transnational literate lives in digital times: chapter 5.4

global digital divide: from Nigeria and the People's Republic of China
Cynthia L. Selfe, Gail E. Hawisher, Patrick W. Berry, Oladipupo "Dipo" Lashore, and Pengfei Song

What These Literacy Narratives suggest banner

New family members and new accomplishments for Pengfei Song and Oladipupo "Dipo" Lashore.
Click on image for an audio introduction <transcript>

CHAPTER 5: What These Literacy Narratives Suggest

“Better to say that we make the act meaningful by constructing it in relation to some other acts, events, things (which we then call its contexts). The relations we construct to some (and not other possible) contexts select and emphasize some of the possible meanings of the act. —Jay Lemke, 1995, p. 141. 

These two studies represent an early attempt to look at digital literacy and the digital divide in a global context—and, clearly, they provide only limited perspectives and uneven information about these larger phenomena. We recognize, for instance, that both people presented here have achieved a high degree of digital literacy—and that some would rightly consider them success stories in connection with the digital divide. We also recognize, however, that many other young men—and women—in Nigeria, in China, and in the U.S. and western Europe, for that matter—have not had the same opportunities as Dipo and Pengfei (Katz & Aspden, 1998; Selwyn, 2003; Drori & Jang, 2003). Our aim here is not to underestimate the seriousness of the digital divide or to suggest that hard work and determination alone can help individuals and their families close this gap. They cannot.

This recognition, however, does not diminish the value of the firsthand accounts presented here. On the contrary, each of the literacy histories in this chapter and the larger book is richly sown with information that can help those of us studying literacy and its relation to information technology by situating ongoing research in specific cultural, material, educational, and familial contexts.

In focusing on Dipo’s and Pengfei’s stories, we hope to foreground the conditions that can both contribute to and detract from people's having successful encounters with literacy. For us, the value of these accounts is that they present, in abundant detail, everyday literacy experiences that can help all of us—educators, policy makers, and researchers—better understand the many factors associated with the global digital divide.

The two literacy narratives help illustrate many of the observations we have drawn from earlier work on information technology and the global divide while underscoring the importance of ongoing research. Here we identify just a few observations that Dipo and Pengfei’s stories help illustrate.

We recognize that we cannot hope to understand digital literacy, in Nigeria, China, or the U.S. and western Europe, with simplistic references to a global digital divide, and we cannot represent digital literacy solely through statistics that provide the numbers of computers in different countries. Further, the definitions of both literacy and digital literacy are far from stable over time, so we must also examine the practices and attendant values of digital literacy within a specific set of historical circumstances.

It may be for this reason that individual case studies of digital literacy are so valuable—these personal narratives are capable of demonstrating the many ways in which micro-, medial-, and macro-level factors shape, and are shaped by, the lived experiences of real people.

Dipo’s case, for instance, provides a good example of the complex ways in which, and levels at which, opportunities to acquire and develop digital literacy are related to class and income, education, geographic location, political policy, and technological infrastructure.

It is clear that the unusually stable micro-level economic situation that Dipo’s family was able to provide and the professional paths that his parents had chosen were key factors in his ability to acquire and develop digital literacy.

It is also clear that such a situation is not available to many Nigerian citizens. This micro-level environment within which Dipo developed digital literacy was made possible, in part, by his father and mother’s commitment to completing their own schooling, the home instruction they had been able to provide him in digital literacy practices and values, and their decision to locate the family in the city of Lagos. Further, the decision that Dipo's parents made to pursue their own advanced educations anticipated a number of factors at a medial level, among them the increasingly heavy demand for professionals in information technology and accounting in Lagos, the increasing stability of the local political situation, the growth of the city as an information technology center, and the increasing concentration of scientific and engineering expertise that made the city an unusually attractive location in Nigeria. Dipo's ability to acquire digital literacy was also affected by macro-level trends, among them the growing global reliance on digital networks, the increase of e-commerce, and the increasing pace of technology innovation.

The effects of these factors and trends, of course, cannot be located simply at one level. The micro-level decision that the family made about the schools Dipo would attend was influenced by their recognition of the increasingly important role that technology was playing in a global arena, as was Dipo’s choice of a major in college. Similarly, Dipo’s micro-level choices about cultivating technologically savvy friends and his personal determination to participate as fully as possible in the online environments available to him was also shaped, at least in part, by macro-level patterns of technological innovation.  

