We live in a digital age. With the massive role internet now plays in the lives of the West, it is sometimes overlooked that there are still large areas int he world where access to internet is minimal, especially for the poor. This inequality in access is often referred to as the digital divide.
However, within the population of regular internet users, there is already a divide in literacy, between the programmers and the users. Santo (2013) argues that there is therefore a need for hacker literacy; which he calls the third wave of media democratization. During the 21st century he saw the first wave as critical media literacy; the ability audiences developed to transform from passive receivers to responsive publics that questioned the intent, assumptions and biases of media producers. Subsequently, the internet spurred the possibility for publics to create and share content, as they developed participatory media literacy. However, the programmers are still to a large extent responsible for the communication flows and how messages are being distributed. Therefore publics should become literate themselves in this field, so they can influence decisions being made regarding the design of the infrastructure there communication is depending on.
Yet in discussing development goals regarding ICT, it is often not yet a question of how internet should be used, but rather how it can be made available. Robinson (2005) for example discusses the access to communication tools of several Latin American communities, and shows that mobile telephony is far more important than internet. The same goes for most African countries, as well as most of Central Asia. Often large companies have a stake in keeping the communication tools that are available to people inefficient and limited, which hinders an increased distribution of internet accessibility. However, merely providing access to internet for these publics should not be the goal. As Pieterse (2005) has stressed, the cyber-utopian idea that internet access will solve all the problems of these publics, is a delusion concocted by large companies and stemming from capitalist ideology as well. Access to internet alone might not change social inequality but could even further enhance it, if technology is not disembedded from capital.
To get back to social media for instance, recent history has shown social media’s ability to have severe effects on political and social developments. However, the risks are numerous too and should be taken into account. Shirky (2010) for instance mentions risks of promoting internet freedom as a development goal, and shows examples of how things have developed for the worse.
Every now and then we all think back to the times when we did not use internet. How was life back then? It seems hard to imagine as we now spend most of our time on the web. But we could live without it. And many in the West now try to limit their time spent on the web, and for example decide to delete their Facebook account as an incentive to stay away from the computer.
Santo, R. (2013) Towards hacker literacies: What Facebook’s privacy snafus can teach us about empowered technological practices, Digital Culture & Education,5:1, 18-33
Contributions by Pieterse and Robinson in: Lovink, Geert & Zehle, Soenke (2005) the Incommunicado Reader. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures
Shirky, Clay (2010), The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change, Foreign Affairs 90.1