Problematizing the relationship between digital divide and human development by Prof. A. Oddenino

(membro del Chapter di Torino della Fondazione Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice)

1. The digital revolution based on new information technologies and the associated massive algorithmic processing of data profoundly influences every profile of our society, with a transformative impact both in the collective and in the individual dimension This entails a necessary rethinking of the concept of environment and of economic development if it is true that, in the new perspective of the data based economy, personal data and meta-data (such as geo-localization data) are made object of authentic commodification and are added to the traditional factors of production, with a strong vocation to progressively replace them. Against this backdrop, this short paper aims at problematizing the relationship between access to information technologies and human development, beyond the mainstream narration that depicts the bridging of the digital divide as the ultimate goal, sufficient as such to guarantee economic and human development.

2. Doubtlessly, in the data economy perspective the urgency of tackling the issue of digital poverty and digital divide becomes self-evident. For this reasons the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN (SDGs), formalised in 2015 as the backbone of the 2030 Agenda, robustly encompasses a focus on the logic of digital cooperation, which is included in Goal 17 and complemented by the instruments of action set forth in paragraph 70 of the Agenda. The starting point for any reflection on digital cooperation within the UN are the growing disparities and tensions between states in information technologies matters. Some more powerful states indeed play out many of their hegemonic ambitions on the technological terrain, developing strategies on the Internet, data and artificial intelligence which bear a clear geopolitical significance. In parallel to that, the technologically less advanced states remain spectators of these dynamics, and are therefore vassals in the dynamics concerning the governance of the digital sphere and in the participation of economic benefits.

3. For this reasons, great attention has been paid to the issue of digital cooperation within the UN General Secretariat, which has set up for this purpose the High Level Panel for Digital Cooperation which has produced the Recommendation for a global commitment for digital cooperation, aimed at overcoming the tensions and inequalities that characterize the topic of technology. The Report of the High-level Panel published in June 2019 explicitly clarifies the functional nexus between new technologies and the attainment of SDGs and reiterates the need of bridging the digital divide, through economic and political cooperation on a global scale. Following up with such an approach, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres presented, on 11 June 2020, a set of recommended actions for the international community to help ensure that all people are connected, respected and protected in the digital age. Lastly, on 21 September 2020, the General Assembly adopted Resolution A/RES/75/1 (Declaration on the commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations), in which the commitment to increase and improve digital cooperation is solemnly undertaken. Summarizing, it is well understood that the current UN’s approach is based on the idea that new information technologies exerts an ‘accelerating’ function with respect to the SDGs and are functional to economic development in a ‘servant’ logic.

4. In order to try to problematize this overly simplified assumption, a broader perspective can be introduced which connects new technologies and human development. Human development can be described, through a UNDP definition, as “a process of broadening human possibilities to enable individuals to enjoy a long and healthy life, be educated and have access to the resources necessary for a decent standard of living”. The notion was developed at a time when the issue of the impact of new technologies was certainly not visible in the terms in which it is today. Moreover, the definition seems to be affected by a certain reductionist attitude, probably deriving from the need to measure human development by means of simple and universally indexes which are mainly quantitative in their essence. It should also be stressed that the concept of human development was developed in a context totally unrelated to the prospects opened up by new technologies in relation to their current or potential impact on human beings. What is lacking therefore is a proper consideration of the impact that the development of the new technologies exerts both with respect to the concept of human development and with respect to the role of the human factor as a counterbalancing value that should pervade any affirmation of technological and algorithmic power.

5. A second element of complexification underscores the awkward relationship of new technologies and environmental sustainability. Indeed, no real development is conceivable without embedding in it the concept of sustainability, as an intrinsic and constitutive building block. As we are plunging into a new era of human history pervaded by an unprecedented technological momentum, a careful scrutiny should be extended to the impact of new technologies on the environment. To date the 2030 Agenda’s framework depicts technology as instrumental and servant with respect to the goals already otherwise set. It is a dynamic that rests on an assumption that has not been fully demonstrated: namely, that technology is environmentally neutral, and that technological fortunes are to some extent only purportedly progressive, that is, they do not necessarily entail linear improvements in society and increase environmental values. These assumptions need to be verified, with a particular focus on the energetic impact and on the path dependence induced in traditional societies and developing countries.

6. On the basis of such e double complexification, it is hard to describe the access to new technologies as purely functional to the logic of human and economic development. Technology is becoming a goal in itself, and is becoming a place susceptible of a progressive substitution of the physical space. Social psychologists are increasingly aware of many risks for human intelligence and ability induced by technological dependence. Freedom of speech, informative self determination, and even human identity are at stake in this process. Technological transformative impact is reshaping the world, obliterating the separation between the offline and online dimensions and leading to a rethinking of the very notion of ‘world’, well beyond that traditionally perceived as physical, and the notion of ‘object’ relevant in the context of a new ‘informational space’ (the Infosphere, as elaborated by Luciano Floridi). Also the current metaverse revolution should be seen, in this perspective, in its dangerous dystopian reach. Moreover, new technologies enable an informational capitalism that easily becomes also a ‘cognitive’ capitalism: indeed not a virtuous open society of knowledge, as hoped for at the dawn of the Internet, but rather a system of control and distribution of knowledge, and with it of information, that is vassal to the power and profit logic of the large informational platforms. The risk that extending this solution to underdeveloped countries will not be in itself sufficient to bridge inequalities and eradicate poverty becomes self-evident. Indeed, it is not all about digital cooperation and bridging the digital divide. Technology, far from being merely servant, is instead dominant and transformative and requires some form of governance at the universal level: a governance that should be clearly aimed both at human development, made possible through human agency, and at environmental sustainability.