World Bank dubious about digital benefits
A new report from the World Bank critically examines whether ICT implementation is as synonymous with economic and social development as it is widely believed to be.
"Although there are many individual success stories, the effect of technology on global productivity [and] expansion of opportunity for the poor and middle class [have] so far been less than expected," says the 2016 Digital Dividends report.
The report puts forward that the "economics of the Internet" naturally favour monopolies, which in the absence of regulation and a competitive business environment can serve to benefit only certain larger and more powerful firms.
"The better educated, well connected, and more capable have received most of the benefits [of] the digital revolution," it posits.
In addition to broadly speculating on the unequal distribution of digital benefits, the report critically questions which groups of people stand to benefit from the wave of new, digital jobs being created, and which workers will be harmed by widespread automation.
"Many advanced economies face increasingly polarised labour markets and rising inequality - in part because technology augments higher skills while replacing routine jobs," the report warns.
This is a very simplistic outlook given the complexity of the situation, says Lise Hagen, research manager, IT services and software at IDC. The impacts of digital transformation in SA will not be quite so polarised, she says.
South Africa's population demographics differ to those of many more "developed" countries in that SA's population is predominantly young and relatively tech-enabled, says Hagen, implying that SA's unskilled or semi-skilled workforce is likely to adapt more easily to digital environments than that of many European countries with ageing populations.
Hagen is optimistic that the upcoming generation of digital natives will embrace technological changes more readily and intuitively than their predecessors.
In addition, Hagen notes unskilled and semi-skilled labour is far from being the only work to be replaced by machines. A recent Reuters article notes "machines now offer brain as well as brawn, threatening professions... such as entry-level journalism or routine financial analysis".
Response is crucial
Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx, says it is not new technologies that will determine whether jobs are lost, so much as how people, companies, and governments respond to these technological changes.
Digitisation currently poses a threat to many segments of the workforce because "basic education isn't preparing the workforce of tomorrow for an ICT-driven future. It's still preparing them for the industrial age," says Goldstuck, explaining that basic education needs to be overhauled in order to nurture a tech-empowered workforce.
Problem-solving and working collaboratively are skills that need more focus in schools, he suggests.
Yet Hagen takes a more complex view of basic education's role. "I don't know whether it's a hard skill that needs to be taught," she says. "You can't teach curiosity, can you?"
A more important focus of basic education might be simply making people aware of the digital resources available to them, such as moocs, and how to use them, she says.
Organisations also have an important role to play in clearing the path to a competent digitised workforce, says Hagen. Companies "can't just invest in technology," she says - they need to invest in education that encompasses a "broader transformation," which includes cultural attitudes, too.
Goldstuck adds state involvement is crucial, pushing that a serious government strategy is needed to advance the skills of the population as a whole to avoid widespread job loss.