New Year Tech Trends Are Great, But Don’t Ignore the Digital Divide
Like most people in the advertising industry, I spend the majority of the year holed up in a big smelly city. Little can beat the buzz of urban sprawls like London, New York, Shanghai or Sydney but it’s nice to get out every now and then. So this December I headed North to my Scottish motherland to spend time with my parents by the coast. I didn’t miss the grim and grizzly daily commute. I didn’t miss trying to weave through the hordes of phone-addicted zombies. I certainly didn’t miss the black snot (yay, the Tube!). But I did miss reliable Internet.
With 3G coverage as patchy and mottled as Frankenstein’s monster – and broadband speeds as slow and creaky as the self-same creature – it was pretty much impossible to disappear into my phone or lock myself away in my room with Netflix. I had to interact with people! The horror! But, really, the timing could not have been more apt. With the end of the year looming, the main object of my frustration was the barrage of 2015 trend reports that just refused to open. When I, eventually, managed to download the damned things they were full of words like ‘Internet of Things’, ‘omnichannel’, ‘seamless integration’. “Really?” I thought as I eyed the 2 kilobyte per second download speed for the accompanying jpeg. “Shitting really?”
It’s all very (and probably inappropriately) first-world-problems-y but it did get me thinking about the digital divide, the gaping chasm between the haves and have-nots of the Information Age. As ad agencies compete to be (or appear to be) the most innovative, chasing the sexiest new technologies, there are still many people who are almost entirely cut off from the power of the Internet.
To an extent, mobile technology has gone some way to bridging the gap, providing a more affordable and convenient way to get online. Last year the smartphone overtook the PC as the most popular way to access the Internet in China. What’s more, brands are developing cheaper and more robust handsets like the newly-launched Nokia 215, which retails for $29 and claims to have a whopping 29-day battery life, or the 4Afrika phone from Huawei and Microsoft. These phones have been developed with developing markets in mind and, combined with initiatives like the free-to-access app Internet.org, should knock down a few more barriers.
But it’s still not enough. For one thing the digital divide plagues all countries, regardless of how developed they are. In more advanced nations where online access is the price of entry for everything from job applications to school homework and cheap shopping deals, a lack of access can be particularly. Figures published in 2014 from the Census Bureau suggest 31 million US households don’t have a mobile or home broadband subscription, and those in the poorest cities are most acutely effected.
I guess, putting on a horribly cynical advertising hat, the industry response to the digital divide in developed countries is probably a careless shrug. After all, if someone can’t afford to get online will a client really care about marketing to them? But the problem is as geographic as it is socio-economic. Apparently 23% of the British countryside has no 3G coverage and many rural areas so poorly served by broadband providers that local businesses are suffering. From a marketing or advertising point of view, this means that brands are also failing to reach as many wealthy retirees, commuters or holiday home owners as they might. Failing to acknowledge the digital divide doesn’t make business sense. (On a side note, I do hope that 2015 is the year that the world clubs together to buy some sort of trophy for South Korea, a country that started laying the foundations of a truly connected nation back in the early 90s and is currently blazing ahead with the fastest broadband speeds in the world). At any rate, the UK government has recently cajoled mobile providers into improving signal coverage and 3G coverage in rural areas, but the deadline is 2017 so things are unlikely to change in the immediate future.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, the Net Neutrality controversy and ISPs campaigning against local governments trying to set up municipal superfast broadband, shows that easily accessed Internet isn’t something to be taken for granted and that brands hoping to use digital channels to reach their market have a vested interest in keeping things flowing.
As someone who has dipped in and out of the industry over the years and whose urban lifestyle has been punctuated by stints in rural Scotland and Wales, I truly believe that escaping the bubble every now and then can be good for your career and state of mind. It’s easy to be sucked into the rip tide of technological progress. We’re so digital that the word ‘digital’ has become weirdly redundant and unfashionable of late (seriously… I committed a heinous faux pas recently when I accidentally asked an ECD about ‘digital agencies’. From the look I got you’d have thought my knuckles had plummeted to the floor and that I’d suddenly forgotten the secret of man’s red fire). Most of the time, keeping an eye on the cutting edge is all really cool and exciting. I love being able to play with new technologies and marvel at the latest toys and gadgets tipped to ‘change life as we know it’. Perhaps we can use our experiences and powers of innovation to help brands better bridge the digital divide. As we strain eagerly towards the future, we need to remember those who risk being stranded in the past.