Asia and the Pacific is the most digitally divided region of the world, and Southeast Asia is the most divided subregion. The Covid-19 pandemic detonated a “digital big bang” that spurred people, governments and businesses to become “digital by default”, a sea change that generated vast digital dividends. These benefits have not been distributed equally, however. New development gaps have emerged as digital transformation reinforces a vicious cycle of socio-economic inequalities, within and across countries.
Bridging these divides and ensuring advances in technology can benefit everyone will be a key challenge as the region seeks to achieve a more inclusive and sustainable post-pandemic recovery. A new report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) ~ “Asia-Pacific Digital Transformation Report 2022: Shaping our digital future” ~ identifies five key “digital divides”, fault lines that separate those who can readily take advantage of new technology from those more likely to be left behind.
These divides are related to age, gender, education, disability and geography. Typically, those most comfortable with technological innovation are younger and better educated people who have grown up with the internet as “digital natives”. Older persons may be more distrustful, or slower to acquire the necessary skills or suffer declines in aptitude. But at any age, poor communities ~ especially those in rural areas – are most at risk as they may be unable to afford electricity or digital connections or lack the relevant skills, even if the necessary infrastructure and connectivity are there.
The most significant driver of digital transformation is business research and its development and adoption of frontier technologies. Another major component is e-government; the delivery of public information and services via the internet or through other digital means. This has the potential for more efficient and inclusive operations; especially when linked to national digital ID systems. However, because e-government services often evolve in complex regulatory environments, providing appropriate levels of accessibility for older generations, the disabled, or those with limited education has become more challenging.
It is clear that digital technologies are enabling the delivery of previously unimagined services while enhancing productivity and optimising resource use that helped reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and pollutants. These technologies also helped track and contain pandemic spread. Social networks are fostering and diversifying communications among people of all ages sharing common interests, irrespective of location. This helps them stay in touch, broaden their experiences, continue education or deepen subject knowledge. This provided a veritable lifeline that has continued as we enter the post-pandemic era.
At the same time, the risks have also proliferated. Social networks also created social ”echo chambers” and generated torrents of misinformation and hate speech. New cryptocurrencies have opened the way to speculative financial bubbles, while cybercrime increased alarmingly as it assumed prolific variations. In addition, digital gadgets and the internet are thought to contribute to more than two per cent of the global carbon footprint. The manufacture of electronic hardware can also exhaust supplies of natural resources such as rare-earth elements and precious metals like cobalt and lithium.
A version of this story appears in the print edition of the September 6, 2022, issue.