The Digital Divide

What Is It?

Following a 1995 study by the Markle Foundation, Lloyd Morrisett, president of the foundation, described a “digital divide” between the haves and have-nots when it comes to access to information. Essentially, the study found that the same racial and cultural barriers that impact societies offline also have a similar effect on their access to online resources. As a result, some have likened this phenomenon to the racial and socioeconomic disparities of previous generations, calling it the Civil Rights issue of the new millennium.

The term is now used to describe the gap that exists between those who have sufficient access to information and communication technologies and those who do not. The reasons for this gap are numerous and complex, but the effects of the unequal access to computational services within society can be felt in a variety of areas, including education, healthcare, employment, social connectedness, and political awareness and participation.

Why Does It Exist?

The digital divide also exists across all levels of society, including local, national, and global scales. One of the reasons for this is the natural diversity and inequality with large societies. Just as age, income, education level, disability, language, and literacy may help or hinder an individual’s ability to excel within their community, those factors also express themselves in enabling or suppressing online access to the digital community.

There are many different factors that specifically contribute to the existence of the digital divide. In general though, the problem can often be described in terms of obstacles that inhibit individuals from fully realizing the potential of information and communication technologies:

  1. Physical Resources: Lack of computers and/or network connections make digital participation impossible.
  2. Opportunity: Lack of situations in which individuals are able to connect digitally inhibits participation.
  3. Digital Literacy: Lack of experience or comfort with digital technology as well as a lack of awareness of its benefits discourages active participation.
  4. Digital Skills: Lack of education and training on the proper use of digital technology limits participation.

Simply connecting online requires certain financial and physical expenses, such as a computer, networking infrastructure (e.g., copper cables, fiber optics, wireless access points, routers), and Internet and network connectivity services. For many, these costs are insurmountable and make online engagement an impossible fantasy. In poorer communities or nations, the benefits promised by Internet connectivity must compete with more pressing needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter. For people in these communities, the Internet often does not rise to the level of becoming a priority. As a result, they are excluded and disconnected from the larger community of the digital world.

In addition, a lack of technological literacy also prevents many people from connecting online. Whether it is that they do not know how to use technology or that they simply do not understand or recognize the benefits of technology, many people avoid or are otherwise prevented from accessing the online world. As a result, these people, too, are isolated from the digital world, whether by choice or by circumstance.

Why Does It Matter?

Is the “digital divide” much ado about nothing? Does everybody really need to be connected? Are they truly disadvantaged if they do not have access to information and communication technologies? The answer to all of these questions depends on the degree to which access to online services is becoming essential.

Many of today’s basic utilities and social resources are moving exclusively online or at least have an online component. In journalism, inexpensive and readily accessible print publications are rapidly being discontinued in favor of their online counterparts. Those without connectivity are thus losing their access to news and civic discourse, impeding their ability to remain well-informed citizens. Similarly, healthcare and many government-related services now expect individuals to create and manage their accounts via online portals. Again, for those without connectivity, this becomes yet another obstacle between them and the services they need and are entitled to.

In addition, the problem is not just about what these disconnect communities lack. It is also about what the rest of society as a whole, including both the haves and have-nots, loses though their lack of participation. For every individual who is excluded from the modern digital ecosystem, one more voice is silenced. One more voice that is unable to contribute ideas and solutions to problems. One more voice whose perspective is lost. These individuals bring much-needed value to a community and their lack of participation in the digital world does a great disservice to all of society.

Also, as the disparity between the informational haves and have-nots grows, these two populations become even more divided and polarized, leading to civil inequality and increased social tensions that further alienate communities from one another.

Assignment

For this task, you will be given two topics on which you are to prepare a short presentation. For the first task, you must work alone and you may not use any technological devices beyond a pen/pencil and paper. For the second task, you may collaborate in small groups and the group may use any computational device(s) that you have access to (e.g., computer, smart phone, tablet, calculator, presentation software, web browser, access to the Internet, etc.).

In addition to your two short group presentations, you should each individually write a brief reflection on your experiences completing the two tasks. Be sure to compare and contrast the experiences of working collaboratively with technology versus working alone and without technology.