Digital Divide 2.0: Rethinking ICT Diffusion


The digital divide issue is currently characterized by two distinct trains of thought: the digital binary group who choose to characterize the issue as there being a rift between the technological haves and have nots, and the digital inequity group who choose to characterize the issue as an uneven diffusion of participation, use, and skill in computers and the internet. The digital binary group believes that the gap between the ICT haves and have nots exists or has existed in the past, and bridging the gap is necessary to minimize the disadvantages of the unconnected. The digital inequity group acknowledges that not having adequate access to technology can harm your ultimate life chances, however they believe that merely owning technological gadgets alone will not address the greater problem of social inequity.

            The digital binary group was the first to respond to the issue. Formed when the internet was just becoming popularized, the digital binary group, armed with census data, aimed to demonstrate the uneven distribution of the information superhighway among Americans. They focus on ownership and access to technology as it relates to different classes in society, and they have demonstrated how some groups in America are under-equipped with computers and internet access. As the numbers of individuals who own computers grows every year, prices of computers fall, and product quality improves, progress towards bridging the digital divide is thought to be made. Some in the digital binary group believe the gap has been closed due to market forces making it much cheaper to own higher quality gadgets and high-speed connections. Others believe the gap persists as minorities, the poor, and the disabled remain unconnected at lower rates than the more advantaged white majority.

            The digital inequity group is the new comer to the issue. Although still concerned about ownership and access to the internet and computers, the digital inequity group sees beyond mere ownership of gadgets. They feel that technology is embedded in pre-existing social structures and systems, and that failing to participate in technology is akin to removing yourself from the benefits these social constructs provide. The digital equity group places a high value on social inclusion as they believe ICT allows citizens to completely participate in society, have adequate levels of control over their own lives, and maximizes the economic, health, educational, and cultural benefits available to them through the internet. Finally, the digital inequity group believes that the digital binary group oversimplifies the issue as they fail to take into account differences in levels of participation, computer skills, and purpose of use in their analysis of ICT distribution, and that they, either intentionally or unintentionally, demean those unconnected to ICT by claiming they are doomed to a life of labor-intensive, low-pay work if they do not pay into the almighty church of technology consumption.

            With these two groups in mind, the digital divide issue becomes complex, contentious, and debatable. Both camps have had their redeeming factors and usefulness for their respective eras in internet history; however, as more and more people in the United States log on to the World Wide Web, the digital binary group loses some of its connection to reality and helpfulness to the disadvantaged.

            To begin with, computer ownership and access to the web are only superficial indicators of social benefits. Owning a computer with internet access does not mean that person will use it to empower themselves, participate in the community, or improve their lives. Access, whether it is access to a computer, the web, or computer literacy, can not ensure that individuals, especially disadvantaged individuals, will derive any benefit from ICT. Computer ownership may mean that those owners have more and better internet experiences from the privacy of their own home; however, it is not an absolute indication of computer skills and purpose of use.

            Secondly, assuming that the technological have nots are destined for doom without an internet connection and computer at home is inaccurate and demeaning. Plenty of people choose to not connect to the internet and have rich, fulfilling lives. Warren Buffett, perhaps the world’s greatest investor and philanthropist, does not have a computer in his home nor does he carry a cell phone. Technology may carry significant social, economic, and political advantages, but it does not determine success, happiness, or fulfillment. By applying pressure to have the disadvantaged sign up for the internet and purchase computers, the digital binary group imposes a set of values on a plural, differentiated group, thereby proselytizing and coercing them to comply with a hegemonic dictum of information and communication privileging.  Technology improves lives, but only when people are given the option. The digital inequity group asks that everyone should have a fair chance to access ICT without demeaning those who choose not to access it.        

            Third, the digital binary group suffers from a lack of information. Indeed, the only reason the digital binary group characterized the digital divide as a divide between the digital haves and have nots in the first place is due to a lack of data. Census data during the 1990s, especially the early 1990s, did not offer information on how much individuals used their computers, what they used them for, how they had bettered themselves through technology, etc. Recent studies have demonstrated that mere ownership of technology is inadequate when addressing ICT diffusion. Therefore, it has become clear that increasing computer and internet penetration rates should not be the only action taken to solve the problem, and that a mixed bag of solutions should take the fore when focusing on improving technological diffusion.