In turn, Dipo’s own digital literacy shapes the ways in which he exchanges information with his family in Nigeria, the expectations he has for his own children’s education, what their educational opportunities and expectations will be, his personal definition of literacy, his professional qualifications as a computer scientist, and his eventual contributions to the technological infrastructure of his home country. In related ways, his own decisions—to purchase a computer, to download music, to play games in online environments—shape global and national rates of technological change, contribute to the concentration of digital resources and expertise, and help create national and global expectations for literacy, education, and personal opportunity, especially when these are multiplied by similar decisions that other individuals make.

As G.A. Alabi (1996) concluded in a report from the University of Pennsylvania's African Studies Center, digital literacy exists within overdetermined systems that are constituted at many levels:

"Every facet of…basic rights is dependent on telecommunications. Such basic rights of the individual as the right to life, the right to personal liberty and dignity, the right to free expression and information, and the right to free movement, all of which enhance the quality of life of the individual, are facilitated by telecommunication." (1.1.4)

Thus computers and telecommunications technologies have assumed a huge role in delivering not only the educational promises associated with digital literacies but also everyday opportunities to lead a better life on every level.

Within a country, geography matters as well. Pengfei’s very different micro-level and medial experiences—in a rural school in the small village of Yinjiahe, in a larger school in the small town of Linqu, and at Tianjin University—illustrate how uneven technological diffusion may be between rural and urban environments, as well as between nations.

Dipo’s case also illustrates the uneven diffusion of technological opportunity in urban and rural environments. At a medial level of effect, Lagos, his hometown, boasts one of the highest concentrations of technology in Nigeria, in part because of its population density. (See Internet World Statistics (2011a) for charts and statistics that support Nigeria's being the African nation with the most people connected to the Internet.)

As Feyt and Edelmuller (2000) point out:

"Nigeria’s Internet market comes mainly from Lagos among the young urban elite, the oil-based communities of Port Harcourt and Warri, and the cities of Abuja and Kano…whilst in other areas access to the Net is considered a luxury."

Thus, even as mobile broadband connections become increasingly common, where one lives, locally and globally, exerts a profound influence on the number and kinds of available opportunities to develop digital literacies.

Both Dipo’s and Pengfei’s stories remind us, as well, that wealth is directly related to both technological diffusion and literacy skills, and thus to the opportunities that individuals have for acquiring and developing digital literacy.

In Dipo’s case, his family’s micro-level economic circumstances—which were determined by the salaries his mother and father earned—meant that he had access to a computer in his home while growing up. That Dipo’s family could pay tuition for private schools with resources for learning and practicing digital literacy also had an impact on Dipo’s opportunities to develop digital literacy. Dipo had privileges in schooling about which many, perhaps even most, young Nigerians can only dream.

Pengfei’s claim that “if you are poor, you can't buy a computer” reminds us that wealth also matters in China. As Pengfei's experiences demonstrate, access to computers in China was until the economic boom of the 1990s often limited to those with sufficient wealth or shared in public spaces like Internet cafes or university settings, and many students continue to seek an education abroad in order to gain the kind of access to digital communication environments they desire. According to the Education Ministry in China, “a record number of Chinese students are studying in foreign universities” with numbers totaling approximately 1.27 million students (Chen, 2011). The majority of such students and their families seek out English-speaking countries, enabling the students to become proficient not only with digital media but also with the English language.

In this context, Pengfei’s observation when we interviewed him in 2003 that China was making speedy progress in terms of technology (“China is developing fast as far as computers are concerned”), the rapid deployment of computer technology within his family, and his own experiences with English and with technology in popular cyber cafés in China makes increasing sense. China is educating a strong base of scientists and engineers who can help build the country’s computer infrastructure. 

This relationship between education, skills, and computer infrastructure also helps explain the slower progress Nigeria is making in terms of technological achievement and building an environment for digital literacy. Without an adequate technology infrastructure, the opportunities for the acquisition and development of digital literacies within a citizenry are dramatically reduced, albeit, as Dipo’s case indicates, not eliminated entirely.

