The Demographics of Digital Development

Any emergent digital development paradigm will be shaped by three changing demographics of ICT usage: geographical, maturational and experiential.

Geographically, we have already moved from domination of the old Internet world (the US and Europe) to domination of the new Internet world (emerging nations of the global East and South), as summarised in the table below[1].  Use of digital technology in developing countries[2] now represents the majority not minority global experience.

Region % Share in 2001 % Share in 2017
Africa 1% 9%
Middle East 1% 4%
Latin America/Caribbean 5% 10%
Asia 32% 50%
North America 30% 9%
Oceania 2% 1%
Europe 29% 17%

Regional Share of Global Internet Users (2001, 2017)

Maturationally, there are growing numbers of digital natives: defined as those 15-24 year olds with five or more years of online experience[3].  While only around one-fifth of the youth cohort in developing countries are digital natives (compared to four-fifths in the global North), youth in the global South as twice as likely to be digital natives as the total population, and so they have a disproportionate role which might be worth specific encouragement.  Given they see ICTs as more important and more beneficial than others do, and given they make proportionately greater use of digital technologies and of social networks, then engagement of digital natives – for example in education or politics – may be enhanced by ensuring there are effective digital channels in these sectors.

Experientially, ICT users are experiencing changes that include[4]:

  • Time-space compression: a shortening of timespans for activities moving towards Castells’ notion of “timeless time” in which biological and clock time are replaced by compressed, desequenced notions of time; and a new geography that replaces physical distance with virtual space so that individual experience moves from a “space of places” to a “space of flows”[5].
  • Public to private: moving from shared-use to individual-use models of ICT interaction. Voice communication is moving from public payphones to shared mobile phones to individually-owned mobile phones.  Internet access is moving from public access telecentres and cybercafés to semi-public home or work computers to personal mobile devices.  The digital experience thus becomes increasingly private and personal.
  • Fixed to mobile: as mobile devices become the dominant means of access to digital infrastructure and content.
  • Text/audio to audio-visual: while it may be premature to call the emergence of a post-literate society, increasing bandwidth and technical capabilities mean digital experiences can increasingly resemble rich, natural real-life experiences rather than the artificial restrictions of just text or just audio.

One can argue that all four cases, represent an increasing presence yet decreasing visibility of the digital as its mediation merges more seamlessly into everyday life and activities.  This growth-but-disappearance of mediation thus represents a final experiential trend – that digital technologies more-and-more intercede between us and our experiences, and yet we notice them doing this less-and-less.  If the medium is the message, our conscious awareness of the message may be diminishing.

All three of these trends – geographical, maturational and experiential – form the emerging background underlying digital development, which is the subject of a Development Informatics working paper: “Examining “Digital Development”: The Shape of Things to Come?”, and will be the topic for future blog entries.

[1] IWS (2017) Internet Usage Statistics, Internet World Stats


[3] ITU (2013) Measuring the Information Society 2013, International Telecommunication Union, Geneva

[4] Barney, D. (2004) The Network Society, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK; Boettiger, S., Toyama, K. & Abed, R. (2012) Natural obsolescence of Village Phone, in: ICTD’12, ACM, New York, NY, 221-229; Molony, T. (2012) ICT and human mobility: cases from developing countries and beyond, Information Technology for Development, 18(2), 87-90; Ridley, M. (2009) Beyond literacy, in: Pushing the Edge, D.M. Mueller (ed), American Library Association, Chicago, IL, 210-213

[5] Castells, M. (2000) Materials for an exploratory theory of the network society, British Journal of Sociology, 51(1), 5-24

2 thoughts on “The Demographics of Digital Development

  1. Dear Dr. Heeks,

    Thankful for an updated post from you. I am following your paper series as a learner enthusiast in ICT for development, or the I4D (Informatics for development) as you introduced in your 2014 paper: New Priorities for ICT4D.

    I come from a third world country, and actually belong to those who are yet less accessible to (and knowledgeable on) ICT, given the fast change in trends. However, I am convinced that ICT is necessary for our own community development. I am learning so much in your series, and now reading “Examining Digital Development”. Thanks that in your discussions of WSIS targets and action lines in your ICTD 2015 paper, you gave clear depictions of how ICT may be of tool for development in various (e)-areas. You also took on perspectives that don’t alienate villagers/folks like me, like starting with radio and television services as roots for development in the countryside instead of the advanced ICT forms. Also, for putting emphasis on looking also into the “dark sides” and dis-benefits of ICT4D, as these are main concerns from (us) subjects/intended recipients of the informatics for development goals.

    From that paper as well, I depicted of an Information society that has the ways to bridge the digital gap; I would like to be part of such! However, I was left with the dilemma that, ‘how may the poor function in such’? I discern that ICT4D aims at bringing along the poor to the sustainable development looked forward to thru ICT, but would they stay as recipients to the benefits proposed by the info society? Can they also be part of that group? Are there means or approaches wherein they can also be made responsible for exploring options on ICT’s impact on their lives? The impacts may vary, which of course can only be discovered on their (or our) own. I am as glad to know that you have also touched on ICT4D in the lens of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a subject matter whose related lit I am exploring for an information and communication course, for it is true what you cited from Streeten (1984), “these basic needs must be the main development priority.”

    Meanwhile, I agree with your observations in this most current article that ICT is gradually becoming part of day-to-day life, increasing in presence yet decreasing in visibility. Somehow ICTs don’t necessarily display merely as ‘transformative’ tools anymore but actually transforming the language for development. For one, the audio-visual tools like radio/tv programs or the youtube and Google universities of information has become part of a layman’s understanding how ICT benefits man. The medium (ICT) has become the message–and there is now, perhaps, only the need to make sure that the message content is indeed “development” and to communicate this meaningfully so that, though message per se diminishes, it still achieves a desired end. I don’t know..i hope I am making sense, but is always joy to learn.

    Though pausing much too often at many points of learning, since ICT4D is a new area/langauage/context of learning to me, I am reading thru your works with eagerness to understand more. I am much grateful Dr. Heeks for sharing your knowledge (thankful for platforms such as this) and for what you and your WSIS groups are doing in accelerating the goods that ICT can offer to better lives, and ultimately, alleviate poverty.

    Wishing you well and more power!

    Buenaflor Rosete
    University of the Philippines
    Open University

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