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Tackling the "digital divide"

...if we can find out what it is...

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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 to?

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".

Overcoming distance

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.

Digital inclusion

It's quite clear from the available statistics that some people are more "digitally included" than others. And most of it will come as no surprise:

Wealthier people

are more likely to have computers and Internet connection than:

poorer people

town dwellers rural folk
able-bodied people people with disabilities
white people ethnic minorities
younger people older people

 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 economic disadvantage.

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.

 

Some figures:

  • The UK has fewer broadband lines than any of the large global economies - 21st of 30 countries in OECD league

  • At the end of 2000, less than 1 in 10,000 people in the UK had a permanent high-speed connection (DSL or cable modem) compared to 9 in every 100 in South Korea (0.01% compared to 9% of population)

  • In December 2000, 8.6 million UK households had home access to the Internet. That's 35% of homes, up from 9% in December 1998.

  • 33% of homes access the Internet from a home computer, 2% by other means such as WAP or interactive TV.

  • 51% of UK adults have accessed the Internet at some time - 85% of the 16-24 age group.

  • But only 15% of the 65-74 age group, and 6% of over-75's have used the internet.

  • Men still outnumber women in Internet use in the UK - 57% of men and 45% of women have gone online.

(Figures from the Office of National Statistics - family Expenditure Survey)

 

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