Digital economies at global ‘’margins’’

By Mark Graham, Professor of Internet Geography, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford; Turing Fellow, The Alan Turing Institute; and Research Affiliate, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford

digital-economies.jpgBillions of people at the world’s economic ‘’margins’’ are experiencing a moment of changing connectivity. In Manila, Manchester, Mogadishu, the banlieues of Marseille and everywhere in between, the world is becoming digital, digitised and digitally mediated at an astonishing pace. Most of the world’s wealthy have long been digitally connected, but the world’s poor and economically marginal have not been enrolled in digital networks until relatively recently. In only five years (2012–2017), over one billion people became new Internet users (ITU 2016). In 2017, Internet users became a majority of the world’s population. The networking of humanity is thus no longer confined to a few economically prosperous parts of the world. For the first time in history, we are creating a truly global and accessible communication network.

But what does digitalisation and digital production mean for the world’s economic ‘’margins’’?1. On the one hand, places that were once economic peripheries can potentially transcend their spatial, organisational, social and political constraints. An Indian weaver, a Chinese merchant and a Kenyan transcriber all have opportunities to instantly interact with markets outside their local contexts. In other words, possibilities now exist for fundamentally transforming economic geographies. On the other hand, digital tools, technologies and techniques also have the potential to reinforce or amplify existing inequalities, barriers and constraints.

Digitalisation in countries as diverse as Chile to Kenya to the Philippines thus offers a broad range of theoretical positions on what the more progressive politics of connectivity could entail. Data-driven disintermediation, women’s economic empowerment and gendered-power relations, digital humanitarianism and philanthropic capitalism, the spread of innovation hubs, hackathons, and the gig economy are amongst the factors to consider. Three case studies, in particular, help illustrate possible scenarios for effectively and sustainably engaging people and places on the global ‘’margins’’ through digital connectivity. And these case studies highlight both positive and negative sides of digital transformations.

First, consider unexpected risks … not of disconnectivity, but of connectivity itself. Case studies from Chile and Zambia show that by introducing distinctly neoliberal paradigms of development into the lives of women, ICT interventions may ultimately risk impoverishing them.

Second, consider new technologies. Those invested in the Internet can make the hackathon format, for instance, a global technology. Hackathons are a way of incorporating a world of diversity, but not necessarily without privileging certain stakeholders and outcomes over others.

Third, consider issues of connectivity and access to markets, like in the context of disintermediation in the East African tea sector. Using digital technologies is creating direct channels between buyers and sellers. But this does not necessarily help tea growers, or even disintermediate production networks, as many predicted would happen.

Looking at these cases, while in no way exhaustive, provides lessons for how digitalisation can transform economies, communities and the lives of people at the world’s economic ‘’margins.’’

1. Read more about this timely topic in a new book published with MIT Press titled Digital Economies at Global Margins, which can be openly accessed and downloaded for free with the International Development Research Centre’s support here.