The Digital Divide: More than Just Haves and Have-nots?

A hot topic these days is how information and communications technology, like cellphones and the web, have revolutionised the developed world but yet aggravated certain social problems and the gap between the rich and the poor, both intra-country and inter-country. Instead of being the holy grail which would bring wealth to humankind, such technologies have brought a host of other problems as well as made existing ones worse.

I never put much thought into this till recently. Singapore has a PC ownership rate of about 80 percent, making it one of the highest in the world. The broadband connection rate is in the 70s percentage as well. The growth has stopped in recent years, which indicates a saturation point – those who can buy computers have already done so. Those who haven’t, will never do so. Naturally, being one who lives more than half his life on the web, I only talk to people with computers and who actually know how to use it well.

I may sound like I’m going to talk about how to bring IT into the homes of those who do not have it yet and are thus left behind by the information society, but I’ll rather share what I learnt through interacting with my new classmates – that in terms of IT mastery, it’s not just a 1 or a 0. There are several grades of people who claim to be computer-savvy as well.

Imagine a pyramid. The pyramid is divided into levels, that each person claiming to be "IT-savvy" will fit into. At the bottom are the people who can manage basic mousework, administrative tasks like MS Office and maybe check their email once in a while. These are generally older folks who are termed "digital immigrants". They did not grow up with the technology and had to learn it the hard way, through courses or sheer career necessity.

Above this level are those who not only can do all those previously mentioned, but also surf the web for info, use MSN messenger or other IM equivalents. They think of the web as a means of communication, much like a telephone line. Some might have blogs, which would contain their rants and personal writing. Some of these are unwitting participants of web 2.0 but still are not aware of the true nature of it, when they blog, upload pictures and perform other participatory activities. Most youngsters from urban areas and developed countries fall into this category, as they have grown up with computers and are accustomed to them. Almost all girls, in particular, fall into this category.

Sitting on top of them are the "adept participants", which are people who have realised that the internet has changed much from the 90s and is a new platform with its own culture, rules and geography. These people are not "techies" per se, because they cannot code, program or create stuff online on their own without the infrastructure put in place. These are just the people who have embraced the participatory culture of the 21st century internet to an extent far more than those in the level below them. All you anime bloggers belong to this group. The people who understand the long tail effect, know what is Bittorrent, utilise adsense, use digg.com etc. These are the pioneer users of new web services such as gmail, flickr and they understand how different the internet of today is compared to the late 90s. They are not smarter than the level below them. In fact, some of these may be retarded, just look at 4chan. But the key difference is in mindset – these guys believe that the internet is not just a means of communication, but an extension of reality which has very different laws and dynamics in place and yet is as real as real life.

And at the apex of the IT-savvy pyramid are the creators. These are the programmers, visionaries and all other tech guys that know how the internet actually works, and not just how to USE the internet unlike the lower levels. They create the sites and services that all other consumers use and cherish, and they rake in the money and win respect from the level 3s as well.

The interesting thing is, people in level 2 label those above them as "geeks", "nerds" and "techies" while those in level 3 and 4 denounce lower levels as "n00b" and old-fashioned.

So why am I talking about this? Because for the past 3 years, I’ve not spoken much to anyone in level 2 and below. When I was in junior college, pretty much everyone was caught up in studying for the A levels so everyone seemed the same. But now, returning to school after 3 years of National Service, where all my colleagues were IT specialists and my friends were geeks (both of the IT and anime sort), I find myself facing a classroom full of level 2 people who still insist that blogs are for writing diaries only and hotmail is the way to go.

In my tutorial on New Media and Society, many of my peers in the class could not comprehend the main reading for that class – Tim O’Reilly’s article on Web 2.0. Even the tutor was referring to it as overly technical. But it really isn’t, for people who are living in web 2.0, people like us here. I’m a bit sore because I spent time preparing for the tutorial, in anticipation of a healthy discussion on it, only to find that only two people out of a class of twenty know what is Bittorrent. The other guy has my respect, for he is a honours CompSci student who actually has his own web 2.0 site as a project. That guy is level 4!

The worst part was when the discussion turned to blogs and a famous case of blogging gone bad, the Wee Shu Min case, was brought up. The level 2s just went banging on about how bloggers should be jailed if they write bad things because they are writing on public domain etc etc. So I asked them what if the blog had a password? Then some political science graduate thumped his chest and made gorilla noises, "But the internet is international and hackers can hack it and so the blogger should know that and the responsiblity is on him" or something to that effect.

I gave him the example of a blogger buying webspace, hosting his blog for his own use, setting a strong password and proceeding to write personal stuff. A "hacker" then obtains his writing and submits it to the police. Wouldn’t that be similar to a person renting a house, moving in to live, buying and setting a big lock on the front door and then proceeding to write stuff inside his diary, and a burglar picking the lock and stealing the diary and handing it to the police? In other words, a password-locked blog should be considered private property, especially if it’s your server. But the political science dude (he was the loudest around) got mad and shouted that "internet is public domain! Ooga Wuga!!" and just repeated that over and over again. Our dear level 4 comsci honours student got mad at him as well. But now I realise why Polsci boy said that – it was because he does not comprehend the internet in the same way level 3s and level 4s do.

