Global Digital Divide, Global Justice, Cultures, and Epistemology

Soraj Hongladarom. Information Technology and Social Justice. Editor: Emma Rooksby & John Weckert. Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing, 2007.


The digital divide has been one of most talked about phenomena in recent years. Trying to bridge the gap has been on the agenda of virtually all public policy makers since the products of information and communication technologies started to become more common not too long ago. It is recognized almost universally that the digital divide, basically a gap in access to and use of information technology and the global network that access makes possible, and especially the globaldigital divide, represent a significant policy problem that governments at various levels in all countries feel the need to address. The amount of attention and, more importantly, of physical and intellectual resources devoted to the issue has been really staggering. It has been so intensive in recent years that the World Bank announced a little while ago that the global digital divide is indeed disappearing (Digital divide closing fast, 2005).

Hence it might seem that the topic of this chapter is beginning to be outmoded. After all, if the digital divide is really closing, then why should we be concerned with its ethical or social implications? The exercise may cease to be relevant for current public policy formulation and may indeed become one of history—what kind of social and ethical implications arose when the digital divide prevailed? However, I do not believe that discussing the ethical dimensions of the digital divide would become irrelevant; nor do I believe that we would cease talking about the phenomenon, even if it really is the case that it is indeed disappearing. For reasons that will be made clear in this chapter, the sheer fact that more and more households in the world are equipped with computer technology and are getting wired to the Internet does not automatically translate to the realization of all the goals and visions that characterized attempts to close the digital divide. Simply having a tool does not always mean that one uses it in the way that was originally intended. We are now just beginning to see how the tools of information and communication technologies are going to be used in the various localities around the world.

What I would like to do in this chapter is to begin to explore the relations between the global digital divide, global justice, cultures and epistemology. This is pertinent to the discussion earlier because attempts to bridge the global digital divide, I would like to argue, are a species of attempts to bring about global justice and that the attempts need first to start from an appreciation of local cultures and how these cultures view their own epistemic practices, which are invariably part and parcel of their own cultures. Nevertheless, I can do no more than present a brief sketch of the relations here, because to do justice to each of the aspects of the relations would take us further afield than the space of this chapter allows. The sketch is also intended as an invitation to further research. The World Bank report that the digital divide is disappearing everywhere may be convincing, but it does not lessen the urgency of making an effort to understand how these factors are related to one another. This is so because simply providing the population with hardware and software and access to the Internet seldom suffices to realize the kind of “utopian” information society that the earlier pioneers and evangelists of information technology had in their visionary eyes.

Narrowing of the Global Digital Divide and the Persistence of Old Problems

It was just only slightly more than two decades ago that personal computers started to make their way into our lives; and the Internet started to appear on the scene little more than a decade ago. Yet these seem to most of us like ages ago. This points to the extreme speed at which the technology is evolving and spreading throughout the world. When it was in its infancy, proponents of information technology usually hailed it as a harbinger of a time when time itself and distance were eliminated. A result of this would be, in their view, a complete merging of ideas and information in such a way that every piece of information would be at everybody’s fingertips. Ideas such as democracy and freedom would float around the world and enter the consciousness of the people who would presumably take these ideas as a basis for changes in their own communities and societies. Knowledge would be readily available and the whole world will be blessed with better-informed and knowledgeable global citizens.

However, it seems that even as the digital divide is closing, these visions have not been fulfilled in many parts of the world. Universal knowledge, for example, is still a dream, as the near universal attempts at promoting the use of ICTs in schools can attest. Entz and Hongladarom (2004) argue that simply providing hardware and software to people seldom suffices in bringing about any kind of desired change in their worlds and communities. In the late 1990s the Thai government tried to bridge the digital divide problem in the country through a direct injection of hardware and software to villages. Computers were provided to village schools free of charge. What happened, however, was that many of the computers were not used to their full potential, and not in a way that would bring about any kind of universal knowledge or flow of information; many were not used at all. In many areas there was no electricity; in others there was a lack of qualified personnel who could operate computers reasonably well. Giving away computers in this case became a symbolic act of the powerful and centralized government, acting on its own without consultation with the village schools (Entz & Hongladarom, 2004).

