With an increasing need for a digital presence intensified by the constraints of the global pandemic, Covid-19 has acted as a magnifying glass exposing the weak pillars on the bridge of digital transformation within the Caribbean region. Media reports throughout the Caribbean have revealed that there are “cracks” in the pillars of digital literacy, access, affordability, connectivity, and infrastructure resulting in several sectors of society being left behind. This has sparked a regional conversation on the needed tools and/or methods to bridge the digital divide. Caribbean Insight Magazine, therefore, interviewed the top debaters in the 18th National Youth Parliament debate (Trinidad Tobago) to obtain their perspective on bridging the digital divide.
According to Kemuel Pascall (Youth Member for Chagunas), the digital divide can be understood as the inequitable access to digital devices or digital services by some members of a population. Kobe Sandy (Youth Member for St. Augustine) further described the digital divide as the persons within a country that are “detached, separated, uninformed and left out from the advances of technology and the new spur of digitisation which impacts the ways in which we do ‘business’ on a familiar, local and international level.” He highlighted that persons are not detached from this digitisation process by choice but rather this divide is perpetuated by societal issues and one’s social standing. This is seen via the inability of persons to obtain the necessary digital resources, the lack of digital and information and communication technology (ICT) education and persons lacking the capacity to fully attain the opportunities that come with advancements in digital technology.
In the context of Trinidad and Tobago, statistics from the last Digital Divide survey conducted in 2013 by the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago revealed that 70.51% of households had access to a computer and 44.6% of households had access to the internet. However, a digital report for Trinidad and Tobago conducted in 2020 by Hootsuite and We Are Social revealed that the internet penetration rate increased tremendously resulting in 77% or rather 1.08 million persons using the internet. Though progress is evident, one can argue that governments, civil society organisations, the private sector and individuals are now taking a reactionary approach to fix the “cracks” in the pillars of digital access, affordability, connectivity, literacy and infrastructure.
This is supported by Kobe Sandy who highlighted that as a Caribbean society, we were not “forward-thinking” but rather “laid back” in addressing the digital divide. Recognizing the gaps in our ICT curriculum, ICT networks and the lack of a direct policy to address the digital divide, Sandy describes these approaches as “porous” and “weak.” He further recognized the vulnerability of ICT networks regionally which can be threatened by cybercrimes. Though various stakeholders are fixing the cracks within the pillars of digital access by donating devices, Kemuel Pascall identified the need for proper education and communication. He questioned, “are we teaching children or adults how to properly use and dispose of these devices?” He highlighted the threat of global warming and the link between the emissions from digital devices thus reinstating the need for proper education. He also questioned whether we are teaching persons about careers in the field of ICT? This is critical as this sudden digital transformation process would create a demand for skilled workers in the field of ICT. However, with outdated infrastructure, weak policies and a curriculum that is not in alignment with this hasty digital transformation process, this can widen the cracks on the digital pillars.
The solution, therefore, lies in the hands of the relevant stakeholders to repair the broken bridge of digital transformation and digitisation by sealing the cracks in the pillars of digital literacy, access, connectivity, affordability and availability. Sandy, therefore, calls for focus to be placed on ensuring that rural communities and the most vulnerable in our society are not left out or detached from digital transformation. “We often think that the most vulnerable just need shelter, clothing and food” he emphasized. However, it can be argued that digital access, availability, literacy and connectivity are now becoming essential needs. Pascall also underscores the need for proper education and communication which will grant persons confidence in this new digitisation process. It can be concluded that with proper planning, evidence-based decision making, reforms in our curriculum, the relevant training/ education and proper policy; the digital divide can be bridged within the Caribbean region.