the other side of the digital divide
The Canadian House of Commons is considering wiring its desks so that each Member of Parliament (MP) will have a computer with Internet access at his or her desk on the Commons floor. The idea is that MPs must currently sit through hours of boring debate wasting their time or getting only a little bit of work done with pens and paper.
While the Canadian government promotes initiatives to increase Internet access nationwide, MPs must go without Internet access when they are away from their office desks. The proposed measure has not caused any public outcry to speak of. Citizens, long rid of the delusion that MPs actually pay attention to Parliamentary debates, can be expected to see the efficiency gains of having Parliamentarians surf the Internet and respond to emails. Surely, since we are willing to trust our politicians with the affairs of state, we will also be able to trust that they will use the computers judiciously--no need to install Net Nannies on the House of Commons computers.
In Canada, as in most other countries these days, there has been considerable consternation that people go without computers. Governments have initiated programs aimed at bridging the digital divide. At the G-8 summit in Okinawa, Japan in July 2000, the leaders of the seven most industrialized countries and Russia decided to establish the Digital Opportunities Task Force (dot force) to find ways to bridge the digital divide. The wisdom of those leaders in seeing the need to address the digital divide was remarkable considering that few of them have reputations for their computer savvy. In fact, several of the leaders had just learnt to send email or use the Internet, while one apparently did not know what a mouse is.
While the digital divide is certainly real, and while wider access to computers is key to achieving an equitable distribution of knowledge, opportunities and, ultimately, wealth, it is quite fascinating that the leaders of the world's most powerful countries can get by quite well without ever touching a computer. This is what one could term the "other side of the digital divide."
The other side of the digital divide is a socio-economic place where people are so empowered that their routines need not be ruled by the exigencies of the machines which so rule the routines of those who find themselves lesser mortals. It could well be that the people inhabiting the other side of the digital divide are simply the old-guard, all of whom will eventually be replaced by people with more computer and technology savvy. After all, one can be sure that none of those on the other side of the digital divide get by without using older technology like the telephone. What is interesting, however, is that the successful people who get by without using computers probably all have secretaries to answer the phone for them, screen their calls and speak for them when they don't feel like talking.
The other side of the digital divide is not ultimately the ability to thrive without using technology; it is rather about the ability to control technology and its penetration of everyday life. Those of us who must go without secretaries are now finally able to get the telephone under control thanks to call display and voice mail. Nonetheless, we still feel guilty about "letting it go on the machine" when the phone rings. How long will it take for us to gain similar control of technology more modern than the telephone?
While technology allows virtually everyone to "get more done" in the day, it doesn't necessarily make anyone more free. Indeed, as the ability to work more efficiently increases, the demand for that more efficient work also increases, and the technology only allows even more to be demanded. The computer on your desk becomes an excuse by which your employer can demand ever greater quantities of work from you (excepting those who, by surfing the net for useless information all day, subvert their employers' demands).
True freedom comes from being empowered to choose to do what you want. When one cannot control the penetration of technology, the "what" that one thinks he or she is choosing becomes ever closer to, and more enmeshed with, the pursuit of efficiency. True freedom means being able to escape the ever-increasing demands of efficiency--or being in the place of demanding efficiency rather than being forced to deliver it.
Should Parliamentarians get computers in the House of Commons, the key question is whether they will be enabled to engage in more meaningful debate or whether they will simply be forced to "get more done". Ultimately, the installation of computers will make for an interesting study in who really is empowered and/or in power.
Copyright © 2001 Dean Dalke. All Rights Reserved.
Dean Dalke lives and studies in Ottawa, Canada, within a stone's throw from the Parliament, although he hasn't found throwing stones to be an effective way of getting the legislators' attention.