The problems remain because there is no simple equation between possession of hardware and software on the one hand, and being able to use that software and hardware to their full potential on the other. Furthermore, it is difficult to say precisely what actually constitutes “using the computers to their full potential.” This alone requires much more conceptual and empirical study. Thus, one should not take the World Bank Report that the global digital divide is closing as evidence that the problems are disappearing. It may be the case that the World Bank Report does not specifically refer to the Thai case or similar ones, because they may already have factored in the conditions that would make computer access and use a real possibility before they announced that the gap is indeed closing. Thus, they might not have counted the Thai case as an example of the divide closing. Nonetheless, even if the scenario they are reporting is true, even if a proportionally large number of people, say in Africa and Asia, are actually using computers that are wired to the Internet, that by itself does not mean that the utopian dream is automatically realized. The old problems, of poverty, inequality and so on, seem to persist even in the face of the virtually total diffusion of ICTs.

To see how this is the case let us look at the utopian dream in more detail. Early proponents of diffusion of information technology have pointed out that ICTs could facilitate and engender rapid development in various areas, such as education, health care, finance and taxation, and many more. It was envisaged that the diffusion, in integrating data and information scattered in many places, would result in eradicating poverty in rural areas through providing needed information to the rural poor so that they could build up their capabilities and rise above the poverty line. The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology of Thailand (, established in 2003, also subscribed to the idea, and has as one of its prime missions to facilitate development through bridging the digital divide within the country. In 2003 the Ministry had a plan of selling low-cost computers to the Thai population, and it contracted a number of hardware manufacturers to produce machines according to its own specifications in huge numbers so that the economy of scale would drive the price down to make the machines become more affordable. The operating system was originally set to be a version of localized Linux developed by a research arm of the Ministry. However, the buyer could also choose to have Microsoft Windows XP installed in these systems after Microsoft offered to sell their products at a much reduced price (Entz & Hongladarom, 2004). In early March 2005, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology again declared a policy of providing 250,000 computers, together with broadband Internet connection, to schools nationwide. The stated target is one computer for 20 students and funds from the national budget are to be used. (Lofty plans for schools, 2005).

Despite these efforts, however, the promise of the information society has not been fulfilled. Of course empirical research on the local Thai context here is necessary to substantiate the claim, but as the Thai examples alluded to earlier show, providing hardware and software alone does not seem adequate. To date there have been no systematic studies to measure the effectiveness of these measures, and we can see the same line of thinking behind these policies, viz. centralized government acting as if the entire country were a pliant mold that they can shape whatever way they want. In any case, many researchers have pointed out that attempts to bridge the digital divide require much more than hardware and software. In a background report to the InfoDev Symposium in Switzerland, Kerry McNamara says:

The presence or absence of ICTs (the “digital divide”) is a symptom, not a cause. And the underlying causes of persistent poverty often have little to do, except indirectly, with the supply or absence of ICTs. By focusing on the “digital divide” (another in a long series of gaps that international development agencies have identified and sought to bridge over the past several decades) the proponents of ICT-for-development often misdirected their energies and weakened their own cause. (McNamara, 2003, p. 4)

Lisa Servon argues that one needs to change one’s thinking about the digital divide and broaden the concept to more than the simple provision of hardware and software because when “we provide people with computers, we find that not much changes. IT on its own does not function as a ladder out of poverty” (Servon, 2002, p. 6). She indicates dimensions of the digital divide problem other than access, which have to do with training and content (Servon, 2002, pp. 7-8). Her findings indicate that access is an “incomplete solution” and that “tech-fix is a myth” (Servon, 2002, pp. 222-223). Even though the gap is narrowing, this does not necessarily show that the problem is disappearing, for she found that many who are using the computer a lot are actually performing low-level tasks such as data input or other secretarial tasks (Servon, 2002, p. 222). In addition, it seems that the technology provides resources, freedom, flexibility and opportunities for the already powerful group in society (Servon, 2002, p. 223). It seems, then, that the old problems of social inequality still persist, even in a supposedly “information-intensive” society where the global digital divide and the divide within countries are fast disappearing.

