As an international traveler, if you ever stood in the central Tokyo train station during rush hour, clutching a ticket in your hand and looking helplessly about, you know the feeling. If you ever stared hopelessly at a Cyrillic menu while seated in a restaurant off the beaten path in Moscow, you know the feeling. Finally, for the aging geeks among us, if you have ever tried to read someone else's APL program, you know the feeling.
It is the feeling of illiteracy and exclusion, of being unable to participate in the milieu, frustrated and dismayed, unable to communicate and understand. In the three cases above, a kindly Japanese businessman rescued me, I ordered food via hand gestures and self-deprecating smiles, and I spent some long hours reconstructing programmer intent.
Inclusion and access shape our lives. Highlighting this, a New York Times article, "Separating You and Me? 4.74 Degrees," recently reported the results of a study that used Facebook data to compute the electronic separation of Facebook participants. It was an electronic update to the oft-repeated adage that six degrees of separation connect all denizens of the planet. The results speak to the power of our electronic networks and highlight, by exception, another form of separation.
It is an equally pernicious exclusion, one crossing cultures, countries and languages. It makes no distinction between the literate and the illiterate. An economic and cultural chasm, a digital divide, separates the digitally connected from those who lack the ways or the means to join the digital community. In a knowledge economy, the separated are cut off from a plethora of services, educational materials, and business prospects.
If we are to address inequality and create opportunities for economic advancement, this must change. It is a global need, not simply a question of developed versus developing country access. The digitally disenfranchised are all around us. In some parts of the world, broadband access is an unattainable dream, beyond the economic reach of entire families. In other places, it is a non-trivial fraction of a month's income. In still others, it is either not available or its performance is inadequate. (See Broadband: Oxygen for a Digital World)
Digital inclusion matters to every society and government, for addressing inequity and access facilities better education, improved health and economic development. If we have learned anything from the history of previous economic malaises, it is that innovation and economic growth are the keys to financial recovery. Digital inclusion is one of the enablers, a catalyst for the exchange of ideas.
As I recently remarked at the closing ceremonies of the ITU Telecom World, this is not the responsibility of any one institution. The responsibility lies with all of us. No one need digitally disenfranchised.