On the edge of the gap

Apropos accessibility to Internet.

I just read in the press that a group of scientists is about to present Li-Fi, a wireless connection that will become the fastest in the world and will make it possible to transmit data at speeds impossible until now. Compared to the Wi-Fi connection, which is carried out through radio waves, the Li-Fi connection is carried out “in a connection of ultra-parallel visible light,” which could complement and even replace in some cases the Wi-Fi. Even though it seems like science fiction, the scientists affirm that in the near future a simple light bulb could make it possible to connect to cell phones.

In another article, published by the magazine Nexos, journalist Patricia Perdomo affirms that in 2014, which is about to come to a close, almost 40 per cent of the world population has access to information through the Internet. And though the text does not specify the characteristics and composition of that group, it is logical to assume that the majority of these persons identify themselves with a profile of residents in western countries with a certain degree of economic development and some level of education. The percentage of the population with access to the web must continue to grow, and much more when it is already being considered that the most efficient tool to educate and form talents would be the result of being able to combine the available technological capacity to store information, spreading it with the greatest possible speed. Some specialists even refer to the advent of “knowledge and information societies,” due to the growing role of the technological advances and the extension of the information and communication networks to practically all the stratums and levels of society.

However, what really caught my attention in the cited article, “El paradigma del capital humano” (The Paradigm of Human Capital), was the reference to the way in which access to the Internet is influencing, and even deciding, the growth of the so-called middle class in some South countries in Latin America. Among other examples she cites the case of Chile, where the Education Ministry manages an employment and income search which links information of university careers with the companies, and therefore facilitates the exchange between them. In fact, some of these countries whose growth indices have remained stable or have shot up in recent years, are betting on the development of their human capital in a faster and more efficient possible way, something that today is already difficult to strengthen if the new technologies and the use of the Internet are not available, an increasingly more indispensable tool to gain access to information and knowledge, practically without time and space limits.

And every time I hear or read about a subject related to the Internet, I inevitably react as if someone has stepped on my toe – as my grandmother would say – and I start thinking up to what point the limited access of our society to the web will be creating a digital gap that not only affects persons individually, but also all of society. I gap that will get wider with time, at the underlying risk that one day it will be practically insurmountable, despite the fact that there has existed in the country for many years university careers related to computer science and the creation, some years ago, of a Computer Science University (UCI).

The digital gap not only exists and gets wider between the developing and developed countries. Even in countries like Spain, where the use of the Internet has spread to most daily tasks, there are different degrees of accessibility to the web and the existence of those gaps has been recognised, though they not always have the same causes or are manifested in the same way. To continue with the Spanish case, it is known that both educational level and age are among the factors that determine a more limited use of the web, since the persons older than 55 years, who in a high percentage were not able to finish primary education, are the ones who have fewer abilities to use this tool.

The panorama is much more complex in Cuba since other variables have an influence in the possibilities of having access, though almost all of them have as a point of departure more general factors like the lack of infrastructure, which in turn justifies the high cost of the service, and the prioritisation by the State of the social use of the web over the private use.

I must say that I do not know if there are studies on the (full and total) accessibility of Cubans to the web based on other parameters, like the different age groups, the educational level or the economic possibilities. However, it is very probable that if that type of data existed, and based on it one could make a comparative study with other countries of the region, the result would be negative for us, since even with better educational indices, in Cuba the possibility of having access to the new technologies – individually or socially – is significantly inferior.

And where does that place us? At a disadvantage, I would say. On a global level the web has democratised information and knowledge in a way that the medieval monks who reproduced books by handwriting could never have imagined. It’s not by chance that the Internet has been included among the 10 most impressive inventions for humanity. This doesn’t mean that the web is synonymous to knowledge and culture, because in that case the means is not the message. It’s not only about access to the web, but rather of its use. A scientist will use it to a great extent to get updated in his/her subject, while a lazy schoolchild will just indiscriminately copy the topics of his homework.

But since I needed a more direct reference about the daily use of the Internet, I asked a friend who resides in Spain to tell me about her personal experience. Lourdes, my friend, answered categorically: “one cannot separate life from the Internet, both are one.”

Then Lourdes went on to specify some of the benefits and facilities contributed by this technology that has transferred to cell phones and is used for everything and at all times, especially as computer applications (App), which are increasing by the day.

“If I am at a stop waiting for the bus,” said Lourdes, “I can know how long it will take in arriving. It is possible to locate an address through the GPS; you can make purchases and pay bills; operate bank accounts; obtain information immediately about any subject and about any part of the world; make reservations to dine at a restaurant, for a theatre function or for an air flight. You can also find out which are the latest cinema premiers, the recently published books, read their reviews and buy them in digital format. In my case I also use the web a great deal to communicate with friends and family and we can speak face to face and that way the distance is more bearable.”

Lourdes tells me that in the case of medical emergencies, persons lost in mountains or cases of violence, the GPS has enabled saving human lives. She said she has a friend who has an implanted pacemaker that “communicates with the hospital.” If his heart fails, the emergency services receive a signal and can come to his aid. Her sister works in an company that belongs to a network of interconnected workshops. Cars are installed with new devices that warn, wherever they are, if there has been an accident, and immediately a protocol is put in place for an ambulance to go to the scene of the accident.

The use of the Internet is even modifying education, said Lourdes, because the teacher is becoming a facilitator of information. Internet is increasingly more interactive and participatory, and in fact the social networks are increasingly influencing the world of politics, business, knowledge, she commented.

I believe that Lourdes’ explanation is rather explicit but does not collect, not even much, the entire spectrum of possibilities the web opens and that we are unaware of. Perhaps I am repeating the patently obvious if I say that the longer it takes to get here and the more difficult it is to have full access to that means, it will be much more difficult to advance at the rate that, whether we like it or not, time imposes. And then I ask myself if while we find a solution we won’t be doomed to fall into an insuperable digital gap. (2014)

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