October 6: Last week we had written about Ganga, a teenaged girl who taught the women in her slum how to read and write. These women are not an isolated case. A very large percentage of the Indian population does not know how to read and write. In fact, the mass illiteracy of its citizens is one of the biggest problems staring the Indian government in its face today.

Illiterate Americans
Illiterate Americans [Illustration by Anup Singh]
Now there’s news that the richest country in the world, the United States of America, is struggling to cope with ‘illiteracy’ too. As many as 50 million American adults are in danger of becoming ‘functionally illiterate’, reports the news agency Reuters in ‘The Asian Age’. But it’s not as if these people don’t know how to read and write. What they don’t know is how to use the computer.

Computers and the Internet are so much a part of the life of the average American that anyone not knowing their use could soon be labelled illiterate. This is the finding of a recent study by a technology-consulting firm in the United States.

Half of America is linked to the Internet today. By year 2005, over 75 per cent of US households will have Internet access at home. But the 25 per cent households or 50 million people that won’t be linked will suddenly find themselves illiterate in a world where the biggest gains in the US economy will be linked to the Internet.

The study says that this phenomenon will create a new divide among Americans, the “digital divide”. Those accessing the Internet and tapping its benefits for their personal growth will make up the ‘haves’ in the US. Those not knowing the Internet will be the ‘have-nots’, and will be in danger of being left behind.

What the “digital divide” will really do, is further widen the gap between the rich and the poor in the US, and in every other country where the internet has taken hold. The study finds that while over 75 per cent of the upper classes had Internet-access; only 35 per cent of those in the lower classes knew how to access the Internet.

So net-savvy people are harnessing the technology to gain better jobs, more educational opportunities and an improved lifestyle to raise themselves more and more above those without Internet access. What this means is that while those who are privileged will keep moving up in life with the help of the new technology, those left out will be totally left out.

But all is not lost, says the study. It recommends some measures that the government could introduce to narrow the digital divide. These include providing tax-incentives to companies for offering Internet access to employees. The study also suggests that companies could offer telecommuting incentives so that employees can work from home.

As this digital divide increases, countries as far apart as US and even India will be forced to deal with increased levels of frustration. Because, only when the benefits of technology reach larger sections of society, can the Internet fulfill its prophecy of being a people’s network.