Much more, then, is needed to close the digital gap. It is, however, surprising that many policy initiatives still aim at doing nothing more than providing hardware and software infrastructure and hoping that they alone can do the trick. In an attempt to reformulate how the digital divide problem should be conceptualized, Mark Warschauer sees the issue as a problem of social inclusion rather than a divide, which he regards as too restrictive and as presupposing a binary opposition between the “haves” and “have-nots” which is not supported by the facts (Warschauer, 2003). According to Warschauer, the main aim of is not to narrow or to close the digital divide, but to find ways for marginalized groups to be included in sharing the benefits that information and communication technologies can bring about (Warschauer, 2003, p. 211). He spells out the need for thorough analyses of the social structures, problems, organizations and relations involved, which naturally are different from one context to another, as an important factor in any attempt to formulate policies in that context. Moreover, the capabilities of individuals need to be promoted (Warschauer, 2003, p. 211). It is clear that Warschauer, too, does not see sheer provision of hardware and software as sufficient.

Global Digital Divide and Global Justice

The disparity between the amount of access to and usage of information technology among the nations of the world, to the extent that it exists in a form that constitutes inequality, is thus an issue of global justice. Many discussions of global justice by social and political philosophers have typically tended to focus on the more abstract aspects of the issue centered around the justification of global justice. Onora O’Neill focuses on the more theoretical aspect of global justice, arguing that Rawls’s conception of justice is too restrictive and calling for the international organizations to play their part, even though these organizations do not, as a rule, have the kind of power needed to ensure justice in a “bounded” society (O’Neill, 2000). Andrew Hurrell argues that international organizations have a moral role to play in ensuring global economic justice and that they are “dense” enough to do the job. However, they “constitute a deformed political order,” namely in distribution of advantages and disadvantages, in who sets the rules, in the capacity of states themselves to adjust to the economy, and in the “limited capacity of international laws and institutions to constrain effectively the unilateral and often illegal acts of the strong” (Hurrell, 2001, p. 43). Furthermore, Thomas Pogge argues that the Western nations have often put their priorities regarding global justice in the wrong place. He deeply criticizes the new global economic order led by the United States, which he sees to be responsible for mass poverty in the developing world. In her Olof Palme lecture, Martha Nussbaum calls for a new alternative theory of global justice to the dominant contractarian and Rawlsian one, or the one favored by Pogge, which attempts to broaden Rawls’s conception across national borders (Nussbaum, 2004). She would like to base consideration of global justice on certain fixibility of outcomes, rather than on fair procedure as is prominent in the contractarian theories. Following Amartya Sen, Nussbaum argues for a “human capabilities approach” of global justice that focuses more on facilitating the realization of certain human capabilities rather than on sheer provision of economic goods. Hence, narrowing the digital gap might presumably be included in the list of Nussbaum’s list of capabilities also. Fred Dallmayr seems to be one of the rather limited number of philosophers who take up the gap in knowledge as a factor contributing to global injustice. Dallmayr (2002) issues a “plea for global justice,” an action that is needed as a result of globalization and its consequent social and economic inequality across the globe. He indicates three areas of global inequality, viz. power, wealth and knowledge (Dallmayr, 2002). It is especially inequality in knowledge that is of particular concern in Dallmayr’s paper and the next section of this chapter will be devoted to this.

What these philosophers share in common here is that they look at global justice from a wider perspective, emphasizing not only the actual contents of justice, but also the theoretical foundation—how a particular version of global justice is to be justified. Pogge, for example, argues that Western nations are morally bound to rethink their priorities in ensuring global justice. He does not spend much time in his paper detailing what a particular developing nation, such as Thailand or Cambodia, might need in order to achieve a kind of parity in terms of information and communication technologies that presumably would alleviate the problem. Nussbaum offers an alternative theory of global justice, but her paper does not focus specifically on how information technology itself should figure in an attempt to delineate the list of capabilities that should be fulfilled. Consequently, the time has come for an investigation of how the discussions on the global digital divide should have any bearing on those on global justice.

