Thursday, April 28, 2011

A thought about the digital divide and power

Joe Nye has recently published Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics and The Future of Power. The first deals with the power to persuade and the second deals with the balance between the power to command and the power to persuade.

I wonder whether one might not add a concern for cyber power. There has been a considerable amount of attention directed to the "digital divide", but I suspect that that divide is widely misunderstood. Most of the people who could or would read this blog have access to a personal computer and the Internet. When I started thinking about computers more than 50 years ago, the idea of more than a billion people with access to the information stocks of the World Wide Web, using search engines like Google, via their own personal computers, would have been seen as science fiction of the more fantastic kind. A decade ago, much of the discussion of the digital divide focused on the divide between those who had personal computers and Internet access versus those who did not. Now with the proliferation of cell phones, text messaging, and smart phones billions more have or will soon have access to the Internet; there remains a gap in internet access but it is narrowing; there is more of a remaining gap between those who have access to powerful personal computers and those who do not, but few of us begin to exploit that power.

I focus however on the fact that not only do rich countries have more money to spend per capita on information and communications technology than do poor countries, but they also tend to spend a greater portion of their GDP on that technology. Thus you find the U.S. intelligence community seeking to use computers to capture and screen a huge portion of all the telephone and Internet traffic in the world. The U.S. military apparently is using huge amounts of computer power to monitor battlefields and all the persons on the battlefield to provide all its soldiers with comprehensive information on which to act (including pilots in the continental United States operating drones over battlefields in other nations). Government hackers are presumably able to command huge information and communication technology resources to mount attacks on the cyber structure of enemy nations. Rich countries have ICT resources that can not be afforded or even approximated by poor countries, and that it not only a continuing digital divide but quite possibly an expanding one.

Arab Spring is being described as partially the result of the new social media which enabled disaffiliated youths and educated persons to organize massive demonstrations, and as such as an indication that the new ICT technology is promoting democratic movements. Maybe! But I suspect that the digital divide as described above will help some repressive regimes to deny democratic movements. Control of military ICT applications and massive expenses on intelligence applications may support coercion.

I tend to believe that movement towards knowledge societies will lead to demands for more responsive and beneficial governance. I am not sure that the technology per se will be  helpful, but the change in culture with education and increased expectations may.

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