Chapter Four of Overselling the Web? reports on the rapidly shrinking digital divide. Already, access in terms of Internet use per dollar of GDP is higher in the developing than the developed world. Business use in particular is reaching global ubiquity --even in Kenya, 78 percent of firms use email. This is a strong sign of the significant utility of the new technology to business in the developing world. A gap remains, however, in the use of advanced applications --e-commerce, for example. Some developing country firms are making good money through e-commerce applications. Most, however, limit Internet use to email, seeing little benefit in a more aggressive Internet strategy. The most significant problem isn't infrastructure but the broader climate for exploiting advanced applications, well illustrated by Mike Dertouzos' experience in Nepal:
...a few of us techies got together with a colleague from Nepal, fully expecting to boost his nation's economy by 20 percent through clever use of the information marketplace. Unfortunately, we quickly found out that even if we got the communications, hardware, software and training for free, we would still fall short of our goal: Only 27 percent of the Nepalese are literate. And of these, only a small fraction speak English. When we asked what services that smaller group could offer, we hit a brick wall. Many are not skilled, and those who are are already busy running their nation's businesses. Maybe we were too ambitious when we envisioned a future workforce in Nepal selling office services to New York and London via the Web. What if we focused instead on selling Nepal's famous crafts, like custom-made rugs, on the Web? That got us into all sorts of other concerns about establishing trust among distant buyers and distributing the goods. The potential of the modern information age seemed overshadowed at every turn by the ancient forces that separate the rich from the poor.
These broader concerns raise the possibility that the Internet could be a force for economic divergence. Developing countries are in a weaker position to garner returns from advanced Internet use than rich countries. This problem is exacerbated by the spread of baroque networks discussed in Chapter Three. The need to preserve their computers' capacities to network with developed country client and supplier IT systems requires developing country firms to update computer capital stocks even though they do not themselves need the additional computing power. Developing country firms are forced into investment decisions which will garner lower returns in poor countries than in rich because of a broader economic environment.
On the plus side, the spread of the Internet may create forces for covergence through the online equivalents of the Spanish Prisoner scam (Mr. Oluwa's strictly confidential email regarding funds hidden by former president Abacha). In 2004, such emails raised a third of a million or more from US victims alone. And overall, it is likely that the scale of convergence or divergence produced by the technology of the Internet will be comparatively small either way, with a total economic impact of the Internet estimated at between one to ten percent of developing country GDP, or about 0.1 to 1 percent of the gap between Sudanese and US incomes, for example.