Taking the digital divide as an issue of global justice would mean that access to the benefits of information and communication technologies is a good—something, like health and opportunities, that should be equally shared among the population in the community. However, as it is by no means clear what actually constitutes the benefits of access to the information and communication technologies, more work still needs to be done to clarify this point. On the one hand, access to ICTs and the Internet should in itself be considered as a good, because, presumably, having it enables one to realize one’s own goals and desires, just as being in possession of good health enables one to enjoy one’s life and to perform activities that one could not do had one not been healthy. On the other hand, there are many people nowadays who choose not to get connected and not to use the computers at all, but these people are not considered unequal to others because they have other social and economic goods, such as an adequate level of income, education, welfare and so on. But there are not very many who would deny having good health. Hence it seems that having access to ICTs alone is not the answer. Moreover, we have seen in the last section that hardware and software alone are not enough to achieve the kind of parity that would qualify for there to be justice. Someone might counter that those who chose not to get connected did not get connected out of their own choice. They are not unequal to their peers, as mentioned, since they could easily get connected as soon as they wanted to, whereas those who are denied access, such as the rural poor in Thailand, would not get access to ICTs, even if they really wanted to. But this only shows that access to ICTs may not be a primary good, but a secondary good. A primary good is one that satisfies some basic need of those in possession of the good. Thus health is a primary good because just about everybody desires it for its own sake, as Aristotle said. Access to ICTs, on the other hand, appears to be more secondary, since having it enables one to enjoy other kinds of goods, such as information (in an age where information itself is considered a good) or income (through e-commerce). This points to the extreme importance of the content of the flow of data facilitated by the network. In some way the content being transmitted through the network is itself a primary good, and the network is then a secondary good because it enables the former to be distributed to where it is needed. Thus, if one wants to tie this up with the global justice issue, one would then need to elaborate upon what it is that the possession of would reduce global inequality. Here knowledge, or epistemic practices, and culture have a very important role to play, and attempts to bridge the global digital divide effectively would not be successful if these are not taken into consideration.

Talking about the global digital divide as an instance of global justice is a step down toward the more specific from the often highly abstract papers on theories that the literature offers. It seems that taking the digital divide as an issue of justice would need a special set of vocabulary, because of the technical nature of the phenomenon. Most policy analysts and researchers on diffusion of ICTs in Thailand are bureaucrats working for the government. Most of them have a technical background and usually regard their jobs to be technical tasks of studying and conceiving policies in a rather formulaic manner. In Thailand it is usually the case that policy researchers on a technical issue consist of technicians in that area. Thus, it is mostly medical doctors who formulate the country’s health care policy and it is usually engineers and computer scientists who propose policies to the government in the areas of information technology and the digital divide. This may stem from the Thais’ belief that in technical matters, including policy studies on those matters, things are better left to the technicians or experts in question, since they know best about their own field. Hence, discourse on these topics is often couched in technical language and jargon, which further deepens the public’s attitude toward such matters as being purely technical requiring technical solutions. Talks about the digital divide, in Thailand at least and presumably in other developing countries as well, are often couched in the technical jargon of computer scientists and network specialists. Thus a knowledge gap that is already in existence between the educated urban elites and the less educated majority in the countryside is exacerbated. The digital divide then becomes a symptom of a wider divide between the elites who seem to have everything and the poor who do not seem to have anything. And the use of specialist jargons by the authorities has become a symbol of power for them against the local villagers. If there is to be a solution to the digital divide problem, then language has to be considered too; and, as we shall see in this chapter, language is but one of the aspects of culture that needs to be taken into consideration in any attempt to solve the problem.

At any rate, the issue of the use of computer and specialist jargon in policy formation and deliberation is related to another, more theory-oriented, issue of which set of vocabulary is most suitable for discussion of the philosophical and ethical components of the digital divide problem. In fact, one might make the case that talking about the digital divide in this context does not require a special set of vocabulary, that is specific to the technology in question and that makes its discussion different from talking about other goods, such as income and education. In this sense, taking the global digital divide as an issue of global justice is no different in principle from taking the global divide in health care as an issue in global justice. Since what is being emphasized here is the provision of health care to the world’s population in a just and equitable manner, so too the provision of access to information and communication technologies should be in the same vein. No special vocabulary needs to be involved. However, the issue of which set of vocabulary is suitable is a very complicated one and cannot be treated in full detail in this chapter.

While this position is plausible, it is nonetheless the case that there are different levels of abstraction when one discusses global justice and its content, and these different levels make it necessary for there to be at least two sets of vocabulary to work with. This difference is not the same as that of the policy formulators mentioned in the previous paragraph. On the one hand, there is the general vocabulary that discusses global justice; this is often found in the literature on the topic among social and political philosophers. On the other, there is the special set of vocabulary that pertains to information and computer technologies in particular. This set is not the exactly the same as that of the technicians discussed earlier, for it focuses not on the technical nature of the technology, but on the more conceptual problem of how the diffusion of information technology is related to the goals and values of a community and the life-world of a people. Thus this latter set is more in tune with the conceptual resources found in philosophy of technology. In this sense, a case could perhaps be made that discussion of the global digital divide as an issue of global justice requires some set of vocabulary that is specific to the issue.

