If we look at historical experience since the middle of the 19th century, we can see that countries that started late in the development of certain technologies, had an ability to catch up with the countries that started first, precisely by not imitating them but by innovating, whether at the technical level or at the level of economic institutions, writes Jacques Sapir.
As with every advanced technology, access to digital technologies is unequal; such inequality could restrain opportunities and threaten development potential. There is a significant lag between rich and poor countries in their access to digital technology, a gap seen before with respect to railways, the electronics industry, and pharmaceutics during the COVID-19 pandemic. But this gap had even greater potential consequences with the problem of data safety, the protection of private life, and the development of AI systems. Aside from issues related to digital security and digital sovereignty, this entails global problems with regard to development economics.
Geographic dimensions of this gap
There is a specific geographic dimension to this gap. Even in a rich country, like France, we may observe the persistence of geographic inequality in access to digital services. There are many reasons for this.
The first and most obvious one is the lack of specific infrastructure. Infrastructure is important when providing the population with stable access to the digital world. This implies good quality Wi-Fi networks, but also stable access to electricity. If some of these problems are to be encountered in a rich country, we can easily imagine their importance in a poor or developing country. Here, the main divide is between large cities (metropolis) and the countryside. Back to my French example, I have had better access to the Internet in some large cities of relatively underdeveloped countries (like Durban, South Africa and Rabat, Morocco) than in small communities of rural central-south-western France or in Corsica. So, focusing only on the global wealth of countries could be partly misleading. However, the problem doesn’t stop here. There are spots of extreme poverty even in rich countries, and these spots are frequently left with third rate infrastructure, be they for digital transmission or for access to electric power
Another issue is the fact that frequently this geographic divide is aggravated by a generational divide. There is a strong concentration of older people living in small rural communities. Those people are often reluctant or defiant regarding the use of digital services. To sum up, the digital divide doesn’t just exist between rich and poor countries, but is also a geographic and a generational one.
Of course, problems can be more easily solved in rich countries than in poor ones. Public investment is the most potent remedy to the problem of infrastructure. Pushing for such investment in remote rural communities, however, raises the issue of increasing costs and decreasing results. To some extent, that could be an obstacle to the development of infrastructure, as budget constraints are very real.
A fallacious idea frequently presented has been that digitalisation would evolve with time, like water lilies. First, you would see flowers bloom in developed cities and then, progressively, expand to all the territory. But the water lilies metaphor, which I first heard years ago, is a false promise. It is grounded in the illusion that infrastructure costs are constant, and they are not. Once this is figured out, the infrastructure expansion effort is stopped at a point, leaving large swaths of countries uncovered.
There are, of course, solutions to cope with this situation. Technological progress can reduce infrastructure costs and enable the decentralised provision of both digital links and electric power. But these forms of progress demand smart and flexible institutions and a kind of constraint on market rules. Investment is not just about money; it is about institutions too.
The fight against digital inequality can be hampered by poorly adapted rules. Coverage of the territory was left to private Internet providers, and – quite often – they slowed down total coverage of the territory because it was not profitable enough, leaving "white zones" where access to digital services is unstable. But questions may also arise regarding the supply of electricity, the price of which has increased significantly, which penalises the poorest households.
Here too, we see that market rules may not be adequate to provide the solutions that should be found to the problem of inequality in access to digital services.
Lessons from the past?
If we look at historical experience since the middle of the 19th century, we can see that countries that started late in the development of certain technologies, had an ability to catch up with the countries that started first, precisely by not imitating them but by innovating, whether at the technical level or at the level of economic institutions. The great historian Alexander Gerschenkron demonstrated that a time-lag could turn into an advantage if a country decided not to slavishly imitate its predecessors and gave itself the means to innovate in technical and institutional fields. For this to happen, however, the issue of technological backwardness must be seen as a national issue, and a strong and efficient state has to play the role of leader.
Are countries that are the most poorly provided for on this point ready to make this national effort? Some did. Others have, for the moment, remained on the side of the road. Is it their fault? The monopolization, or near-monopolization, of digital services by a handful of very large American companies poses here a major a question: if access to digital services really has the importance that is claimed, then can the provision of these services be left up to a few large monopolies?
There is also the problem of the consequences of digitalization for the economy and society. Digitalisation is supposed to increase productivity. However, demonstrating a direct link between increasing digitalisation and productivity is extremely difficult. The drop in productivity that we have experienced in Europe since 2020 underscores this.
We could face a hidden inequality of digital technology. Digital services provide us with an increasing number of signals, some are just “white noise” and some worthy of interest. You must therefore be able to sort out the different signals and know how to search. This draws heavily on the knowledge accumulated by individuals. If not sufficient for the signals to be processed, a form of attention saturation then appears, which reduces the productivity of the worker.
The proper use of the information made available to us by digital services implies a constant increase in our knowledge and an increase in education, not only in its general sense but also in the sense of higher education.
This hidden inequality is therefore none other than inequality in access to high-quality education. The relationship between the level of education, and higher education, of a population and the provision of digital services is therefore fundamental for these services to be used in the most efficient way possible.