HANNOVER, Germany Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt addressed this year’s CeBIT theme of “managing trust” by pointing out that you can only manage trust in technology for people who have access to it. In a speech delivered during the March 7 opening ceremonies of CeBIT, Schmidt speculated about how good the Web might be if all 5 billion people on this planet had access to it. Leaving aside that the actual population of the planet is nearly 7 billion people (according to Google), Schmidt said that the biggest challenge his company and the people who use information have is that so relatively few people have free access to information.
Schmidt said in his talk that more than 40 nations restrict or censor the Internet and other outside information available to their citizens. But he also said that mobile technology is overcoming those limitations. To illustrate this, Schmidt related the spread of the news surrounding a high-speed train crash in China. The government suppressed the news, but it spread through people using smartphones, and as a result, the government was held up to public ridicule.
“You don’t need a central hub with a smartphone,” said Schmidt. “They can communicate directly with each other.”
However, Schmidt noted that without a huge growth in the means of communication, the vast majority of the world’s population cannot have free access to information. The problem, he said, was that access to technology and the means to use it has created what Schmidt called a “privileged few” who can have the best networks, the best computers and the knowledge to use the best search and information-gathering technology.
The access to this technology meant that national borders were effectively eliminated, said Schmidt. People, he said, could do business or have friends anywhere, and with such things as automated translation, language need not be a barrier. The problem, Schmidt noted, is that most of the world cannot afford even limited access to such riches of information.
Schmidt noted that most of the people in the world are too economically disadvantaged to even consider having Internet access of any kind, and he said that this limits them even further, threatening to consign them to falling ever farther behind the privileged few. Schmidt said that there could be solutions to these problems, but said that it would require innovation to accomplish that. He noted that even nomadic tribes have and use satellite dishes. “Why not smartphones?” He noted that just because most smartphones require a cell service connected to the outside world, it doesn’t have to be that way. Smartphones can be made to communicate effectively with each other, he said.
Schmidt said that while technology can be a great leveler, we must avoid a digital caste system. “We can create a global system of equals,” he said.
Schmidt is correct, of course.
The world is already divided between the technology haves and everyone else. The technology haves own iPhones or BlackBerry devices, and they have tablet computers and high-speed Internet access everywhere they go. The have-nots don’t have these things. Because the have-nots don’t have this access, they are put at an economic disadvantage in virtually every part of their lives. For example, how do you apply for a job if the applications are all online? How do you even look for one if the job listings are all online?
Even in Well-Off Nations, the Digital Divide Is Evident
Even in well-off nations that are part of the “first world,” this digital divide is clearly present.
But at least in the United States and Western Europe, resources exist. Internet access is available free in schools and libraries, broadband communications technology is spreading, albeit slowly and painfully in some places, and the price of the technology is dropping in places. But this doesn’t help much in areas where a good job will net you a dollar a day.
When you’re making a dollar a day, even a basic cell phone is a major investment. A smartphone may be a fantasy. Wireless service is a major expense. Yet, where these devices have penetrated, they are already changing the lives of millions of people, from farmers to fishermen to office workers. Even some form of communication with the world is a major improvement, and it makes life far better than nothing at all.
So the next question is about those who have nothing at all.
If the lives of those people are to be improved by technology, there must be a way for them to have access. But governments can’t do this, although governments can be enablers. Private industry can’t do this because the job is too big. So where does the answer lie?
Perhaps the answer is in something that Schmidt alluded to, but didn’t mention directly. He pointed out the massive response from the world to help the Japanese people following the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the region in 2011. But the community can do much more. Perhaps communities of those who have can help spread access to information to those who have not. Perhaps once helped, those next communities can pass that along to other communities in need. If there is a place where Eric Schmidt can help, this is the place, not in providing a search engine, but in helping communities form and help each other.
The payoff for Google may be far down the road, but in the meantime, Schmidt and his company will be helping that part of the world, and eventually will help create that payoff.