This set of vocabulary can be found, for example, in the works of philosophers of technology when they analyze the role technology plays in human life. One of the chief problems in philosophy of technology concerns technological determinism—the view that infusion of technology in society invariably brings about certain changes in the attitudes and structures of that society. It is well-known that this view is subscribed to by such philosophers as Martin Heidegger and Jacques Ellul. In the context of the global digital divide, the issue is whether the infusion of the technology, which is the aim of proponents of attempts to narrow the divide, would bring in certain changes which are inevitable. The early proponents alluded earlier in the chapter argued that the infusion would certainly bring about desirable changes, and it is clear that the belief is based on technological determinism. However, technological determinism is being challenged from many angles. Charles Ess and Fay Sudweeks (1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004) have shown that the belief that computer-mediated communication will bring about certain inevitable changes in any culture where it is practised is unfounded empirically. This is mainly because cultures usually have within their resources the capability of “co-opting” these influences to make them their own. Thus, it has not been shown to be the case that all cultures will change in the same way as a result of their participating in the Internet and in the global communication network (Hongladarom, 2000, 2001a).

If this is indeed the case, then it is ultimately up to the cultures themselves to determine their course of action regarding the Internet. The implication for the global digital divide issue is that, at the very least, a special set of vocabulary, that of philosophy of technology and analyses of computer-mediated communication and culture, pioneered by Ess and Sudweeks, should be of value in aiding us to understand the complexities surrounding the global digital divide and global justice better.

Information Technology, Epistemology and Culture

Ess and Sudweeks have done a lot to show that information technology, computer-mediated communication and cultures are interrelated to a great extent. We have already seen that information and communication technologies can indeed be considered a good, albeit in a secondary manner, and that social inequality can indeed happen when one section of a population has more of their products and benefits than another section. In addition to these aspects, information and communication technologies do have their own special quality, which merits a separate type of discussion apart from the usual one in political and social philosophy when social inequality is discussed. Another reason for this is that information and communication technologies, including the Internet, are pliable and can be used in daily life in very diverse ways, and it is here that the technologies have an intimate relation with culture. While older technological products, such as the tractor or the plough, can only be used in a limited number of ways, computers can be programmed to do many tasks, as many are, no doubt, familiar. Operating a tractor or a plough does not seem to require as much knowledge and skill as one needs to work a computer efficiently.

In this sense, the computer can be seen as a second-order technology, as opposed to the first-order technologies exemplified by the tractor or the toaster oven. First-order technology, like the toaster, operates on a chunk of concrete reality. But computers do not directly do so, as they operate on binary digits acting as symbols capable of referring to anything, including non-existent things in future plans. It is true that computers do actually operate on chunks of reality, namely the electronic signals representing ones or zeroes, but these do not mean anything and the binary digits always refer to something other than themselves. An older tool such as an abacus can actually do the same kind of work that a computer can do, though much more slowly. In this case the abacus can be considered a second-order technology also. But the immense speed and power of computers to operate on these electronic signals seems to make them a breed apart from the older tools, even from the electronic calculator. Computers can be used in many ways, from playing video games to speculating on the stock market. The toaster or the automobile, as first-order technologies, can do only limited things.

The epistemological implication of this is that, as a second-order technology, the computer’s capability in manipulating symbols makes it, in a real sense, an extension of the cognitive power of human beings. Traditionally, epistemologists are concerned with the normative problems of knowledge—what counts as knowledge, how a piece of information should be justified so that it becomes a piece of knowledge, and so on. However, with the influx of the information technology, these problems have expanded quite significantly in range. Goldman, for example, is calling for a revamp in how epistemology is done in that he calls for a “social epistemology” that takes into account the societal aspects of knowledge (Goldman, 1999). He writes:

