the mobile and Internet penetration rate is approaching very high percentage worldwide. Perhaps the reason why the benefits that were thought to happen when the digital divide is closed did not in fact happen is because the policymakers and the theorists believed that the influence between technology and development is only one way. In other words, if the “right” technology is in place, desired changes will actually follow. But the events in the past decades in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere have suggested otherwise. Thus, instead of believing that technology only influences social changes, we should instead believe that technology is only one factors among the network of factors that are intricately woven as factors of social change. Instead of inserting technology hoping that it will cause the change, policymakers would do better to conceive of the desired changes and design the policies in other areas simultaneously.

What this means in more concrete terms is that social, economic, educational and technology policies need to work together in order for the desired changes to happen. This of course is predicated on the idea that the people themselves want these changes actually to happen, as evidenced in the expression of their collective will through democratic means. One of the most difficult problems facing development theorists especially among the developing countries in the region such as Thailand is that development is not home grown. That is, the whole idea of development, of which the theories about the digital divide are a part, is predicated on the political and cultural influx from outside of the developing countries, thus creating a tension between the traditional habits of the people and these new ideas. A way out, as I have suggested in my earlier research, is to grow these new ideas from the ground of the traditional habits, so to speak. This will lessen the tension and the alienated feelings that arose from it.

In sum, these two factors–regarding factors in development as a holistic network and searching for ways to diminish the tension between traditional habit and modern ideas–are perhaps among the necessary factors that will solve the difficult development challenges facing a country such as Thailand (as well as other countries of the same type in the region) where the force of tradition remains strong. Instead of allowing new gadgets such as the newest smartphones fall into the usual and traditional habit of the people, we need to find a way where the whole circle of habit is changed. The gadgets and ICT’s in general play a necessary, but not exclusive, role in all this.