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How real is the divide?
But what is the digital divide? Even
a short glance through the studies and articles on the subject will highlight
the multi-faceted nature of the issue. You can find literature covering as many
kinds of digital disadvantage as there are identified excluded or disadvantaged
groups: from remote rural communities, to every kind of disabled community, to
ethnic groups and developing countries. It is becoming commonplace to talk of
"a continuum of digital divides".
A sceptical backlash
So does the phrase "digital
divide" describe anything unique? Or does it just mean that new forms of
technology are yet one more thing that disadvantaged groups don't have access
And if the latter is true, will
providing access to the new technologies do anything practical in helping people
overcome disadvantage in general?
The following is a message posted on
a Scottish newsgroup, and is typical of a growing scepticism about the money
being hurled at disadvantaged groups to bridge the digital divide:
"As someone who has been using computers for decades, I must say I have
never understood the lack of IT as a serious deprivation. I cannot see why it
should be regarded as a social divide any more than the lack of foie gras ... or Christmas
puddings. Surely any money should be spent on real problems, like housing and
the health service."
Similarly Tim Jackson, writing in
the Financial Times (March 20
2001) in an article headed The Dubious Divide, feels that
"While 2% of the population
remains illiterate, money will probably be more effectively spent on promoting
literacy and numeracy than on promoting computers and Internet connections.
"To improve their opportunities
in society...children would do much better to switch off the PC and read books,
learn arithmetic, play games and run around in the park"
Jackson provides a comparison with
car ownership: rich people are more likely to drive luxury cars than poor
people. But "although most unemployed people would be very happy to receive
a free BMW from the taxpayer, it is not clear that receiving one would increase
their chances of getting a job".
It is perhaps ironic that Tim Jackson uses the analogy of a free
car to make fun of the Wired Communities project.
A pilot project in Fife, Scotland, did indeed provide low cost
loans for unemployed people to buy a car when they found a job. It proved very
successful! The point is that often when people in remote areas (or with other
mobility problems) find work, geographical and financial constraints mean that
they cannot take up the job offer.
Buying a car is one way of accessing non-local work. Using the
electronic networks is, at least for some kinds of work, another way.
It's quite clear from the available statistics that some people
are more "digitally included" than others. And most of it will come as
are more likely to have computers and Internet connection
To some extent it may be a question of time. The annual
report Falling Through the Net finds many of the gaps closing in the US.
The gender gap in Internet use is almost closed. Asian-Americans are now
typically better connected than whites.
Wealthy people are more likely to be early adopters of
everything. But as costs of kit and connection fall, uptake is rapidly
developing at all levels of society. In the US, it is the over-50s who are the
fastest growing group of Internet users.
In the UK, with only 0.01% of the population having fast
internet access, arguably we're all on the wrong side of a digital divide. But
again, given time, we'll catch up...or will we? The probability is that some
nations, and some social groups, always be playing catch-up and always be at an
A significant divide
The digital divide is a significant facet of social exclusion.
More or less by definition it implies a lack of certain socially useful skills,
and it describes factors which inhibit ambition and opportunity.
Whether current government initiatives to wire up communities
are a solution to the digital divide is another matter. Clearly they will (at
least for a time) overcome some of the technological constraints. But it remains
to be seen whether i) people will make use of the technologies, and ii) whether
they will improve their position in life by doing so.