7 The Digital Divide

Liam Borgstrom (ed.)

The Digital Divide

The term digital divide refers to the gap between those with regular, effective access to digital and information technology, and those without this access. It encompasses both physical access to technology hardware and, more broadly, skills and resources which allow for its use. Groups often discussed in the context of a digital divide include socio-economic (rich/poor), racial (majority/minority), or geographical (urban/rural). The term global digital divide refers to differences in technology access between countries (developed vs. developing countries).

The term initially referred to gaps in ownership of computers between groups. One area of significant focus was school computer access; in the 1990s, rich schools were much more likely to provide their students with regular computer access. In the late 1990s, rich schools were much more likely to have Internet access. Recently, discussions of a digital divide in school access have broadened to include technology related skills and training in addition to basic access to computers and Internet access.

Due to the range of criteria which can be used to assess technology access, and the lack of detailed data on some aspects of technology usage, the exact nature of the digital divide is both contextual and debatable. Criteria that are often used to distinguish between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ of the digital divide tend to focus on access to hardware, access to the Internet, and details relating to these categories. In the context of schools, which have consistently been involved in the discussion of the divide, current formulations of the divide focus more on how (and whether) computers are used by students, and less on whether there are computers or Internet connections.

Another key dimension of the Digital Divide is the global digital divide, reflecting existing economic divisions in the world. This global digital divide widens the gap in economic divisions around the world. Countries with a wide availability of Internet access can advance the economics of that country on a local and global scale.

In today’s society, jobs and education are directly related to the Internet. In countries where the Internet and other technologies are not accessible, education is suffering, and uneducated peoples cannot compete in our global economy. This leads to poor countries suffering greater economic downfall and richer countries advancing their education and economy.

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

1.     Economic equality: Some think that access to the Internet is a basic component of civil life that some developed countries aim to guarantee for their citizens. Telephone service is often considered important for the reasons of security. Health, criminal, and other types of emergencies may indeed be handled better if the person in trouble has access to a telephone. Also important seems to be the fact that much vital information for education, career, civic life, safety, etc. is increasingly provided via the Internet, especially on the web. Even social welfare services are sometimes administered and offered electronically.

It’s worth keeping in mind that even if the various social issues of the world are sorted out to some degree, there are still many people who physically cannot receive all the benefits from the digital world. Publishers must be aware that the web is predominantly a visual medium, and any published material needs to be made in such a way that the language can be translated, and that the text can be interpreted by reading software used by the visually impaired (see Sarah Hilderly’s Guidelines for accessible publishing).

2.     Social mobility: If computers and computer networks play an increasingly important role in continued learning and career advancement, then education should integrate technology in a meaningful way to better prepare students. Without such offerings, the existing digital divide disfavours children of lower socio-economic status.

3.     Social equality: As education integrates technology, societies such as in the developing world should also integrate technology to improve life. Digital technology is oblivious to who uses it; therefore information is accessible to any caste or gender. This is seen clearly in Saudi Arabia where young women with internet access are accessing global educational resources while also using the anonymity that the internet provides to speak out in a way that would otherwise be socially unacceptable. And, this in turn has pushed social change as the role of women in the country are slowly changing with each generation. This will reduce the gender inequalities. Access to information through Internet and other communication tools will improve her life chances and enable her to compete globally with her contemporaries even in the comfort of her rural settings.

4.     Democracy: Use of the Internet has implications for democracy. This varies from simple abilities to search and access government information to more ambitious visions of increased public participation in elections and decision making processes. Direct participation (Athenian democracy) is sometimes referred to in this context as a model.

5.     Economic competitiveness and growth: The development of information infrastructure and active use of it is inextricably linked to economic growth. Information technologies in general tend to be associated with productivity improvements even though this can be debatable in some circumstances. The exploitation of the latest technologies is widely believed to be a source of competitive advantage and the technology industries themselves provide economic benefits to the usually highly educated populations that support them. The broad goal of developing the information economy involves some form of policies addressing the digital divide in many countries with an increasingly greater portion of the domestic labour force working in information industries.

6.   National security: It has been speculated that the Digital Divide leaves those most susceptible to terrorism with no other options. Because they are being left behind, they rebel against modern society through acts of terrorism. Rather: A great amount of people are being excluded from publications due to inaccessible digital publications. Barriers to information include disability issues, language issues, gender issues and further socioeconomic issues such as economic inequality. Digital publishers need to understand that accessibility is an intricate issue and that a lack of accessibility may lead to a loss of revenue or even legal action.

The present and the future

The Digital Divide is often seen as a double-edged sword. In developing countries the lack of physical infrastructure paves the way for mobile infrastructure. Across the world we are seeing mobile penetration rates increasing. As digital technology becomes smaller and more portable, and cellular connections more efficient, it is said that it may be possible to “leap frog” the Divide.

Projects such as One Laptop Per Child have paved the way in the use of rugged, receptive, and specialised machines. Tablets and tablet-based learning products are coming down in price and a number of functions which we previously needed dedicated machines or software to perform can now be down via the web.

Looking at the development of cloud computing, it goes beyond Dropbox storage. In the early days of the internet servers and high-capacity processors were being shared between researchers. Today anyone can create a website with an internet connection and a browser, as the computing power needed to run the site is leased from server farms (many sites running on servers owned by Amazon).

The increased capability of web applications means that services do not always have to run on devices, but can be made to work in web-browsers. The development of open-source, but also open-platform (free-to-use) services means that it is possible for a small business to use accounting software, graphic manipulation software, e-mail, and so forth all through the use of the World Wide Web.

Our technological pace is increasing so rapidly that internet applications allow us a means to avoid obsolescence. By using smaller computers with internet capabilities we can make performative, and interactive improvements from anywhere in the world.

Much can still be done to improve the infrastructure in the developing world, but this is slowly taking place, investment by mobile companies in these markets pays off. Nigeria is one of Africa’s strongest digital markets, making extensive use of mobile technology, as well as mobile payment methods. In Kenya MPESA bypasses a traditional bank and allows for efficient management and payment of funds. By acting as a transfer facility it reduces queues at banks, supermarkets, and post offices, while also encouraging management of funds as a credit facility is not offered.

While most technological innovation tends to occur in developed nations in the northern hemisphere. Developing markets in Africa, Asia, and South America are the best markets for new models that make use of technology in innovative means. Airtime can be a currency. Micro-payments are frequent. Simple light applications are needed.

In South Africa, specifically in the education market, many technologies are being tested for our circumstances, and it is possible to see the digital divide not a distinct gap between those who have and those who don’t; but rather as a distinct part of the world’s population whose needs require innovative digital solutions.



Publishing in the Digital Environment Copyright © 2013 by Liam Borgstrom (ed.). All Rights Reserved.