            The digital inequity group believes that social inclusion, computer skills, and purpose of use take precedence over mere ownership of technological gadgets. They believe that greater social inclusion leads to empowerment and belonging; better computer skills lead to greater employability and social involvement; and well-directed purpose of use leads to life-improvements and quality of life gains. They believe that full technological diffusion will be achieved when all members of society master the general maneuverability of ICT, not when all members of society own a device. When turning on a computer, searching for content on the web, and fully utilizing software programs become skills that everyone can perform is when we can speak of a truly closed digital divide.

Comment from cheryl jerozal on May 8, 2007 - 8:41am

interesting post.

it is easy for warren buffett not to use a computer because he already made his name in a time when not using a computer was normal. i would imagine that for people starting out today, those that don't use computers will have a harder time of things simply because so many others do use computers and that is what is expected. i'm not saying this is how it should be but how i think it is. do you have any evidence (even anecdotal) to refute or confirm this perception?

Comment from Kevin Bulger on May 8, 2007 - 7:05pm

Making money in business or running a successful non-profit is determined by the organization's capacity for innovation (see Drucker, Peter). Right now, there has been so much innovation in the digital technology world that computers seems to be synonymous with innovation and invention. But there are plenty of other ways to be innovative that doesnt include digital technology.

As for quality of life and digital technology, I believe self-fulfillment is determined by the individual and not their gadgets. I believe the internet can and does empower folks, but the individual has to first want to be empowered. If folks want a better life, its up to them to decide what that better life looks like and if its worth striving for. I dont see how digital technology plays a part in that process other than helping folks achieve their goals once they've been set.

For me, the biggest problem with the under-served or the disadvantaged is that they dont have goals, they have little sense of self-worth, they are fragile, and they are incompetent. Technology isnt going to help them. If anything, its just going to add to the long list of things they arent good at. These folks need training, rehabilitation, and community involvement. All of which can be made better by technology, but its a very very very very very very fine line that everyone everywhere seems to miss. Its not the technology that should be emphasized, but the health and human services and the social programming.




Comment from brittney fosbrook on May 9, 2007 - 5:51pm

I disagree with the idea that technology does little to help folks achieve their goals. And personally, I find some of the statements in your last reply offensive. You say that the "under-served or the disadvantaged...dont have goals...have little sense of self-worth... are fragile, and...are incompetent." If VISTAs are carrying around these outrageous and stereotypical ideas about low-income folks, what are we really achieving as VISTAS anyway? I work with many so called 'incompetent, goal-less' low-income and/or homeless families at the Homeless Prenatal that use technology to find jobs to support their families, look for public housing, research their pregnancies and build and advertise for their own businesses.

Most of these families have many goals and desires and the HPP acts as a tool for many families to achieve these goals. Additionally, our technology center helps people (that have been told so often they were not good enough, smart enough, determined enough) learn how to use these tools as access points for many social services. We try to help our clients realize their enormous capacity through technology education. Our classes aim to not only teach technology, but to use technology as a self-sufficiency builder to help people accomplish their goals.


Comment from Kevin Bulger on May 9, 2007 - 10:25pm

Im sorry if I offended you or anybody, but I still think it is true that the underprivileged suffer from low self-esteem and related problems. Im not going to sugar coat it, and I dont believe Im being stereotypical because I live in a poor neighborhood and I see it. Poor folks dont feel good about themselves.

The CTCs that Ive worked with do a good job. But, Id like to see more types of services integrated with them. Things like substance abuse prevention, parenting classes, and invigorating after-school programs. I dont think a CTC is going to succeed if it assumes its users are all hunky-dory, well-adjusted folks. They have to know their community and be able to objectively address their community issues.

Im not saying that poor folks are bad people, but a lot are troubled and in need of more help than just knowing how to use a computer. Yeah, computer training can make someone feel more confident in themselves, but its not enough to just teach them a skill. They need more support, and I think a more comprehensive service packaging will go a long ways towards achieving a more equitable society.