Multiplying the Digital Divide

It is clear that there is a growing awakening amongst a new generation of visionary and e-enlightened local politicians in cities and communities around the world that their future well being and prosperity – social and economic – will in large measure depend on having access to a future-proof and ‘open’, local information infrastructure. These enlightened political leaders are beginning to understand that there is a better route to an ‘e-future’ than that being promulgated through nationally (and sometimes internationally) developed and driven IT, telecoms and cable-TV public policy and regulation. Not only that, but they are actually seeing that access to such an open public local access network (OPLAN) ahead of other cities in their country as well as overseas, could yield a compelling competitive advantage when it comes to thriving in the 21st century information age. As far as they are concerned, “Bring on a digital divide!”

This is in marked contrast to most national political and public policy agendas on this topic, which argue from a ‘top down perspective’ and are focussed on ensuring that, almost ab initio, all cities and communities within their jurisdiction enjoy similar access to information infrastructure and services. Now that may sound commendable and politically correct in this age of equality, but it is absurd and, in my view, utterly counter productive. I have always marvelled at how Alexander Graham Bell managed to sell the first telephone before he had sold a second with which it could communicate. But imagine a situation in which he was prevented or discouraged from creating a massive ‘analogue-divide’ by having to ensure that everyone or no-one had his new technology.

So I applaud the visionary local politicians that see that today, as in earlier times, the development and implementation of ‘new infrastructure’ ahead of other adjacent towns, could yield real socio-economic prosperity. Make a visit to the Lyndon B Johnson (former US President) Library and Museum exhibit in Austin Texas and see the impressive ‘Power to the People’ exhibit. This tells the dramatic story of how LBJ was largely responsible for the introduction of electricity to the Texas Hill Country with dramatic impact on the region’s development, progress and economic welfare – and a dramatic impact on LBJ’s career as it impacted the ballot box and propelled him to the White House. I predict that the same will happen with some of those young local politicians whose political careers will be built on transforming their local communities through the development of OPLAN and all that this will enable.

So to our national political leaders and to their policy advisors, and to hugely influential NGOs such the ITU and the World Bank, I say forget this obsession with avoiding or eliminating a digital divide – let’s do all we can to encourage those local leaders who are beginning to want to create a digital divide … placing their citizens, their businesses, their local institutions and public bodies at a distinct competitive advantage over those of the city down the road or across the sea. The sooner there is a realisation that, just like earlier industrial revolutions driven by innovative technology, are a ‘bottom-up’ world-changer, then the sooner we will see other cities and communities emulating their success and naturally eliminating any digital divide.

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