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Nature 456, 23 (30 October 2008) | doi:10.1038/twas08.23a; Published online 30 October 2008

It is the knowledge (not digital) divide that matters

Abdul Waheed Khan1

It is the knowledge (not digital) divide that matters

A symbiotic relationship exists between science and technology and advances in information and communications technologies (ICTs). On the one hand, mathematics, physics and engineering have helped to propel the ICT revolution. ICTs, in turn, have spurred global advances in science and technology capacity, especially in the developing world. Thanks to advances in ICTs, knowledge has never been easier to process, share and analyse. Having said that, it is important to note that the issue is not 'how' but 'what' information is communicated. That is why I prefer to use the term 'knowledge divide' instead of 'digital divide". In Africa today, radios continue to be an important means of communication, far more so than the Internet, which is available to less than 1% of the population. If we view the challenges of communication from the perspective of knowledge acquisition, then there is indeed a silver lining in recent efforts to provide the poorest with the tools they need to acquire information for improving their economic and social well-being. It took, for example, 125 years for 1 billion people to have access to fixed phones. Yet, it took just 20 years for cell phones to reach the same level of use. By 2007, cell-phone subscriptions had skyrocketed to 3 billion. Internet use is growing at an even faster pace. The number of Internet subscribers reached 1.2 billion people in 2006, less than 15 years after it was introduced to the public. While it is true that 70% of Internet users live in high-income countries, usage is also dramatically expanding in developing countries. China, for example, recently surpassed the USA to become the world leader in Internet use with over 250 million subscribers. Many of the underlying trends in ICTs are encouraging. Infrastructure costs are falling. Devices are becoming smaller, more portable and user friendly, while simultaneously displaying greater capacity and versatility. This adds up to a promising future for communications across the globe, including in developing countries. If history is any guide, the new and old information technologies (including print, radio and television) will work together to create an intricate global information-delivery system. The key question is not whether we will be able to deliver information, but whether the information we deliver will help to improve peoples' lives. Content and context, not the medium by which it is delivered, will largely determine whether the information revolution will help to create a global revolution in economic and social well-being.

  1. Abdul Waheed Khan is assistant director-general for communication and information at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris, France.

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