It's cliché to say a technology divide exists between rich and poor, old and young. It's not very illuminating, either. But quantifying which people are using technology and where they're using it, and, in particular, global hot spots for youth adoption, provide good starting points for understanding the potential transformation of societies.
Michael Best, associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, recently completed the first study to quantify "digital natives"—people ages 15 to 24 who have been online for at least five years—for the United Nations report "Measuring the Information Society."
In 2012, the global population of 7 billion had 363 million digital natives—or 5.2 percent. Thirty percent of the world's youth are online. That's less than one-third of young people, but it's one-third that could figure greatly in the fate of 21st century societies. The study from a UN technology group known as the ITU—International Telecommunication Union—did not go beyond determining the number of digital natives, and offering general recommendations to nations and stakeholders for investing in information technology.
However, in his interview with CNBC, Best discussed a broader set of social issues implicit in the data.
CNBC: Knowing there are 363 million digital natives is a nice data point to have, but how does it have critical value?
Best: The critical value we get is for the emerging markets and low-income countries. What the report shows dramatically is that these are countries where young people are driving use of the Internet—as opposed to higher-income countries, where more or less everyone is online.
That allows us to approach stakeholders in low-income countries and say, 'The digital age is today, and your youth is driving it.' That means they probably will want to pay more attention to the youth and invest more in technical aspects, and be ready for the digital natives of today to lead.
CNBC: Why wouldn't an authoritarian regime analyze this data in the exact opposite way: "These kids are going online in droves. ... We need to limit that as much as possible." Look at Zimbabwe, not known for its democratic principles under Robert Mugabe, where you found a notable use of the Web among the young. I find that counterintuitive.
Best: Empirically, your question makes sense, but the data doesn't bear it out. We don't see these countries—the authoritarian ones—as having exceptionally low levels of technology use.
And interestingly, Zimbabwe is one of the outliers in our examination of digital natives. The data counterbalances the thought that Zimbabwe should underperform because of authoritarian control. [Zimbabwe's digital natives represent 6.1 percent of its total population, and it's a low-income economy that has seen some of the largest gains in IT infrastructure, the U.N. report states.]
With some digital native outlier nations we have explanations. Malaysia [No. 4 overall among nations] invests considerably in schools; South Korea [No. 3] performs well in everything. Iceland [No. 1] and New Zealand [No. 2] have high levels of investment. This study only asked the question of where the digital natives are and in what numbers, but we don't have an answer to the follow-up question yet. Zimbabwe's overperformance demands explanation.
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I have personal experience with civic engagement through the Internet. I work quite a lot in Nigeria with digital natives, the Facebook generation, and they are young and network-enabled and angry and want social change, and they are very engaged in making a difference in terms of their political landscape.
That is quite clear, and we also have evidence in some experiences from Arab Spring, where youth in some of those North African countries was really critical in the profound social changes. [Morocco and Egypt were the only other African nations, in addition to Zimbabwe, with a higher percentage of digital natives relative to total population.]
CNBC: Zimbabwe is second only to China in terms of the 'youth bulge' in its population, and that's something you talk about a lot in this study—countries where the young have an outsized role in total population.
Best: Italy and Egypt are next to each other in the rankings [No. 78 and No. 79, respectively]. In Italy, you have an aging population, and in Egypt you have a youth bulge, and that is driving the two together in the chart. It shows how important the bulge is.
One thing that I do know—though outside of the context of this study—is that if we look at countries with high insecurity and unrest, mobile phone penetration is not affected. That's astounding, because everything else is affected: economic growth, social development, infrastructure. We know that these networks are somehow immune to social unrest, and even all the way to conflict and warfare.
The 'youth bulge' goes well beyond digital nativism but to the overall demographics of these countries and is present in many low-income countries, in Africa in particular. The bulge is going to play an important role in these countries' development, and that's why it's even more important when we see not only a youth bulge but leadership in Internet presence. That just says to me the future for these countries will be defined in important ways by digital natives.
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CNBC: And Arab Spring would be the prime example of this. But still, how far can societies progress if there is a certain level of income required for greater adoption of personal technology. Isn't there still a chicken-or-egg problem?
Best: So far it's been neither the chicken or egg driving Internet adoption in low-income countries. It's been the profound drop in costs. People don't have to get richer, because the affordability of technology has dropped so considerably, and the business case has risen so dramatically that the infrastructure has been deployed and penetration has spiked.
The big explanation is rise of mobile data. We have seen huge increases in Internet use in terms of compound annual growth rate in low annual growth rates countries because mobile networks have become remarkably robust in these settings.
Some of these countries have seen economic growth and some have not, but overall economic growth doesn't explain the dramatic increase—it's cheaper and easier access.
CNBC: In the U.S., technology has been arguably less politically than economically influential, with the rise of the sharing economy and mobile apps from Silicon Valley disrupting the status quo across industries. Does the rise of the digital native in low-income countries suggest that Silicon Valley's biggest market is in Africa?
Best: What's true is that some of the most ambitious formulations of digital nativism go to deep cognitive changes that would suggest things like a sharing economy. Some of the academic literature on digital natives has included dramatic claims about rewiring of the brain: Internet thinkers who are more "peer to peer sharing" based and meritocratic, less hierarchical. I expect those properties to be maintained even as they grow into adulthood.
This study doesn't speak to that cognitive possibility, nor necessarily what it means to economics. But what it does make clear is that something is happening, and anyone who follows the market possibilities or ramifications better pay attention. Especially in emerging economies leading in Internet access and use.
CNBC: Another debate that defines the technological age is the issue of privacy. Do the digital natives care less about privacy concerns than the headlines would suggest, given their rapid adoption of personal technology?
Best: Personally, I think that digital natives don't feel the importance to the extent the headlines suggest—not as much as people who are not digital natives. They don't recognize the importance, but that very easily could come to haunt them in their future. It could be 'Big Brother' or a future employer looking at past Facebook postings.
I see it among my students, the lack of attention to privacy and willingness to share a lot of personal information. I can't say to what extent the youth don't care about privacy as opposed to not understanding what it is.
—By Eric Rosenbaum, CNBC.com