This incident was a reminder to me that not everyone is the same as the people you meet and talk to on IRC, internet forums and blogs. In fact, such people online are probably pretty rare in the real world and geographically dispersed. The web networks them in close virtual communities which after prolonged exposure, creates false impressions in the minds of us regarding the real technological immersion rates of a regular human being. Not everyone knows what RSS is, really.

Anyway, my point is, the speciation of humans has begun. In a couple of decades, there will be 4 human sub-species which do not inter-mate. Level 1 will do the menial tasks in the physical world, level 2s will run the real world, level 3s will live in the internet and level 4s will rule over level 3s like monarchy.

45 Responses to “The Digital Divide: More than Just Haves and Have-nots?”


  • Foreword: I am 100% Malaysian and 100% “asian”

    @exalt dragon

    “A better approach would be to accept that they are less knowledgeable, and educate them”

    Have you ever tried educating Asians? I’ve learnt from past experience, that no matter how much education you give them, they will only understand brute force. Why else does Singapore and Malaysia have the death penalty for drug trafficking? No matter what western governments and societies may think, you cannot educate asians with words. The only way of stopping it is by giving the fear of being locked up and executed. On a smaller scale, I’ll say my experience. I once worked in a kitchen. The owner once brought back a small machine that cut a plastic wrapper cleanly to an exact size, so there is no wastage. (anyone who ever tired cutting a plastic wrapper with a pair or scissors will know how hard it is). The staff there were amazed, and were taught how to use it. Instructions were pasted on the machine. 1 week later the machine was broken. Don’t ask me how they broke a machine with only 5 buttons. After fixing it and being broken again and again, the owner gave up and brought back the 1KM bulk roll and the pair of scissors.The fact was, the machine was too “high tech” for these normal people.

    And you want these people to to have access to the internet. Right…………..

    “exactly how do you plan the define whether an individual should or should not be allowed to use the internet?”

    Universities define who can and can’t enter their gates all the time. They “alienate people” who in their opinion are not fit for the university.” Are the masses “hating universities and their graduates”?

    @tj_han
    “The current system works fine, where individuals are naturally sorted into virtual communities through the automatic filters of “common interest”. See 4chan, myspace?”

    As long as they stay there, thats fine. But when they come and enroach into our world? Malaysians will know how n00bs destroyed Lowyat.net for the geeks and techies.
    Elitism is the only way societies past and present can move on and develop. Leave it to the masses, and we’d still be in the fields planting paddy, thinking sliced bread is the best thing since….well, sliced bread.

    @Mitsuki_Hayase
    “Perhaps what you’re trying to point out would be the total lack of maturity/understanding some people have shown, given the freedom of the Internet.”

    Thanks for straightening that out. I admit i may have misinterpreted tj_han.

  • “All you anime bloggers belong to this group.”

    Way to generalize us, bastard.

  • @Crest OMG another long comment! I shall put my summary skills to good use once more and summarise your passage: The term “Digital Divide” is not correct, if viewed from the viewpoint of the unique levels/standards of satisfaction demanded by each individual. Rather than view the Internet as a dividing factor, it would be better to view the Internet as the latest addition to the myriad of methods available to each individual in meeting his level of satisfaction/goal.

    @Ninghua I take issue with a few points.

    Firstly, what’s up with the focus on Asians. Stating upfront that you are Asian yourself does not hide/mask the fact that you’ve been blinded by past experiences with people around you. Simply put, everywhere, anywhere, incidences which you quote and claim to occur only in Asia happen all the time. So what’s up with the “Asians are n00bs” stereotype?

    Secondly, is barring them from the Internet going to help? We’ve all seen how effective banning has been on various other issues/vices: Not effective at all. It’s a short term issue at best; as I’ve said, are we to condemn crimminals forever just because they’ve erred once? Am I to treat whatever one says as lies once I catch him lying the first time?

    I think it all boils down to how one interprets “free will” to be. Does it literally mean “free will”, where anything, and everything goes? Or does it refer to the balancing point where everyone’s wants/satisfactions are maximised, but not totally (due to the unique nature of each individual’s wants/needs, as stated earlier), which in turn would require a certain amount of compromise, a limitation on “free will”. The way society is structured today was not achieved overnight, the basic tenets of society were tested, shift, negotiated over several millenia, and are still shifting in today’s world. I’d like to just point out that limiting access to the Internet is a dangerous step down the slope towards a dictatorial, uniform society (Imagine a society of Itoh-sans! OMFG), especially when the Internet is often viewed as the bastion of free will, as as Crest stated, a gateway for individuals of attaining their “will to power”.

    While the example of universities restricting access was interesting, it still does not answer the question on how one should restrict access of the Internet to the masses. I’d also like to point out that the universities have limited capacities, while the Internet has almost unlimited bandwidth, and server space.

