by Juan Enriquez

Juan Enriquez on the Digital Divide

Mar 15, 20066 mins
IT Leadership

How many stars do you think will be in the U.S. flag in 50 years? It is said that CIOs operate in a cyberworld. But changes in technology, language and wealth can have a real effect on borders. So before you answer the question by saying “why, 50, of course,” you may wish to recall that no U.S. president has been buried under the same flag he was born under.

We oft take stability and continuity for granted and thus can make major mistakes in both our personal and professional lives. Countries do the same, and time and again they fall apart. Countries rich and poor, Asian, African or European, Christian, Buddhist or Muslim continue to split. The United States—indeed the entire American continent—have, so far, been extraordinary outliers. But the hemisphere may not be immune to the threats of techno-balkanization.

Technology accelerates integration and fragmentation. It allows noncontiguous communities to connect with each other and flourish. The Internet and VoIP turbocharge your ability to communicate continuously with people no matter what their geography. Alliances and allegiances flourish. The smart become ever more mobile; they know who is doing what where globally, and how they can fit in. Technology can leave many a country and individual far behind.

Countries that do not develop and attract smart people can fall very quickly. But you can also grow countries out of nothing. After WWII and the Korean War, there was not a lot left standing in Taipei and Seoul; Singapore had an income per capita similar to that of Ghana. Today Taiwan, Korea and Singapore are leaders in education and technology. When most of us were in college, Ireland was not usually associated with words like hardworking, focused, high-tech and rich. Now, after attracting world-class companies and entrepreneurs to their country, Irish citizens have incomes that exceed those of their former colonizers in Britain. Given that change can occur so swiftly, one might want to consider the consequences as fewer Americans pursue careers in math, science and engineering. Ever more leading-edge science papers come from abroad. Within a few decades, perhaps 90 percent of the world’s scientists will live in Asia.

Flags, borders and anthems are myths; they last only as long as the next generation is willing to believe in and support what you today hold most dear. That is why flags have bred so promiscuously in the United Nations. When the organization was founded, there were 51 member states—today 191. Whether to untie is a daily debate in many countries today.

To generate wealth and grow, a country must generate knowledge and address internal divides. About one-third of the United States’s PhDs in science and math are awarded to Asians and Asian-Americans—only 3 percent go to African-Americans and Hispanics. Within a few decades, 40 percent of the total U.S. population is likely to be Hispanic and African-American. Already 70 percent of the kids in the Los Angeles county school district are Hispanic. If large segments of the population do not become digital- and life science-literate, the engine of growth of the economy could begin to slow or stall. And there could be growing tensions between large ethnic islands.

The Widening Geographics Gap

There are also regional divides. Most of the country’s wealth of knowledge is generated in a few key states. And within these states, the smart areas are concentrated in a few ZIP codes. In life sciences, for instance, 92121—the ZIP code between the Salk Institute, Scripps Research Institute and University of California at San Diego—is a key driver of growth and innovation. One consequence of this concentration of brains and research is that a few (mostly blue) states pay a great deal in taxes. And a series of mostly red states consume a lot more federal funds than they generate. Globally, when one begins to see growing regional gaps, one also sees demand for regional autonomy. Often it is the rich, not the repressed, ethnically or religiously divided regions that seek to untie first.

As schools lag and regions fall behind, investing today to reap tomorrow is ever more critical. But that is not what we are doing. The federal government spends about $22,000 each on those over 65 and $2,000 each on people under 16. We are investing more in what was, instead of what will be. It is the young who will have to lead change across a series of emerging fields including robotics, nanotechnology, IT and life sciences if the United States is to remain a preeminent economy. And yet many students are failing tests in science and math.

As teachers and researchers find it easier to work in some regions, many counties become knowledge irrelevant. Often these areas end up poor, isolated and angry. They begin to resent change, open borders and the tech-rich.

The country’s debt is accumulating at an unsustainable rate. We make our kids pay for our inability to finance our own wars, infrastructure, health and education. Eventually they will pay, with interest. Soon, if interest rates rise and housing prices fall, we could be faced with some hard choices, and there are few things that stress families, companies and countries more than running out of money.

Politicized religion adds fuel to an already volatile mix. Some national leaders use television to convince a large percentage of the population that the political opposition represents “godless people.” The other side retaliates by loudly proclaiming the government is populated by a bunch of ignorant, dishonest monsters. Both sides try to ban what many other citizens hold dear. Some fear bans on Christmas, others prohibitions on stem cells and Darwin.

To grasp the possible consequences of today’s divisions, imagine yourself sitting in a British Cabinet meeting circa 1900. Their flag and government represented the world’s pre-eminent empire. Had the Prime Minister asked, “What do you suppose the map of our great country will look like circa 1955?” one might guess the consensus answer might have been just slightly wrong. Just as occurs in some marriages, where the spouse is the last to find out, often it is the citizens of greatest powers that never see a split coming.

So why not ask the question: What can we do today to prevent untying tomorrow? For starters, let’s respond to divisive, hate-filled speeches by politicians with the question, “Are you seeking to untie us from the others?” Why not give parents of kids under 18 one proxy vote per child? Only then will there be a strong voting block to counter growing gray power. It is also time to quit spending more than we earn. And above all, it is time to realize just how fragile countries can be.

Whether the United States someday becomes an Untied States or whether it ends up a larger, more powerful country depends, to a great extent, on what we do today. How we cope with waves of technology, how we educate, what we invest in and how we treat each other.