Will the Digital Divide Widen Before it Narrows?

October 19, 2007

I had a scary thought in Budapest today. What if the digital divide widens before it narrows?

The thought occurred to me on Day 2 of our launch event here. I was attending a meeting of an informal group working on a program called "EUGA", or "EU Budapest Day 3 001Grants Advisor." This is an ad hoc consortia of government agencies and tech companies in Hungary coming together to share ideas on how to improve digital literacy in the workforce, in this case through a program to make it easier for SMBs to apply for technical training grants from the EU. Some of the companies present included Microsoft, Intel, HP, Cisco, Nuance, and XAPT (the Microsoft partner who worked on WizzAir, one of my favorite case studies from the Dynamics business).

I was stunned to learn from the companies at the meeting that there was a skills shortage in Hungary, and that they all had job openings they couldn't fill with local talent. This was in a country who's economy is going through a rough patch but in general has a highly literate population.

During the meeting we were going around the table discussing ideas on what to do about some of these issues. At a national level in Hungary, there is a need for new programs to train citizens on basic "digital literacy" concepts like how to use a keyboard and how to navigate with a mouse. The government is considering some aggressive moves like a new initiative to buy 100k laptops for all the teachers in the country; another idea is to fund the deployment of a computer into at least half of the country's classrooms within the next two years.

But then the scary thought dawned on me. In "Top of the Pyramid" communities -- and I do mean communities, because there are rich people in Romania and poor people in Ohio -- we are beginning to graduate the first generation of  students who have spent their entire life using the Internet. For these kids, it is not as much about computer skills as is about a mentality of living in a networked world where everything is connected, tagged, and discoverable. Articles are beginning to appear that describe how this generation doesn't even use email anymore, yet here I am in a conference room discussing ideas on how to train people to type with more than one finger.

So, is there a "technical skills" generation (where people learn how to use a computer) followed by an "Internet mentality" generation (where people grow up with a new mind-set - that everything is connected and tagged - that shapes how they communicate and work?) And does the wide-scale introduction of "Internet-mentality" students into the workforce widen the gap between developed countries and countries struggling with convincing their government on the need to fund programs to train their population on how to use a mouse.

One of the government officials from Hungary definitely picked up on this idea, expressing concern that his country may have an entire generation of citizens left behind. Hungary definitely has its Facebook crowd, but apparently many of these kids are leaving the country because there clearly aren't enough of them to work at the local Cisco and Intel offices.

If so, what impact will this have on relative economic growth among countries and communities? I am not sure if anyone is formally studying the economic impact of relative or generational levels of computer literacy, but I couldn't help but feel I was in a meeting discussing steam engines at a time when others were booking their own jet travel online. The situation could be more urgent than people realize.

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