I choose to lose the hyphen in ‘post-PC’. I do this because I want to make sure the issues addressed in this blog are not confused with a time period that describes a period ‘after’ the PC-area. In fact, even though personal computers --even laptops-- are quickly losing ground to postPC devices, our time is not post-PC. PCs are still –and increasingly so- an everyday reality in offices and educational institutions. PostPC therefore, does not mean that the PC and its impacts on social processes are in the past. However the postPC world, or the advance of postPC devices and the integration of computer technologies in everyday devices –soon our and microwaves and refrigerators will be connected to the web-, has important implications of its own which are completely undertheorized. I will here address the implications of these developments for the digital divide. First, a postPC world might potentially lead to new cleavages between the digital literate and the digital have-nots or will-nots. Second, besides the negative effects, this development will also bring in a host of new tools to address the digital divide. PostPC developments therefore have, somewhat paradoxical, the potential to both deepen and lessen the digital divide.
I have written about the digital divide before. In a previous blog I concluded that the ICT and new media revolutions are no different from other tech-revolutions (radio, television, etc.) and that therefore, as with revolutions in the past, the digital divide will lessen in time. The young, rich, better educated and generally better-off are always frontrunners in new technology-usage and other demographic groups will eventually catch up. ICT usage has never been easier and more accessible due to ever more advanced and streamlined interfaces and assisting tools. However, this lessening of digital inequality might not come linearly. Instead, it will probably come to in a three-steps-forward-one-step-back fashion.
It is not hard to theorize why and how postPC devices could deepen the digital divide. The causes for this are mostly economic. Smartphones, tablets and mobile-internet are expensive. Demographic groups that are already struggling to keep up –or even catch up- with PC-developments might lack the financial means to start playing the keep-up race with these new technologies as well. Tablet and smartphones, at the same time, are becoming increasingly integrated in social life. Not being able to participate in this might result in increasing pressures on those who have already fallen behind.
However, postPC devices at the same have also the potential to lessen the digital divide for two reasons. First, in a postPC world, one does not necessarily need to have a PC or laptop to participate in the digital aspects of social life. It is true that having PostPC devices with internet connectivity in addition to a laptop or PC is very expensive. However, these new devices have already started to replace PCs and laptops, both in general task performance and in market share. In some cases they are as, or even less, expensive than laptops. Second, due to the use of touchscreens and advanced interfaces, postPC devices are generally more accessible for the digital illiterate than PCs. As advances in this area continue to be made at an unprecedented pace, the need for PCs, laptops, even home internet-access might disappear.
This has important policy implications for governmental actors. We should start thinking about removing the PC out of digital literacy policy. Tablets or smartphones are becoming ever more useful in addressing the digital divide. Also, instead of concentrating on home internet access we should look at mobile communications speeds and coverage or (free) city-wide Wi-Fi. This process could be similar to the advance of the cell phone in Africa, where a lack of resources and technological capability made home telephones unfeasible. Instead of implementing relatively expensive home access points, communication went wireless. A postPC world has other implications as well but these are the most pressing.
There is also an important task for academics and (other) ICT-experts. We must stop trying to catch up with the rapid advance of computer and internet technologies. We can no longer keep lagging behind. We should advance thought and theorizing on issues already on the horizon. The postPC world is already here. It is time to explore its potential.