In what respects is social epistemology social? First, it focuses on social paths or routes to knowledge. That is, considering believers taken one at a time, it looks at the many routes to belief that feature interactions with other agents, as contrasted with private or asocial routes to belief acquisition. This “social path” dimension is the principal dimension of sociality that concerns me here. Second, social epistemology does not restrict itself to believers taken singly. It often focuses on some sort of group entity—a team of co-workers, a set of voters in a political jurisdiction, or an entire society—and examines the spread of information or misinformation across that group’s membership. Rather than concentrate on a single knower, as did Cartesian epistemology, it address the distribution of knowledge or error within the larger social cluster. Even in this second perspective, however, the knowing agents are still individuals. Third, instead of restricting knowers to individuals, social epistemology may consider collective or corporate entities, such as juries or legislatures, as potential knowing agents. This third approach will occasionally be taken in this volume, but only rarely. (1999, pp. 4-5)

It is these aspects of social epistemology mentioned by Goldman, especially the one on distribution of knowledge across a group of population and societies, that most concern us here. Basically what Goldman has done is to relocate the focus of epistemology from the exclusive attention toward the individual knower to the wider array of individuals in groups and societies. Nonetheless, the normative interest of epistemology still remains. It is relocated in new problems concerning how the best approach in knowledge distribution across groups of individuals is to be effected, for example. Goldman’s rough answer to this problem is that the distribution should be such that the amount of knowledge across the array of groups is maximized, where he defines knowledge roughly as “true belief” (Goldman, 1999, pp. 3-7). I have no quarrel with Goldman’s proposal in this chapter (that was an occasion for another of my papers (Hongladarom, 2002), but I agree with his social epistemology project, especially on the normative problem of knowledge distribution, and it is this that is most relevant to the topic of this chapter.

The digital divide exacerbates the knowledge distribution problem in many ways. First of all, the divide clearly shows that knowledge distribution is skewed. As in individualistic epistemology, where the concern is on how to find the best route toward knowledge for an individual. Here the concern is also on how to find such a route for a society. The computer’s role as the symbol manipulation tool for the modern age—its role as a second-order technology—makes it the key player in knowledge distribution. Secondly, when the discussion turns toward the global digital divide, the focus then is on knowledge distribution across nations; hence the issue becomes intertwined with those in political philosophy. Thirdly, discussions of culture further complicate the issue because, as I will elaborate further in this chapter, culture could be regarded as the sum total of the beliefs and practices of a group of people who have stayed together for a long time sharing a system of symbols, meanings and traditions together. Thus epistemic practice, which is the practice of a culture regarding production, dissemination and evaluating knowledge, plays an obvious role in knowledge distribution and digital divide problems. A social epistemology that seeks to illuminate the digital divide problem needs to pay serious attention to cultures and their epistemic practices.

The computer’s capacity to operate on anything that human beings can think of or talk about make it a very powerful tool. In this case computers can even operate on non-existent things like future plans and fictional works. As the works of Ess and Sudweeks show, culture permeates the use and design of information technology, and the second-order nature of information technology means that it functions as more of a transparent medium through which content is transmitted, stored and processed. Since content depends largely on the goals and agenda of all who are communicating through the medium, it is a perfect means by which the cultural traits of the people communicating with one another emerge.

The capacity of computers to operate on symbols makes it a very powerful cultural tool. “Culture” is taken here in the anthropological sense that refers to the sum total of a group of humans’ symbolic and meaning-giving activities. Thus language is definitely part of human culture, as well as all activities that have symbolic meaning attached to them, such as religions and ways of greeting. In this sense the computer can be regarded as a tool that facilitates and extends human symbol production and manipulation, in much the same way as pencil and paper, or charcoal and cave wall in the past. So there is a strong connection between computers and cultures. On the one hand, computers are a symbol manipulation tool par excellence, and human culture is nothing if not production and interpretation of symbolic representations. What Ess and Sudweeks have found is that computers and computer-mediated communication have largely been co-opted into the worlds of local cultures. Instead of computer use dictating how a particular local culture produces its own content and in what manner the computer itself is being used, computers and information technology have become integrated to local cultures in such a way that the technology itself, the symbols being produced, and their meanings, are all included within the horizon of that culture.

