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Smart gap widening


The novel coronavirus outbreak has exposed and deepened the digital divide in society. In braving the challenges of the COVID-19, countries around the world have accelerated the integration of technology into various aspects of people's work and life, highlighting the advantages of digital technology and the digital economy in boosting social governance and economic development during the crisis, which has resulted in a sweeping wave of digital transformation. But at the same time, a new type of digital divide is quietly expanding, which, if not properly dealt with, will not only affect the popularization of digital technology and the digital economy, but also trigger more social problems.

The digital divide, or the digital split, is a social issue referring to the differing amount of information available to those who have access to the internet (specially broadband access) and those who do not have access to it. As we enter a new round of scientific and technological revolution defined by frontier technological breakthroughs such as 5G, artificial intelligence, blockchain and quantum science and technology, there is a risk of it triggering a new type of digital divide, affecting a wider range of areas to a greater degree and with more far-reaching significance. The digital divide is seeping into more areas, industries and localities, ranging from affecting some people's daily life to endangering people's livelihoods or even a region's long-term development.

From the users' perspective, the digital divide resulting from age, gender, occupation and family background has been expanding continuously. One of the consequences of digital transformation is the continuous expansion of the share of digital product consumption in total consumption, including the purchase of digital hardware and software and the communication fee. In particular, due to the cost of upgrading software and hardware, the already disadvantaged people have less access, tools and ability to reap the digital dividends, and are being left further and further behind, or even excluded from the digital economy in extreme cases.

The traditional industries are faced with an increasingly insurmountable digital divide. Having embraced the convenience of using mobile payments in brick-and-mortar food markets, but now, the internet giants are using digital technologies for online food sales, gradually "wiping out" the traditional markets. This reflects that more and more traditional industries are under existential threat in the wake of digital upgrading, threatening the livelihoods of countless people in these industries.

The hefty amount of investment needed to improve digital infrastructure has resulted in the widening digital gap between urban and rural areas as well as between different countries, as the more advanced digital technologies are increasingly concentrated on a small number of more developed countries and cities.

How should we look at the new type of digital divide? From the perspective of technological advances, digital technology makes progress by stages. There are bound to be latecomers if there are forerunners, advantaged groups if there are disadvantaged groups. The progress and breakthroughs in digital technology require a profusion of manpower, material and capital input. Therefore, forerunners and advantaged groups should enjoy their well-deserved benefits from the more advanced digital technologies.

From the perspective of social development, the degree of social progress is mainly manifested in fairness, equality and social inclusiveness, therefore making closing the digital gap a common task of the government and the entire society, and a barometer for assessing whether a country's digital transformation is successful.

In fact, the discussion about the new type of digital divide has become a hotspot issue for the government and society. In November 2020, the State Council, China's Cabinet, unveiled a plan aimed at giving the seniors better access to more convenient intelligent technologies. In the meantime, China is promoting the building of "digital villages" and implementing "information accessibility" measures. However, the government alone cannot solve the challenges posed by the new type of digital divide. Changing mindsets, improving policies and increasing the input of social resources are also very important.

Forerunners and latecomers in digital technology do not necessarily have conflicting relations. The development of digital technology requires forerunners to make breakthroughs and the development of inclusive digital technology could, to a certain extent, close the digital divide. As the new type of digital divide becomes increasingly prevalent, the digital services and applications targeted at disadvantaged people will become new business opportunities. For instance, the market for smartphones with simplified functions for the elderly is swelling, and some apps targeted at people aged 50 and above have reaped good commercial benefits.

The concept of "digital technology for social good" should be advocated and should be used as a norm to prevent monopolies, inequality, and unfairness being created by technological breakthroughs. A better atmosphere should be created to encourage companies and technical communities to undertake more digital responsibilities. Or even, certain indexes could be designed for them to encourage their development of more digital products to serve the disadvantaged groups.

Last but not least, capacity building will be a long-term challenge faced by all the parties concerned in the digital age. The new type of digital divide is a common phenomenon in humanity's digital transformation. As new technologies and new applications constantly evolve, anyone or any organization could become the one that falls behind. Today's forerunner could become tomorrow's latecomer. Therefore, strengthening capacity building and a learning society is absolutely necessary for everyone. The government and social organizations should provide more education and training resources to help and encourage more user groups to overcome the new type of digital divide.

The author is a researcher and secretary general of the Research Center for International Cyberspace Governance at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.