Digital information and communication technologies have revolutionised the ways in which knowledge is created and shared. Today, global domination of the information economy by the Internet, mobile phones and other digital devices creates the potential to facilitate new ways of recording and sharing knowledge. However, for the majority of South African people, limited digital skills and poor information literacy puts the Internet and online information beyond their reach, even if access to these technologies was available.
African Content on the Internet
In terms of digital information, African content levels are low, mainly due to a lack of capacity among local communities to record, transfer and disseminate information digitally. This puts Africa at a major disadvantage in the current knowledge economy, and leaves people poorly equipped to make a meaningful contribution to the global information society.
The knock-on effect of limited local content and a lack of local language usage on the Internet is that it slows the uptake of digital resources by local communities, impeding ICT skills development and, thereby, socio-economic transformation. However, African knowledge needs to be part of the global information economy, regardless of the inherent difficulties in collection, preservation and dissemination. This philosophy is underpinned by the Geneva Plan of Action, developed by the World Summit on the Information Society (2003). Three action lines in the plan speak directly to the need to include all people in the access to and generation of knowledge:
- Access to information and knowledge: This line concerns policies relating to public domain information, community access points, and alternative software models.
- Capacity building: This covers skills needed for the Information Society, including literacy and ‘ICT literacy’ and the empowerment of local communities to use ICTs.
- Cultural diversity and identity: linguistic diversity and local content. This action plan line focuses on promotion of respect for cultural identity, traditions and religions and dialogue among cultures as a factor in sustainable development.
There is a tendency for digital divide thinking to focus on getting ‘global’ information resources to the marginalised and on educating the marginalised to consume information in the way the globalised world does. However, in order to decrease the digital divide between the data ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, there needs to be an understanding of the processes by which people can assimilate, and then use, information. ICTs can become a broad enabler of development when used in community informatics, which allow groups to use the resources in ways that are meaningful to them. However, this is not easy to achieve in practice because skills levels are often low at a local level.