Can Developing Countries Overcome the Digital Divide? Information Technology in Trinidad and Tobago

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Introduction

Background Information

In the last decade of the 20th century, the rapid development and diffusion of information technology has led to what is commonly known as the information revolution. This phenomenon is the manifestation of Gilder's Law and Moore's Law which both describe the speed at which information technology and the supporting equipment improves.

The information revolution has continued into the new century, with more sophisticated computers, the Internet, and a new generation of hand-held wireless devices. While this revolution is taking place in a world where globalization is the order of the day, there are many countries and sectors of the population within countries that are being left out or are being left behind.

This lack of access and opportunity has been labeled the digital divide or more bluntly, digital apartheid, and is explained as a literal information gap, which divides countries and populations within countries into the information-rich and the information-poor. On a global basis, developing countries are more likely to be information-poor, with significant information disparities within their populations.

Research conducted in 2001 determined that in the United States, the information-rich included most Whites and a high proportion of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, people with higher incomes and education levels, and residents of dual parent households. The information-poor were mainly the young, people with lower incomes and education levels, African Americans and Hispanics, and residents of rural areas or central cities (West 2001) However, recent research funded by the Office of Innovation and Improvement of the U.S. Department of Education revealed that while television took nearly three decades to become universal, in 2007, nearly 40% of low income families have computers, and almost one-third have Internet access at home. The study concludes that the digital divide no longer captures the relationship between income and access to technology, and technology is integrated into children's lives, regardless of their families' incomes. (c-Republic, Inc. 2007)

Across countries, the extent of the global information gap has been captured in reports by international entities such as the World Bank and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The research reveals, among other things, that a major cause of the information gap in developing countries is a critical shortage of the infrastructure necessary for the transfer of information. In 1998/99, the World Bank estimated that 28 million people worldwide, the majority of whom are in developing countries, were on waiting lists for telephone installation, but given the long and uncertain delay, many others who want a telephone and could afford one simply have not bothered to apply. The report further states that in the area of knowledge technology, developing countries are pursuing a moving target as high-income countries constantly push the knowledge frontier outward, spending an average of $218 per million of their population on research and development, while middle and low-income countries spend an average of $6.00 and $1.00 per million of their population, respectively. (World Bank 1998/9) Black (2002) estimated that 80% of the world's population had never heard a dial tone, let alone sent an e-mail or downloaded information from the world-wide web.

The absence of infrastructure is only one of several factors identified as contributing to the inability of developing countries to participate in the information revolution. Other such factors are illiteracy, the lack of basic computer skills in the population, and the argument of some well-meaning development strategists that fulfilling basic needs and providing access to technology are competing, rather than complementary goals. This latter view is popular worldwide, and is shared by Bill Gates, who argued in 2001, that in developing countries the provision of amenities such as electricity is of higher priority than computers, unless someone is creating computers that do not require electricity. …