Interview Equality in the Digital Age

Nanjira Sambuli, Digital Equality Advocacy Manager for the World Wide Web Foundation, speaks during a press briefing on the report of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, at the UN headquarters in New York, on June 10, 2019
Nanjira Sambuli, Digital Equality Advocacy Manager for the World Wide Web Foundation, speaks during a press briefing on the report of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, at the UN headquarters in New York, on June 10, 2019 | Photo (detail): picture alliance/Photoshot

The Challenges and Opportunities Ahead – an interview with Nanjira Sambuli: The policy analyst and digital equality advocate spells out the steps necessary for bridging the knowledge gap in the digital age.

By Eliphas Nyamogo

Nanjira, you are a vocal proponent of digital equality. What does this term mean in concrete terms?
 
Essentially, it situates the fact that inequality trends offline are being mirrored online and digitisation is also opening up new chasms between the haves and have nots. In our quest to achieve equality in society, we must then incorporate digital disruptions in our thinking, building, analysis and interventions.
 
Take for example the state of digital connectivity today, and access to the internet in particular. As of 2018, only half of the world was online, and the growth rate of internet users has slowed down dramatically. Those who are connected are primarily in the global North. A majority of  the other half of the world that is yet to be connected resides in the global South; furthermore,  there are clear divides between urban and rural populations along income lines, gender (more women than men are unconnected), and even geographies (landlocked countries, islands and archipelagos face more challenges in rolling out connectivity infrastructure).
 
We also see divides among the connected populations following similar patterns. Even in urban areas across the globe, the poor are less likely to be connected, despite the availability of the technologies. This brings to light a factor of income. If you are in a very low income bracket or have little disposable income, purchasing communication devices and paying for internet subscriptions becomes an extra burden. The divide therein takes a different yet significant turn, since connectivity is increasingly becoming necessary to access basic goods and services. If a student from an urban but poor neighbourhood is required to access their coursework or submit their assignments via the internet but they cannot afford an internet subscription at home to facilitate this, the digital divide becomes real in a “digitally privileged” setting. The lack of public access infrastructure in urban poor communities - which is likely to be the case - also means that even accessing the internet through a publicly funded facility such a local library is beyond this student’s reach. 
 
Another aspect of the digital divide among the connected populations pertains to the quality of the internet to facilitate meaningful access and use. One example here would be quality with respect to what kinds of devices and internet subscription options. Mobile-only access, for example, is restrictive in terms of what you can accomplish, something that affects users in developing and developed nations alike.
 
As I stated in a discussion at a different forum, digital equality, therefore, is about dissecting the analog and the digital aspects of political, social, cultural, economic dimensions in society today, and ultimately striving to ensure that we do not widen inequalities through digital technologies. 
 
The knowledge gap between the global North and developing countries - and the monopoly of knowledge production, distribution and access by the former - can be attributed to social, cultural, economic and historical factors which cannot be solved within the borders of the disadvantaged countries alone. How do you propose that this challenge is addressed?
 
I often find that framing is a crucial point of departure. How we frame the questions that lead us to investigate and analyse trends in society is a huge challenge but also an opportunity. For instance, how we understand what is meant by ‘the knowledge gap between the global North and developing countries’ makes for a case-in-point. I would ask: What is inferred by “knowledge”? If we widen our frame of thinking, people in developing countries are experts in their own lived experiences, despite the many disruptions brought about by history and present day developments alike.
 
So what then, is considered “the gap”? Is it in how the knowledge is presented? Is it that there are standard or assumed models of knowledge presentation for which the developing world falls short on delivery, so that we can talk of an existing “gap”? And even if this were the case, does it discount the fact that the existing knowledge is being (re)produced and shared within the respective communities? Is it about language, so that if it’s not presented in English or French or German, it is not visible? Or if it is passed on through oral rather than written forms, does it become insufficient merely because these are not the standards applicable in Western societies, which do not necessarily work in other societies anyway?
 
On the issue of “disadvantaged countries”, the framing reflects the attitude of some people and institutions such as policymakers and media in the global North, towards those in the global South. Some parts of the world are indeed disadvantaged, but only in terms of how the world has been and continues to be ordered (not to their advantage); there are numerous cases of deep exploitation which can be traced back to periods of great injustice  in society, such as colonialism and even in today’s globalising world.
 
Framing the question, therefore, matters a lot. In terms of addressing this challenge, there is an urgent need for humility in the global North to acknowledge the disparities and proactively address them in collaboration, and I dare say, with the direction of the peoples of the global South. Then we can have deep, difficult yet necessary discussions focusing on the challenges of the interwoven complexities of the past and the present, of gender and race, of the sociocultural, political, economic and other dimensions - to situate our proposals for the way forward in the contexts within which they must be analysed, if indeed we intend to break cycles that keep some populations left behind in what we consider progress and prosperity in today’s world.
 