In the two literacy narratives we have presented in this chapter, it is clear that a two-way structuration (Giddens, 1979, p. 69) takes place at a variety of levels and through a range of effects. For instance, Dipo’s and Pengfei’s digital literacy values and practices (e.g., the applications they used to communicate within computer environments; the ways in which they shaped their access to digital communication environments at school, at home, or in Internet cafes; their decisions to play computer games or work with digital photography) occurred at a micro-political level (i.e., within a family, a peer group, or the life of an individual). However, the effects of Dipo’s and Pengfei’s actions also extend beyond these environments, and gain tangential force when multiplied by the similar practices of peers and family members.  Thus, their actions can also play out at medial and macro levels.

Dipo’s and Pengfei’s digital literacy practices, for example, have affected the literacy practices and values of their parents and other family members at a micro-political level. Not only do both Dipo and Pengfei now write to their parents via e-mail, but their parents respond and write back, using personal computers that they have purchased as investments in their own and their children’s future. According to Pengfei, his father paid half a year’s salary to buy a computer so that he could correspond with his son and would likely not have done so without this motivation. In turn, the literacy practices and values of Dipo’s and Pengfei’s families—especially when they are multiplied by similar practices in other families—can affect medial-level patterns of technology use and spending, as well as the demands placed on local, regional, and national educational institutions. They can also contribute to a changing context for, definition of, and expectation for literacy—in China and Nigeria, and around the world. When digital literacy practices achieve a critical mass, they may also affect technology policy, spending, and infrastructure at a regional, national, or global level.

This understanding of individual agency helps explain how people are often able to resist the effects of micro-, medial-, or macro- level formations depending on their talents, goals, interests, and insights, among many other factors. Pengfei, for instance, despite having no exposure to computers before he reached college, committed himself to making maximum use of computer environments he could identify—primarily Internet cafes in China, and university-based networks in the U.S.—to further develop his digital literacies and to achieve his goal of finishing a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Similarly Dipo’s parents, even within the context of the many constraints characterizing the politics, economy, and technological infrastructure of Nigeria, found ways to prepare themselves and their family to communicate successfully in digital contexts and to face an increasingly technological age.

Of course, as these cases also suggest, the hard-won successes of these two families have also depended on a range of factors, among them people's innate or learned abilities to pursue both unexpected and predictable goals; family values and literacy histories; social, economic, and personal circumstances; commitment, confidence, and faith—in sum, whatever factors enable humans to pursue both unexpected and unpredictable goals. 

As mentioned earlier, we do not want to suggest with this discussion that people can always accomplish anything they want within social structures or that the actions they take are always effective. Clearly, people are constrained in their actions by any number of influential factors: age, class, race, handicap, experience, opportunity, and belief systems are only a few such factors. And, as we noted, certain of these factors—geographical location, wealth, and education, for instance—may exert particularly strong shaping influences on people’s opportunities to develop digital literacy. Further, we should add that the actions people do undertake—because they take place within complex cultural ecologies—always have what Anthony Giddens (1984) calls “unintended consequences” that escape the bounds of individuals’ intentions (p. 12). Thus, for instance, although Dipo’s and Pengfei’s efforts to acquire certain kinds of technological literacy succeeded in many ways, they also resulted in their separation from family and friends—an effect that they perhaps neither foresaw nor desired.

Given both the complexity and the overdetermined nature of the related micro-, medial-, and macro- level technologies which are complexly articulated to formations of globalization, national development, and digital literacy, we find it reasonable to conclude that no one action or set of solutions is going to address the entire range of literacy issues associated with various global digital divides. Certainly it is clear that simple physical access to computer technology is only one small part of the global digital divide—albeit a fundamentally important part.

No system is totalizing, however—not even an overdetermined system that involves a complex relationship among technology, wealth, and literacy that forms part of the digital divide. Within the complex global ecology shaped by these factors and others, individuals such as Dipo and Pengfei make their own way and exert their own personal and, in combination with others, collective agency to acquire and develop digital literacies. Even more importantly, perhaps, they tell us their stories so that others can do the same.

If we fail to pay attention to the literacy values and practices in digital spaces, we risk losing an invaluable glimpse of the future of writing and digital media, placing in jeopardy our ability to prepare effectively for tomorrow’s world.

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