    Lastly, I’d like to say that it was meritocracy, not elitism, that paved the way for progress. The crucial difference between meritocracy and elitism is that the former is inclusive, while the latter is exclusive. And we’ve seen how adopting an isolationist/elitist mentality has led to stagnation of society, from the macro level (Look at China during the Qing Dynasty, or Japan before the Meiji Era), to the class/caste level (How the nobles degraded throughout the various dynasties in various empires with the imposition of the exclusive class system; too many to quote), to the micro level (how cooping yourself up in a room causes you to have a myopic view of the room).

    @Lainforce I quote tjhan’s original reply to Owen S:

    “I’m a level 3 just like all of us. I try not to use “we” because as the writer, leaving myself out would perhaps be more neutral and less elitist.”

    I’m pretty sure too, that his parentage is not in doubt. LOL.

  • was on my way to a lvl 4 then i dropped comp sci to take design. heh. either way, welcome to life in uni, where you will find irritating and or annoying people. Discussion in Uni can be pretty sucky, but they are some good ones. but some people are really no matter how you look at them… stupid.

  • I’m a level 2 lifer…..

    I use bitorrent often…but that’s cuz it’s easy…..and i like jav. o o o

  • You didn’t use the term “Internets”

  • >In fact, some of these may be retarded, just look at 4chan
    That’s where you’re wrong, and where I’ve stopped reading. 4chan is made of smart people who tried to act retarded. Everyone should’ve realised that already.

  • I think your distinction between level 2 and 3 is arbitrary and artificially gender-based. The activities engaged in by both these groups are not significantly different. As a girl with a BSCS I have to say fanboys who can operate a bittorrent client and wordpress are not functionally different than the girls who update their livejournals and flickr accounts. The real distinction will always be between those who can make their own tools and those who can only use tools created by others. The number of people in the former group, your level 4, will always be a minority. It seems require a level of effort and abstract reasoning ability that most people are too lazy or unmotivated to achieve.

  • Also, what the hell is this “public domain” stuff? Nothing on the internet is public domain, whether you’re talking about copyright (Berne convention) or property (trespassing). Every server you visit on the net is owned by someone, somewhere; there is no public space in the sense of a communal village squarer. Blog owners can censor any posts they want regardless of “freedom of speech”, which in the States only applies to the government. Maybe he was confusing “public domain” with the fact that there really is no privacy on the net. Sorry to double post but I thought that guy was truly bizarre. >_>

  • Reslez: The distinction is not based on gender but on mindset. It’s a coincidence perhaps that more girls tend to be level 2. There are plenty of people who do not know what flickr is and are still using hotmail, IE and MSN messenger as their only internet outlets.

    Yes he was bizarre but he just has a fundamentally different understanding of the internet. Coincidentally today was my last tutorial for this module so I’ll never see him again.

  • Oh dear I have been missing from the discussion XD
    @ninghua:

    “Universities define who can and can’t enter their gates all the time. They “alienate people” who in their opinion are not fit for the university.” Are the masses “hating universities and their graduates”?”

    I think you are missing the point of the section which you quoted. I will be more specific: Well, ninghua, it sounds like you are proposing that we have some kind of test or exam to determine whether of not people are fit to use the internet? I would like to hear how you plan to carry that out in practical terms, spelling out how you will carry out these tests(a la Terra e perhaps?), where you will get enough influence to actually make it possible for such a test to be carried out, on what criteria you will assess candidates suitability in using the internet, who will be setting these exams, how you plan to make sure that the ISPs not grant internet access to those who count as non-qualifiers, etc etc.

    “Have you ever tried educating Asians? I’ve learnt from past experience, that no matter how much education you give them, they will only understand brute force.”

    Why are you targeting asians?

    “Why else does Singapore and Malaysia have the death penalty for drug trafficking? No matter what western governments and societies may think, you cannot educate asians with words. ”

    The death penalty exists in numerous western societies too, who certainly have shown no reluctance to execute people if necessary, so your point basically has no clout. Besides, your point of view is blatantly self-Orientalising. Why are you projecting a negative stereotype of asians? Why are you creating a self-constructed division between east and west? Tell me then, where does the the east end and the west begin? How did the discourse change from an age-based divide in technological know-how to an east-west regional divide in learning-ability?

    ” the machine was too “high tech” for these normal people.”

    Your story quite rightly illustrates the problem, that they weren’t properly given sufficient time and someone to show them examples of how things should be done. In sharp contrast to your point, have you seen the entire floor of Indian IT professionals who work in Suntec City? They are so technologically savvy that they know how to take control of my networked PC and fix all problems while I watch them from my monitor. Likewise with the hordes, pardon the pun, of WOW players from china that mine virtual resources and sell them off in real life.Don’t you think that your experiences have overly coloured you? The fact is that such examples aren’t enough to prove that asians are that bad. I have seen my fair share of computer (or rather internet related) stupidity in my lifetime; in fact it pervades my own immediate family, but I would like to say that, in terms of the entire society, it isn’t as bad as you think it is.

    “And you want these people to to have access to the internet. Right…………..”

    Not. I want you to want these people to to have access to the internet.

  • i like the idea of solving crime using Mathematics that is why i love numb3rs.~’:

  • Numb3rs is very unique because they crack case by means of mathematics.`*’

  • Numb3rs is a good detective TV Series, i just wish that they put in some hot babes on the this tv series.~”

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