On Friday March 16th, 2007, I wrote an article entitled Benjamin M. Compaine: declare the war on the digital divide won… or just don’t!. My writing generated some comments, one of them by Ben Compaine himself. I was about to answer him there, on the comments, but I guessed it was a better option to do it in a new post, as sometimes comments are overlooked and this would just not be fair with Ben Compaine’s opinions and his right to reply.
As I said then, I find that the whole book is based on good and objective research, so to put things clear, my objections are not about Compaine’s and the other authors’ work but on the opinions they issue based on this work. And, actually, I think that, in general terms, we agree that equipment should not be subsidized just for the sake of it. But there are some places where we disagree, which, as stated in Ben’s comments, are the ones that follow.
The first one is that the main problem for Internet access is not cost but will. Hence, access should not be subsidized. On a first derivative, I can only agree with him: when computers are not among the main household priorities, wasting the taxpayers money on a machine that is likely to get covered by dust in some weeks absolutely makes no sense. Though intuition tells me that cost is important (and not only in developing countries) I do trust Compaine’s data that tell, loud and clear, that computers are not seen as an unreachable need in most households. But, on a second derivative, it is precisely this lack of e-awareness the one that makes me think that, still, a policy to foster the information society is indeed beneficial. Under this point of view, all the money we should not spend in computer subsidies should be shifted to grant digital literacy training or to raise awareness on the benefits of digital content and services. If we agree that the Information Society is here to stay, and that it is a good thing to catch on with it, and if we agree that computer subsidies is not the issue, there must me something more that we could do about it.
The second one is about how many time will it take to reach “universal access” — whatever this means. Benjamin Compaine defends that things will happen anyway, and that we just have to wait until the market walks the whole path. While I agree, again, with the second statement, and I fully believe that the market will sooner or later provide (almost) universal access, for me the time required to do so is an issue too. Because I think that, unlike the telephone or the TV set, the later you get online the less chances you have to reach higher levels of welfare, for you and for your kids. Hence, the question I ask myself is not whether the market will provide or not, but what will be the lag among early and late adopters and what the consequences.
And third, there’s the issue whether more access to ICTs will mean more democratic practice. I have to (sadly) admit that this is absolutely untrue if all other conditions are unchanged. But again, I think that it is a matter of e-awareness, of “digital ignorance” if put in negative terms, so same reflections I made a couple of paragraphs ago apply.
Ben Compaine ends his comments writing that
any government expenditures would be most efficient if well targeted and thus relatively small. I absolutely agree. But the feeling I got reading the book was that, as expenditures on personal computers seemed not to work, no public expenditures should be made at all at the household level. And my opinion is that, once you’ve checked that “don’t want to go online” is the reason for poor access, a second round of surveys should be carried on to elucidate whether this was a rational choice made on grounded reflections or it was the consequence of a poor (digital) education that lead to a digital illiteracy in practical terms.
I really would like to end this entry by thanking Ben Compaine for taking the time to comment the previous post about his book. Thanks a lot!
If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:
Peña-López, I. (2007) “Ben Compaine revisited: the digital divide is not (just) about infrastructures” In ICTlogy,
#42, March 2007. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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