The Digital Divide

World leaders have gathered to Davos to think about the economic future of the planet. In particular, the question of income inequality gives cause to worries.

An economy where the majority of resources is isolated in the hands of the few cannot thrive. An economy is a moving, living thing. When its lifeblood is stored in a vault, be it a digital stowaway or a cave guarded by a dragon, the economy stagnates.

But there is an even worse gap brewing. I mean the Digital Divide that is building up as we speak. This division of intellectual resources will also no doubt contribute to increasing income inequality.

After all, income is not generated out of thin air, but out of activity resulting in smart allocation of resources. Be they capital, gold, water or coal. Or level design for a computer game.

What I mean by the Digital Divide is the phenomenon of inequally distributed learning. Intellectual resources such as tablet universities, online scholarly databases and even children’s learning apps mean that those with access to ubiquitous digital connectivity also have an access to constantly develop their intellectual skillset. The skillset which will also contribute to general success in life.

A five year old who can start learning algebra by playing DragonBox, a teenager who can study differential calculus in Khan Academy and the thirty-something career changer who can participate in a Princeton MBA level class via Coursera are in a massively advanced situation compared to those whose learning is limited by the classical schooling model.

School is simply outdated in the current learning ecosystem, yet the New Learning is only accessible to scarce few.

What causes the Digital Divide are these three elements:

  1. Lack of access to digital devices.
  2. Lack of knowledge of digital services. And
  3. Lack of understanding to employ those services.

We need to build an ecosystem where practically everybody has immediate (mobile) internet access. We need a system to communicate to the mobile users the top notch learning services. And we need schooling that helps people to use those services properly and to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

Unless we do this, and unless we do this pretty soon, we will soon have a society divided into supersmart people who have been able to tap into their personally interesting fields from early on in their lives. I’m pretty sure we will in a moment have an explosion in the future Kurzweils and Einsteins.

But meanwhile we will have a growing number of people who have been thrown off the wagon owing to old structures not yielding fast enough to a world that is changing more rapidly every day.

Teachers resisting “bring your own device” practices or parents being wary of digital learning will leave their students and children with a legacy that I suppose will cause far more dire problems than the present income inequality.

An intellect inequality caused by the Digital Divide will at best create an economy where a great deal of people will have tremendous problems accessing the job market.

At worst, it can cause a division into something like H.G. Wells predicted in his dystopian “Time Machine”: a society of smart but weak Eloi, direly contrasted by the aggressive but slow thinking Morlocks.

Add to this the fact that owing to automation, in a couple of decades there will be scarce few jobs left for those not versed in complex subject matters, one can only speculate on the scope of such dystopian visions.

The silver lining here is that unlike with income inequality, the intellect inequality is something we can deal with pretty much straight away, both as individuals and as a society.

By giving our children, our students and our adult learners access to digital devices by both parental and peer support, school reform and legislation; by creating web portals collecting the best learning platforms; and by incorporating the learning skills themselves (“learning to learn”) into the school curriculum, we can, at a moderate cost, avoid such a division from building up in the first place.

We might not have a future society of Einsteins, nor should we. But we can have a future society where the great majority of people can first tap into what they are truly interested in, and second develop considerable skills in those fields from early on in life.

The digital tools we have available make this possible for a growing number of people right now. To these people the future is now.

The society I believe we should be building is such where the future would eventually be equally distributed.

A society where, instead of a Digital Divide, intellectual abundance touches not only the fortunate few, but the great majority of the human kind – if not, indeed, eventually every single human being.