Digital Divide

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Author: Jarice Hanson
Date: 2016
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Digital Divide

As digital technologies became more available to a wider range of people, the concept of who had access to them, and who does not, became known as the digital divide. The term encompasses technological aspects of hardware, software, and electricity, but there is a strong social component to the concept, too, with much attention going to issues of equity among people to have access to information in a world that increasingly has no geographic boundaries to restrict information flow. Though it may not be obvious at the beginning of the discussion as to how social media and social networks relate to the enormous problem of the digital divide, the problems of access, skill, and know-how still affect users. Ultimately, issues relating to the digital divide influence what people know about news, world events, and the global communication infrastructure.

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Issues related to the digital divide began to emerge in the late 1950s, after World War II, with greater attention to differing levels of national development that affected both the quality of life issues within a region and the cultural, economic, and social dynamics of a world that had a very unequal information flow. At the time it was felt that telephony, print, radio, television, and film could effectively be used to bridge a digital divide that existed in terms of education, but, once the Internet and World Wide Web came along, the discourse shifted to questions of information flow and equal access to news, information, and critical health, weather, and political information that affected the lives of people who previously had no access to others outside of their geographic communities.

At first, the term was used to denote access to technology and discourse was focused on those countries that had more access, like the industrialized West, versus those that were considered to be less developed and without the means to buy technology or supply electricity or know-how to make it work. Access issues were always at the heart of digital divide problems, because getting technologies to people who could use them was one of the first issues of equity that emerged as digital technologies (and the Internet in general) became the focus of many studies to better understand the needs of people locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.

Access issues not only reflect the cost of technology, but the electronic infrastructure necessary to make electronic technology work. For example, many of the earliest issues of the digital divide were debated in the United Nations, where access to technology in developing countries was a significant problem. Entire courses on development communications began to appear in colleges and universities, and the role of government as well as nongovernmental agencies (NGOs) focused on the problem of Information and Communication Technology (ICTs). These early debates often dealt with how ICTs could play a role in helping a poor nation become more self-reliant, with technology applications improving health, education, and the ability of people to help themselves. A range of paradigms emerged that addressed questions of access and the digital divide, all examining the relationship of human beings and the way technologies (of all forms) could be used to improve lives (for a brief overview, see McPhail, 2009).

Not all issues of access and the digital divide were international in scope. Many of the discussions dealt with the problems of schools in communities where children had little or no access to computers, versus schools in wealthier communities where children might have their own computers or mobile phones, or have access to them at home. Socioeconomic studies of children’s access to digital technologies flourished in the 1990s, and the topic became a political issue for the growth of the Internet and the Information Superhighway. During the Clinton Page 130  |  Top of ArticleAdministration, the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) published a number of reports about who, in the United States had access to communications technologies and who did not. The first report, “Falling through the Net: A Survey of the ‘Have Nots’ in Rural and Urban America,” was published in 1995, the second, “Falling through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide,” was published in 1998, and finally, “Falling through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide” was published in 1999. The final report defined the problem of access as one of America’s leading economic and civil rights issues.

Political efforts, funded projects, and communities have dealt with access problems for years, but, fundamentally, the Internet and the wealth of information available over the World Wide Web have become the major focus for contemporary discussions of the digital divide. According to the Internet World Statistics, by the second quarter of 2014, the availability of Internet connections reached: 87.7 percent of the population of North America; 72.9 percent of the population of Oceana/Australia; 70.5 percent of Europe; 52.3 percent of Latin America and the Caribbean; 48.3 percent of the Middle East; 34.7 percent of Asia; and 26.5 percent of Africa. What this means is that in total, 42.3 percent of the people of the world live in an area where the Internet was available by mid-June 2014 ( “Internet Users in the World by Geographical Region” 2015 ). These numbers reflect how many people could connect to the Internet, if they have access to the technologies through work, school, home, or other public means (like libraries and community centers).

As the Internet spread, issues related to the digital divide became more nuanced. Conversations began to include the questions of dumping technology (outdated technology in the industrialized world being “donated” or sold to those countries that were struggling to get the technologies) and also involved issues of skill level and the dominance of a way of foisting a “system” on a country that might conflict with the country’s cultural, historical, of philosophical ideas.

In a series of studies about American’s ability to efficiently use the web, Eszter Hargittai wrote of what she referred to as the “second level digital divide” ( Hargittai 2002 ). Skill, in this context, is defined as the ability to efficiently and effectively find information on the web. Hargittai’s ideas are important for considering how issues of access and skill affect what people know and how they know it. Without a certain form of “information literacy,” the tools people use to connect to the Internet, and the way information is presented over the World Wide Web, can be misleading and paint a false picture of reality.

Other ways of thinking about the digital divide concern issues of availability in terms of what can be used; for example, 80 percent of the websites in use are in English, leading some to call the World Wide Web, the “World White Web” Page 131  |  Top of Article( McPhail 2009 , 125). Though the number of languages available on the web have continued to grow, the problem of translation and available information in languages that can be understood remains a problem. This relates to the use value of information on the web, and calls into question how accurate information can be, and whether people can discern accuracy from what is available.

Another type of digital divide is the group of people who choose not to use information technologies. These people have been called the “new minority” ( Hanson 2013 ), because these people have chosen not to participate in using the Internet and web. If the digital divide has traditionally included the “haves” and “have nots,” the new minority are the “don’t wants.” For this relatively small group of people who have chosen not to have the Internet or a smartphone (or mobile phone of any kind), there is a social cost to not being connected, but they increasingly run the risk of being marginalized by government policies that require some level of connectivity. Most of them claim “they don’t need” computers or mobile phones, and many resent the high cost of buying and using these technologies. But, at the same time, there may be features of life that they can’t easily access if they don’t have the technologies necessary. For example, many forms, including IRS forms are available online, and increasingly employers want applications filed online. The “new minority” may eventually choose to participate more fully in the information society and, certainly, public computers are available in libraries and other public buildings, but they do present a new twist on the digital divide.

See also: Privacy

Further Reading

“Falling through the Net: A Survey of the ‘Have Nots’ in Rural and Urban America.” 1995. National Telecommunications & Information Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. Accessed April 6, 2015: .

Hanson, Jarice. 2013. “The New Minority: The Willfully Unconnected.” In The Unconnected: Social Justice, Participation, and Engagement in the Information Society, edited by Paul M. A. Baker, Jarice Hanson, and Jeremy Hunsinger. New York: Peter Lang, 223–240.

Hargittai, Ezster. 2002. “Second Level Digital Divide: Differences in People’s Online Skills.” First Monday. Accessed April 1, 2015: .

“Internet Users in the World by Geographical Region.” 2015. World Internet World Statistics. Accessed April 1, 2015: .

McPhail, Thomas L., ed. 2009. Development Communication: Reframing the Role of the Media. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 125.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6485200070