Perhaps the most “practical measures” are the hardest to quantify or define in a world that is inclined to consider progress and success through the lens of metrics. The conversations happening and that need to happen, in my view, are very practical, if immeasurable. People of the global North and South alike ought to revisit history and interrogate the narratives and records used to shape ideas and identities with respect to our coexistence. Often, I find that it’s the people of the South who have been expected to bear the labour of articulating the pain points, of challenging these monopolies. I am keen to see this also being done in the global North; confronting the harsh realities of the injustices that have benefited their parts of the globe at the expense of the others; a redistribution and sharing of the emotional and intellectual labour in squaring the circle on these issues.
 
‘Technical fixes’ are important, but not sufficient, and especially if they do not factor in the aforementioned complexities. They remain mere patchwork, at best, when what the world needs and is yearning for is justice-based fixes. Thinking of the ‘practical measures’ through the technical lens is often easier, because the contentions in the wilderness of what has gotten us here can seem impossible to grasp. And yet, it is exactly what we must do; confront the wilderness, with humility and empathy.
 
With monopoly of production and dissemination of digital information emerges the challenge of web neutrality. Some advocates of digital equality have voiced the need to "decolonise the internet". What are your views on this?

The web was envisioned to be as neutral as possible, that it would be for everyone. The idea was that once you have access to the web, you should be able to navigate its wealth of information with no hindrances, to contribute and create accordingly. The assumption was: build it, or avail it and they (users) will come and make the most of it.  Sadly, this has not turned out to be the case, as is with all other technological developments, as the assumed neutrality overlooked the antecedent factors informing how society is ordered today.
The main internet tools and platforms we use to connect today have benefitted, however, from the ideal of the open web. Corporatisation of the space has since introduced all forms of control, locking in the attendant benefits of being online. Social media platforms are a prime example here; starting off as websites, they have since modelled the web to be a series of ‘walled gardens’; closed platforms controlled by the creators, offering every possible service ‘in-house’, disincentivizing users from having to search elsewhere. It is not uncommon to find that many internet users consider these platforms to constitute the entirety of the web.
Governments have also woken up to the prospects of controlling how we navigate online spaces, and want an active role - be it through regulation, coercion or even building alternative versions of web ecosystems within their stewardship.
 
My view on decolonising the internet is that it is a window of insight into the ongoing struggle to decolonise spaces and societies, more generally. It is a continuation, and perhaps a renewed focus on the unfinished business of colonial regimes and how they’ve shaped the post- and neo-colonial. It’s a deeply political issue, with the architects and beneficiaries shape-shifting; it’s not just about western governments and those of the former colonized regions. The new concentrations of power, especially in the digital domain are corporations, some of which are more powerful and richer than entire nations altogether. It’s perhaps an arena to situate the past and present, to determine how we proceed from here.
 
In this quest to decolonise the internet there lies an opportunity to investigate if the ideals of an open web are held in the same manner across the global North, from where the web and internet were created, and the global South - rich with historical, diverse and context-specific understandings around collecting, sharing and organising information - and recreate a universal embodiment of ‘openness’ as a value that has incorporated the diversity of perspectives to ensure that these global resources that interconnect us today, work for all of us.
 
Who, in your view, are the key players that ought to come together to address the issues of equal access, currency, and unbiased knowledge production?
 
The short answer is everyone must be involved. How the labour of addressing these issues is designed and distributed is yet another complexity. For instance, citizens of global South countries, often without the direct support of their governments, are setting up projects to reclaim stolen artefacts, and archives about our pasts, captured and ‘stored away’ in western sites during the violence of colonialism. Western governments are having to cede ground and engage on this important issue. Through digital technologies, open access movements have been marching on in the fight to ensure that knowledge produced in academia, for example, isn’t locked away behind expensive portals. Scholars from the South are producing important work challenging the ‘biased’ knowledge produced about the South, by western scholars; knowledge that then informs how perceptions and policies about the global South are formulated and implemented. The notion of expertise is being challenged as well. Shifts are happening, justice is being sought, and for me, this is exciting. A time is surely coming when all these efforts emerging from different spaces will create the necessary political shifts needed to inch us closer to equality.
 
Listening to you, one gets the impression that the goal of digital equality is attainable. Should we be cautiously optimistic?
 
Cautious optimism is perhaps the most generous frame. The digital is informed and intertwined with the analogue. It presents opportunities to either exacerbate or mitigate inequalities, and increasingly across all domains (political, economic, social, cultural etc.).
 
The promises and potential of digitisation are undeniable. However, these cannot be achieved by taking apolitical or ahistorical views towards deploying them. Technological benefits cannot be realised in a vacuum, nor can they make up for the lack of political will and adherence to values necessary to realise them.
The intrinsic motivations that drive digitisation are the make or break element; they steer how the technologies are designed, availed and appropriated.
 
The interview was conducted by Eliphas Nyamogo, online editor at the Goethe-Institut in Munich.