Digital divide

From Academic Kids

The digital divide is a social/political issue referring to the socio-economic gap between communities that have access to computers and the Internet and those who do not. The term also refers to gaps that exist between groups regarding their ability to use ICTs (Information and Communications Technologies) effectively, due to differing levels of literacy and technical skills, as well as the gap between those groups that have access to quality, useful digital content and those that do not. The term became popular among concerned parties, such as scholars, policy makers, and advocacy groups, in the late 1990s.

Broadly speaking, the difference is not necessarily determined by the access to the Internet, but any ICTs and media that different segments of society can use. With regard to the Internet, the access is only one aspect, but the quality of connection and auxiliary services, processing speed and other capabilities of the computer used, and other factors could also be part of the issue. (Davison and Cotten; 2003), although one doesn't need even a computer to connect to the Internet (see also MSN TV, Webphone, PDA, mobile phone).

The problem is often discussed in an international context, indicating certain countries such as the U.S. are far more equipped than other developing countries to exploit the benefits from the rapidly expanding Internet. This global digital divide will be discussed in a separate article.

The idea of the digital divide resonates with "common sense" skepticism against claims of the revolutionary power of the Internet and the emerging utopian information society. Some suggest that the Internet and other ICTs are somehow transforming society, improving our mutual understanding, eliminating power differentials, realizing a democratic society, and so on.

At the same time, some skeptics point out that not every gap is a problem. Michael Powell, chairman of the FCC, stated that the 'Mercedes divide' (differing ownership status of Mercedes-Benz automobiles) is not a problem, implying that the digital divide is not, either; but the access to the Internet is a universal service (e.g. to gain access to knowledge such as in encyclopedias) in some cases and Mercedes-Benz is not. Rebentisch of FFII criticized that most definitions of 'digital divide' fail the proper criteria and reflect a negative view towards information technology. The definition of 'digital' was fuzzy in the context of 'digital divide'. A Nielsen report shows strong growth of Internet access in undeveloped countries.


Dimensions of the divide

Unlike what the term evokes, the digital divide is not a clear single gap that divides a society into two groups. Researchers report that disadvantages can take such forms as lower-performance computers, lower-quality or high priced connections (i.e. narrowband or dialup connections), difficulty in obtaining technical assistance, and less access to subscription-based contents.

In the early days of digital divide analysis, the availability of Internet access at an affordable cost was the key issue. Social penetration of the Internet and technological advances have rendered this distinction as the chief concern of the digital divide obsolete. Many people can get very cheap access in local Internet Cafes. Today the argument has moved on to skills and literacy, training people in computer skills, which often entails teaching them to read and write first.

Another key dimension of the Digital Divide, is the global digital divide, reflecting existing economic divisions in the world.

Knowledge gap

The idea that some people have better access to information than others is not new, either.

The knowledge gap hypothesis in communications studies, first formulated in Tichendor, Donohue, & Olien (1970), suggests that there is a chronic gap of knowledge that different sectors of society possess.

The subsequent research seem to suggest that the gap is smaller in the arena of knowledge about local issues and matters personally relevant to the recipients.

The gap was also thought to reduce as television replaces newspaper as a source of knowledge. Compared to newspapers, television require less literacy, and it is considered a more passive medium.

The advent of the Internet might reverse this change, since it is predominantly a text medium. It is also the case that users of the Internet may need more skills to navigate through vast amount of information rather than passively receiving information feed from newspaper or television.

At the same time, the much expected broadband and its applications may change the situation yet another time, bringing audio-visual dimension to the medium. It is also the case that personal interactions are easier on the Internet than newspapers and television, and the process of knowledge acquisition may change qualitatively. (See also Opinion leadership Two-step flow of communication)

National interest and societal benefit

There are a variety of arguments regarding why closing the digital divide is important. The major arguments are as follows:

  1. Economic equality: Some think that the access to the Internet is a basic component of civil life that some developed countries aim to guarantee for their citizens. Telephone is often considered important for the reasons of security. Health, criminal, and other types of emergencies might indeed be handled better if the person in trouble has an access to the telephone. Also important seems to be the fact many vital information for their career, civic life, safety, etc. are increasingly provided via the Internet, especially on the web. Even social welfare services are sometimes administered and offered electronically.
  2. Social mobility: Some believe that computer and computer network play an increasingly important role in their learning and career, so that education should include that of computing and use of the Internet. Without such offerings, the existing digital divide works unfairly to the children in the lower socio-economic status. In order to provide equal opportunities, the government might offer some form of support.
  3. Democracy: Some think that the use of the Internet would lead to a healthier democracy in one way or another. Among the most ambitious visions are that of increased public participation in election and decision making processes. Direct participation (Athenian democracy) is sometimes referred to in this context as a model.
  4. Economic growth: Some think that the development of information infrastructure and active use of it would be a shortcut to the economic growth. Information technologies in general tend to be associated with productivity improvements. The exploitation of the latest technologies may give industries of a country a competitive advantage. Also deemed important is that information industries, including development of hardware and software, online services, and many others. Some think raising some of those industries are of national interest. These broader goal of developing information economy may involve some form of policies addressing digital divide. Having a greater pool of domestic labor force capable of working for information industries, for example, may be considered beneficial.

Rural area access

The accessibility of rural areas to the Internet is a test of the digital divide. But nowadays there are different ways to eliminate the digital divide in rural areas (if they can be universally accessed and with cheap prices):

  • Powerline: PLT and PLC.
  • Satellite: communications satellite with double-way access to the Internet.
  • Education Rate (E-Rate): Program authorized by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to make the cost of Internet and telephone services and internal connections available to schools and libraries at discounted rates. A sliding-scale formula ranging from 20% to 90% would be based on the income level of the students of the school or library--urban or rural. The Federal Commuications Commission (FCC) ruled to provide up to $2.25 billion a year for the E-Rate program from a fee on telephone service. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) by the fall of 2000 almost all public schools in the United States have access to the Internet: 98 percent were connected.

External link

  • Pew Internet & American Life Project ( study found in 2004 that only "24% of all adult Americans have high-speed access at home"

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