Sunday, May 25, 2008

The grey digital divide

Many Keralites readers will recall, perhaps some sense of pride, the news and photographs that appeared some years ago in local dailies of senior citizens - many of them functionally illiterate - in Malappuram district staring at computer monitors to read e-mails from relatives abroad.

Once written off as Kerala's most backward district, Malappuram soon became the symbol of what a determined Government and bureaucracy could do to use information technology to transform ordinary lives.

Through a network of Internet kiosks, called Akshaya centres, the State Government claims to have brought 100 per cent e-literacy to Malappuram, creating a growing appetite for value-added services like Internet browsing, voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) and videoconferencing. However well-intentioned the State Government may be, that claim is a bit too tall.

Even internationally, while many countries have met success in overcoming the `first level' digital divide - that is problems of access - few claim to have jumped over the `second-level digital divide' - the exclusion of elders in reaping the fruits of the digital revolution. This `generational difference' is a key feature of adaptation to the Internet, with older portions of the population taking up use at a much slower rate.

Take the case of the UK. In spite an overall increase in the use of the Internet to 62 per cent of the British populace, according to the most recent National Statistics survey (2003), the over-55 age group remains low, with only 30 per cent using the Internet.

Although "technological diffusion" has increased Internet use in many sections of society, a relatively small percentage of those over 55 use the Internet, compared to younger age groups.According to one study, in both developed and developing countries, the Internet penetration rate among younger people is substantially higher than that among older people.

In developing countries, students who can get online via school connections make up a big share of Internet users. In general, the life stage divide is declining in most countries, except for Korea.

The European Union is taking a good, hard look at the situation. Accepting the reality of a "social digital divide" or "informational black hole," the leaders of the 15 EU member States met in Lisbon at a summit in 2000.

It was agreed then that the boundaries defining relative poverty were fluid, so that those without Internet access were not only "informational poor" but were also socially excluded from other activities.

The members agreed that by public and subsidized private access, all citizens of the EU should expect to have some sort of Internet access by 2005. This was based on a Finnish programme that had adopted a notion of free and subsidised Internet access as a citizen's right by 2005.

And last fortnight, Britons over 50 who go online regularly celebrated `Silver Surfers Day', with 69-year-old Dennis Rogers scooping the `Silver Surfer of the Year 2004' award. The organisers said they wanted to combat digital exclusion by showing how technology is relevant to people's lives.

To mark the occasion, they fitted the York-to-London express train with Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) connectivity - something Indian Railways is also currently trying out.

The average life expectancy in Kerala is 72 years. From a demographic point of view, Kerala is about 25 years ahead of the rest of the country. A child born in the State today can expect to live over 70 years. A girl child fares even better - she can hope to live to 76.

What is disturbing is that Kerala's aged population is projected to touch 72 lakh by 2021 and 119 lakh by 2051. Kerala can expect to see more and more people in their 80s, and many of them are likely to be women. Worse, most of them will have children residing beyond the State's shores.

As an aspiring information and knowledge-based economy, Kerala owes it to these senior citizens to try and bridge the existing grey digital divide.

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