Technological determinists may object to this, saying that it may be too simplistic to say that information technology is a transparent medium. After all, so the argument goes, operating a computer requires one to change many of one’s habits. Firstly a stable source of electricity has to be installed; then the user has to have learned the skills needed to work on the computer; and then the computer requires one to work on it in a certain way which, in a way, limits the freedom of the user, because one has to follow the prescribed rules and choices of the operating system which means that the user seems to have no choice other than what is dictated them by the software. However, this does not necessarily mean that the user is constrained to the extent that her creative talents or her distinctive cultural traits are not possible at all. Nowadays members of all cultures in the world do use pencil and paper as a matter of course, and this older technology is so pervasive that one hardly pauses to think about it. Yet it does not seem that the identity of a particular culture does change as a result of the culture’s adoption of pencil and paper. Furthermore, there is no denial that the culture itself also changes as a result of their adoption of the technology. The determinists do, in fact, have a point—only that technology and culture seem to determine each other, since one is part and parcel of the other, rather than one determining the other externally, so to speak (Warschauer, 2003, pp. 199-216).

This distinctiveness on the part of computers makes it the case that running it effectively requires much more knowledge and skill than is required for running the first-order technologies. Much more is needed before those who have not found a place for computers and the network in their lives can be fully “computer literate” and function in a way that alleviates the inequality exemplified by the divide. Education is, of course, important. The second-order characteristic of computer technology makes it the case that one needs to factor in epistemological considerations in a kind of philosophical endeavor to make sense of the whole phenomenon, and in any attempt to lay a foundation for a workable and effective policy for solving the digital divide problem. This is so because, in addition to the fact that one needs to possess a certain amount of knowledge and skill in order to operate a computer relatively well, the second-order characteristic, the one that enables computers to work on symbols capable to referring to anything whatsoever, makes them prime epistemic tools which could prove instrumental in bridging the knowledge and information gap that undoubtedly exists in the world. And, in this sense, looking for ways to solve the digital divide should go hand in hand with solving the knowledge and information divide too. Furthermore, as the problem takes on a global dimension, the epistemological considerations become global, too, and in the same manner, the digital/knowledge/information gap becomes global, which adds another dimension to the whole discussion. It is here that discussions on global/local epistemic practices have a role (Hongladarom, 2002).

The Digital Divide and the Knowledge Gap

Fred Dallmayr (2002) points out that there are three main areas of global inequality, namely power, wealth and knowledge. Thus he raised the knowledge distribution issue mentioned earlier as a serious problem facing the world today. The discussion on knowledge is the more interesting, since disparities in power and wealth are rather commonplace. According to Dallmayr, the global knowledge gap is exemplified by the fact that more than four-fifths of the world’s output in science and technology comes from the West, that the vast majority of scientific and technological experts reside in the West, and that there exists in the West a policy guarding knowledge and information as a highly precious commodity (Dallmayr, 2002, pp. 148-149). This gap is a result of the “expertocracy” and “Europeanization of the earth” (Dallmayr, 2002, p. 148). Dallmayr argues that the rise of globalization and ICTs has made it possible for the few who possess the technical know-how to rule over the majority of the world’s cultures and population. These few who hold the power are the ones who manipulate the images and content of the mass media that is distributed via the global network, including satellite television, the print media and the Internet. The power exists through a manipulation of symbols and images through these media in such a way that the ordinary citizens of the world have become “image consumers and pliant tools of telegenic politicians and pundits ruling over a televisual or phantom democracy” (Dallmayr, 2002, pp. 149-150).

The technological determinist bent in Dallmayr’s paper here is unmistakable. Taking a rather pessimistic stance, Dallmayr views the contemporary infusion of information and communication technologies as a system of control by which the world’s population is mesmerized and virtually enslaved by the few manipulators of images and symbols who hold the real power. If the hold on the consciousness of the people through the “information revolution” is a strict causal relation, then there are only two ways out—either abandon all information revolution altogether and build a protective shield around the people so as to prevent the effects of the technology from harming them, or stage another revolution and take the power of manipulating symbols and images to the people themselves. Following the first course sounds like one is trying to turn back the clock. Even today there are people who choose not to get connected to the outside world; but I think this is no longer a viable option for most people. The second alternative is a radical one. Looking at the mass media regime as a seat of political and psychological power and trying to destroy that power would mean that the people take the power of producing and distributing media images themselves. In fact this is already happening in the case of the Internet. The problem is only that the images and stories being produced and disseminated are so huge in volume that the effects tend to cancel one another out. When there are billions of Web sites to turn to, the power that one particular Web site can hold on to someone’s imagination is minimal indeed. More importantly, the technological determinist thesis is that it is the technology itself that is to blame; thus sharing the technology with a large number of population would just spread the blame to all over the place, and this does not seem to be a good solution.

