Technology can reinforce the global divide. Let’s use it to bridge the gap

All over the world, industry is being disrupted by new technology. What we have today is more than we dared to imagine yesterday: new business models, new ways of communicating and new job disciplines. The pace of technological change has brought the arrival of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The processing power of computers and devices is getting faster, internet speeds are rising 23% year-on-year and prices for technology are falling. The price of personal computers has declined by 99.9% since January 1980 and computer software now costs 0.7% of its price in 1980.

Social media and online content make it easier than ever to gain instant access to news and views, while technology’s ubiquitous presence has opened countless new career avenues for “no collar” digital natives.

Yet for all the opportunities this revolution presents, navigating the brave new world isn’t without challenges. Without a decisive plan for inclusivity at all levels of society, the revolution will fail the very people it should benefit the most. While our access to unparalleled levels of information, accessible at the click of a button or the tap of a touchscreen, has damaged our ability to distinguish fact from fiction with the rise of “fake news”, it is just as worrying that those without access to technology are being excluded from the discussion in the first place.

This is a risk we can’t afford to ignore. In recent years, I’ve seen more and more media headlines, debates, even TV programmes intended to entertain, focus on the division and issues that move us further away from each other.

If we don’t act now, technology has the potential to reinforce these changes. With opportunists able to misinform and twist our understanding of the world around us the online space is dominated by the divide between fact and fiction. The risk here is that technology will force us to face an even greater divide, not just between the connected and the disconnected, but between the technologically empowered and disempowered.

The divide in connectivity is already starting to make its presence felt. Look at Latin America and the Caribbean where more than two thirds of people have no access to mobile broadband, compared with Japan, where 95% of people do. Intuitively, we know that’s wrong.

It’s received wisdom that access to the internet is essential, but access is nothing without skills and empowerment. A staggering one in five (12 million) adults in the UK lack the right skills to thrive in the digital age. We’re at risk of hindering the social mobility that technological innovation can stimulate. More needs to be done to support everyone in realizing the benefits of access.

There’s no better place to start than the classroom. The children of today will be the leaders of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and we need to reconsider how we educate them. I’d like to see a move away from the current, exam-focused approach to a model where we empower and support children’s ability to curate, analyse and evaluate what they’re reading or seeing online, not merely consume it.

We also need to build trust. It is essential that people feel they can participate in the digital economy on a level playing field with their peers and, most importantly, without fear of abuse. Greater collaboration with each other, rather than echo chambers of negativity and prejudice, will achieve this goal.

As is the case with so many problems, the answer to bridging the technological divide lies, ironically, with creative use of technology. We don’t have all the answers yet, and it feels as though we are learning as we go along. But one thing is clear. If this revolution has the potential to ring in a new era of social progress and strengthened societies, we need to: improve access to technology; educate everyone so they can fully benefit from the opportunities it opens up; and avoid the very real danger of creating a digital underclass.

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