Musing lazily about the Digital Divide

According to the International Telecommunications Union, and as referred to in Wikipedia, this was the state of the Global Digital Divide in 2010.

Digital divides come in many forms: between continents, between countries, within countries; between age groups, between genders, between professions. There are even digital divides between companies and customers, particularly if the company’s inclined to imitate a dinosaur [In which case the company will suffer the same fate as the dinosaur].

When I worked in regulated industries, particularly in finance and telecoms, I had at least one regular source of joy. And it was in meetings when we were considering doing something new. I would count the minutes before someone asked, very well-meaningly “Have you considered the compliance implications?” At which point everyone nodded sagely and went back into staring serenely into their coffee, secure in the knowledge that very little “new” was going to happen.

It never took long. Most of the time, the question had been asked before the ten-minute marker.

Legacies come with costs.

While working at Dresdner Kleinwort, sometime in 1998, I was asked to pop over to Warsaw for a couple of days in order to assess the “Year 2000 readiness” of a number of Polish banks; they were considering flotations and my role was to perform part of the due diligence.

It was a very quick trip, validating what I’d already found out. None of them had done any real preparation for the Year 2000.

They didn’t need to. They were so late to the table that they’d leapfrogged the problem.

It was something that really resonated with me, because of what I’d seen in Calcutta time and time again, yesterday’s pioneers leave amazing legacies…. with amazing costs to follow. Younger, later participants don’t face the same brownfield challenges.

At LIFT in Geneva this year, David Rowan gave an excellent talk on why Start-up Entrepreneurs should move to Africa; afterwards, I had the chance to talk to him briefly over dinner, and what he said resonated as well. As a result, I started looking more closely into how “wired” Africa was becoming. Here’s the current intra-Africa optical fibre network, courtesy the UbuntuNet Alliance:


David also sent me off to check out what was happening undersea. Here’s what is projected to happen by 2014, from Steve Song’s excellent ManyPossibilities blog:

Africa has already gotten itself a good reputation for pragmatic progress particularly from a communications viewpoint, with “guerrilla innovation” around wireless and mesh; the mobile story is also very strong.

When I wax lyrical about the Dark Continent, some people respond by trying to move the argument to India and China, wanting desperately to show me that the digital divide is present there. It used to take me three years to get a landline in the India I left in 1980. Today, I can get a mobile phone there faster than I can get one in the UK, with less paperwork, and at lower comparable cost.

When I quote stories like that one, I get dismissive shrugs and suggestions that the technology in question is usually dated and second-rate. Which is why I smiled when I saw the recent Apple results, where it turned out that over 20% of Apple’s iPhone business was in …. China.

Carlota Perez, one of my favourite authors and economists, is someone you absolutely must read. Her Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital is one of the few books I have read cover to cover over a dozen times. [One day I shall write a post about those books]. At the Triple Helix Conference in memory of Chris Freeman at Stanford last year (slides here), she summarised one of the key ideas of her book as “The shift from financial mania and collapse to Golden Ages occurs when enabled by regulation and policies  to shape and widen markets”.

Sometimes when I see what happens in that murky space where incumbents and regulators act as haruspices over the entrails of mummified intellectual property regimes, I start thinking wistfully of a different world. One where regulation and policy enables Golden Ages to occur, unhampered by the acts of erstwhile market participants.

Maybe that different world is already there in the West. Eastman Kodak, with a commanding position in the world of film, and with over 1000 digital photo patents, went into bankruptcy earlier this year. Polaroid, who defined a whole new world of “instant” photography, has been going bankrupt regularly and repeatedly since 2001, and finally sold off some of its core patents earlier this month.

Patents. Stocks of knowledge, as John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison would probably call them, in the context of their seminal The Big Shift.

And while all that was going on, a small, young company whose apparent raison d’etre was to make digital photographs a la Kodak look like they were taken on Polaroids, got bought by Facebook for a cool billion dollars.

Instagram understood flows. Understood the importance of cloud, mobile, social and open.

All this makes me think.

Maybe I should be telling my children and grandchildren(to-be, in case anyone was wondering) Go South Young Man/Woman/Child.

Maybe Africa is it. Maybe Africa will leapfrog everyone else in welcoming a Carlota Perez Golden Age, with everyone connected and empowered with compute and storage and bandwidth affordably and effectively; maybe this will happen because they have no legacy to hold them back in this context, no haruspices, no mummified anythings. Maybe Africa will gain from the scale that India and China generate, and put that scale to work before anyone else.

Incidentally, this is not the first time I’ve raised this idea. Read Why It’s Over if you want a slightly different context.








7 thoughts on “Musing lazily about the Digital Divide”

  1. Africa has the power to disrupt Western economic power and lock-in by building trust systems that are bottom-up, between individuals, families, groups, towns, clans, countries. When you turn up with your patent saying you 0wnz all wireless meshes, and please pay an incumbent for a billable path for your bits, there will be no system to cascade that to anywhere.

    The northern England of the connected Golden Age could very plausibly be in southern Africa.

  2. Plus, China has every incentive to create non-US markets with which to trade, and little incentive to pay real attention to intellectual property. But hey, the USA has a divine right to rule forever, doesn’t it? I mean… the sun never sets on hegemony and empire… or does it?

  3. Hi JP,
    Something I came across recently, that may be releveant here, is the idea of a ‘digital divide’ based on how people think rather than their location. The relevance is that regardless of their access to digital technology, some people just will not take advantage of it – either to use it or to build on it – because they are not aware of, for example, the implications of the internet for business and society.

    When these people are running your major businesses or a major part of your government, their is little or no environment for using the internet to advance either commerce or your country.


  4. Dear Confused
    You should definitely take a harder look at Africa, though it is by no means homogenous. Safaricom’s mobile payments system M-Pesa has taken off where there is no alternative payment infrastructure, unlike say, South Africa or UK. MXit, a messaging system, has 50 million users, all doing interesting stuff, (including payments) on 2G tech. And in SA, the banks SMS you when they notice activity on your account – that would have saved my wife £2000 if her UK bank had provided a similar service. And of course there’s Mark Shuttleworth’s Ubuntu movement.
    There’s a very interesting triangular relationship developing between Chinese comms hardware, Indian middleware and African apps. Trouble is, it’s moving so fast it’s hard to follow.

  5. I’ve always thought that Africa has the ability to bypass the problems that the West has with resource consumption. Most of our technologies are centralised and based on large scale infrastructures. Water, power, telecommunications are all supplied from a central point and require physical connection to a pre-existing network. Any move away from this will incur significant resistance from the incumbent suppliers and network owners.
    The latest technologies tend to be small decentralised and controlled at the edges. Telecom is leading move away from big tech, mostly because it was only ever tied to a network, not a central supplier as well.
    With small scale power supply such as solar or wind, or with modern water extraction techniques, the utilities are also *able* to move away from big centralised systems. But in the West that is unlikely to happen due to the entrenched interests involved.
    In Africa, they do not have the legacy systems and so have a chance to leap-frog to new tech – household level power supply and/or a village owned water condensor.
    The major hurdle that they is working around various extractive politicial institutions.

  6. Thanks JP for bringing up the innovation prospects for Africa. Hopefully your global footprint will give the continent the coverage that those of us in the software industry in Africa have been aiming for – we already have world-class software companies here but so few people recognise it. I blogged about the Microsoft execs at last year’s Africa Partner conference who discussed how much potential they see in the continent.

Let me know what you think

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