The digital divide: Not everyone has the same access to technology

Sheila Warren, head of Blockchain, Digital Currency, and Data Policy for the World Economic Forum, explains what the digital divide is and how we can eventually bridge it.

The digital divide: Not everyone has the same access to technology

Dan Patterson, senior producer for CNET and CBS News, spoke with Sheila Warren, head of Blockchain and Data Policy and member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Sheila Warren: I think we all are well aware, at this point in time, that there is a huge divide in wealth and income in society. That's exacerbated from country to country, but even within countries we see a pretty stark divide in differences in the wealthiest and the haves and have-nots, if you will. But what people don't really connect to is the digital divide.

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What this means is, it used to be strictly about access to technology, so who had devices or who was skilled in use of the internet, but now, as mobile phone penetration has become ubiquitous, particularly in the developing world, this is really more about access to the internet, to broadband speed, like you noted, but also just general skills. Is your workforce generally skilled, technically? Are they able to take advantage of some of the economic opportunities that have arisen in the technology economy? Where that has not happened, we use the term digital divide to refer to swaths of the population, whether geographically or by income class, that have been left behind in this revolution.

I think, as we exit the immediate crisis here, the health crisis, and move into a period of economic recovery, we're certainly going to see tremendous amounts of job loss, transitions in needed skills, and our labor force is going to be dramatically affected around the world by what's happening now. We do have an opportunity to think about re-skilling in a new way. Can we provide certain swaths of the economy with educational resources that will help them participate in the technology economy in ways that were not permissible or possible before? Can we think through an infrastructure build that will enable schools, for example, in rural areas or in parts of the world that haven't traditionally had access to technology, to train their students in these kinds of skills?

I think there is an opportunity to think systemically about changes that are needed, that have been needed for a long time, quite frankly, and to use this recovery period as an opportunity to bridge that divide and to ensure that we're providing opportunities for everyone.

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Just as we're seeing now a lot of manufacturing shift toward the immediate crisis need of ventilators, and masks, and personal protective equipment, I think we're going to see an increased democratization in technology resources. We already know that there are cheaper tablets, for example, out there. We already know that mobile penetration, like I mentioned, that term meaning mobile phone usage and access in parts of the world, is much higher than access to a laptop or a desktop kind of computer, right, let alone a server and things like that.

I think we're going to see a shift in what we push to mobile devices. I think we'll see mobile money, which has already taken root in many parts of the world, become something that is ever-increasingly ubiquitous in parts of the world where it hasn't been used as much before. I think we're going to see educational opportunity be pushed through mobile devices, not just through tablets and other kinds of screens.

My hope is that there'll be a shift in the ways that we think about provision of access to people in the world that have not previously had this access. But again, there's a threshold of basic knowledge there that we can't assume. We can't assume that people are familiar with how to use a phone or a tablet if they haven't done that previously, and I think that shift, that divide is going to take quite a bit of work.

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Image: Dan Patterson