The implication of Dallmayr’s idea here on the global digital divide problem is that he reiterates the need for a critical stance on the media regime of today. He reminds us that there still exists a huge knowledge gap between the West and the rest of the world in terms of production of scientific and technological output and other related measures, and that attempts to bridge the divide should proceed in an equitable and democratic manner. Bridging the divide, wiring the remote villages so that they have access to the Internet, should not be tantamount to ensnaring these people with centrally produced media images so that they are forever addicted to them. Instead providing access to the Internet to the remote villagers should proceed in such a way that the technology needs to become integrated into the lives of the villagers themselves. According to Dallmayr, this does not seem possible because the premise of his argument is that the Internet is a kind of symbolic manipulation on a grand scale by a few “expertocrats.” But it is very important that the villagers, those on the receiving end of the divide, be helped so that they can stand on their own feet and take the Internet as yet another of the long list of tools that they rely on to make their living.

Another point is that Dallmayr seems to think that most knowledge comes from the West. The knowledge gap in modern science and technology may be the case, but this does not preclude there being systems of knowledge and technology that are indigenous to the local cultures. As I also pointed out in another paper, the digital divide problem can be solved partly through recognizing the knowledge potential in local communities and seeking ways to make such knowledge and information “transparent”—meaning making it easier for local knowledge and information to become a productive force (Hongladarom, 2001b). It is possible that such systems now lie dormant without their potential being tapped fully. As philosophers and scholars in science studies, such as Sandra Harding (1998) and Susantha Goonatilake (1998), have pointed out, there is a vast store of indigenous knowledge systems in the world’s cultures, to which modern science itself owes its origins. Furthermore, locals have relied on these systems for centuries in their lives. It is only because of the mindset, influenced by Western colonialism that regards modern, Western science and technology as the only possible knowledge and technological system, that the potential of these systems have not been tapped. Moreover, Harding has also argued that Western science as it is currently practised contributes to global inequality (Harding, 2002). Hence, an account of how to bridge the knowledge gap should also include a recognition of the important role of indigenous systems, and, as Goonatilake has argued, such systems can indeed be “mined” so that their treasures are revealed to the local people and the world at large (Goonatilake, 1998). In this sense, bridging the digital divide effectively also includes improving local knowledge systems and the means by which the content of these systems can be effectively retrieved.


Some conclusions can be made from the previous discussion. Firstly, it is clear that the global digital divide is an issue of global justice. This is clearly a truism, but an implication is that deliberations on global justice need also to pay attention to how the global digital divide problem is to be addressed. More specifically, one needs to find out exactly how the fruits of information and communication technologies are to contribute to global justice. If provision of hardware and software is not enough, then what could be adequate? Are training and content sufficient? What kind of content? How should the training be developed? And what aim should the training be geared to achieve? These questions are all important, and obviously they cannot be answered satisfactorily in this chapter. Much more work needs to be done.

Secondly, discussion of the normative aspects of the digital divide should also pay attention to the fact that computer technology is a second-order device, which makes it distinct from other first-order social goods. The second-order nature of computer technology makes it the case that cultural epistemological considerations do have an important and necessary role to play; hence, policy deliberations on the global digital divide need to pay attention to the role played by the epistemological considerations.

That is, the deliberation needs to consider the specificities of the culture and their epistemic practices. Hence, I agree with Anthony Wilhelm’s idea of the Digital Nation, especially when he says, “a Digital Nation is much more than industrial policy; it drives the social agenda as information, skills and knowledge become building blocks of a learning culture” (2004, p. 131). What this means is that a policy aiming at solving the digital divide problem first of all should start from the ground up. The locals themselves should be the ones who decide which kind of technology they will be using and according to what agenda. For example, in a rural village in Thailand, which is experiencing a host of changes and has become ever more tightly integrated with the world economy, attempts should be made toward computer literacy as well as installing the necessary infrastructure. But, more importantly, it is the emphasis on their own agenda, beliefs and values, that should take precedence. The villagers have their goals and their aspirations, as does everyone else. The problem is how to find a way, through the attempt to solve the digital divide problem, for their goals and aspirations to be realized. A necessary condition for that to happen is, I believe, that computers should be integral to their lives and not something foreign to them.