Expanding on the digital divide

This week’s post follows on to last week’s to talk a little about the digital divide. It is adapted from a paper I wrote back in 2017 as part of my Bachelor’s degree with the Open University.

The term “digital divide” refers to the difference between having and not having access to information technology. The term is usually used with more granularity than that binary state, running the gamut, which includes some access at school, work, or public facilities (e.g. libraries).

Digital inequality goes deeper. Rather than simply looking at the level of access one has, it looks at several dimensions, such as “…equipment, autonomy of use, skill, social support, and the purposes for which the technology is employed…” (DiMaggio and Hargittai, 2001).

The local digital divide refers to differences in access to the internet within a community, or between communities. The global digital divide refers to differences in access to the internet between countries and regions.

I have often seen it claimed that the global digital divide is temporary and will be bridged through technological means. This claim seems almost quaint in its naïve faith that technological means will solve the issue. While it is, in one sense, true that the global digital divide is one of technology, its solution cannot be solely technological. Had that been true, the digital divide would at the very least have been significantly smaller than it is today.

The fact is that proliferation of technology tends to happen where the market is. If the market is too economically poor, the interest in establishing the necessary infrastructure is very low on the part of service providers. Moreover, the establishment of infrastructure for IT requires other critical infrastructure, such as roads and power lines, neither obstacle can be overcome through technological means where standards of either is below a minimum level.

While these issues are certainly of interest when planning the establishment of services, they also hint at the importance to plan, not only for that establishment, but also for the maintenance and evolution of the systems once deployed. To do any less would be to fail in our duty to ensure that those who are given access retains that access over time.

The fact is also that, while there has been development, it is slow. When I wrote my original paper, 47% of the world used the internet. Updated for 2020, that number has increased to 51%. Unsurprisingly, the divide isn’t entirely based on geography – age also plays a significant role as evidenced by the fact that 69% of youth (ages 15-24) use the internet.

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