The Digital Divide

Introducing the digital divide debate
The phrase 'digital divide' is used by many politicians, commentators and activists. It is the subject of numerous conferences and research papers and a growing number of government and private sector initiatives have been set up to deal with it.

The digital divide is an amorphous term encompassing a number of discussions about inequality and the lack of access to Information Communication Technologies (ICTs). Put simply, it is the gap between the information haves and have-nots.

The discussion about the digital divide manifests itself in different ways, reflecting national and regional concerns ranging from the need for a skilled workforce to bridging racial division as well as concern about the Third World is being left behind in the implementation of ICTs.

This overview will look at various aspects of the discussion, examining the differences and the underlying themes.

One side of the debate in the UK is ensuring people have the skills to compete in the 'knowledge economy.' Speaking at the Knowledge 2000 conference held in London this March, the UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair said: "The issues of technology, knowledge, education, skills, electronic commerce, are right at the forefront of how we create that new dynamic European economy which is going to bring prosperity and opportunity to everyone."

The supporters of using ICTs to encourage civic participation claim it will allow the representation of minority voices and increase the ability to participate in discussion. There is an assumption that merely making ICTs available will automatically lead to greater civic participation. However, people will only engage in civic or political activity if they feel that it offers a chance for meaningful change. The current disengagement from participation is a symptom of a general loss of faith in politics. No amount of access to ICTs scan be a substitute the absence of radical politics today.

In the US, discussion of the issue is couched in the language of race and civil rights. In one address Al Gore said: "We know that civil rights ring hollow without economic opportunity. And so we must recognise that in the Information Age, computer literacy is a fundamental civil right."

However, research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project indicates that the racial divide is closing anyway. This research found that in 1998, 23% of blacks were online. A surge in the past year has doubled the online population of blacks. The Pew Internet & American Life Project suggests that the "growth of the online black population will outpace the growth of the online white population."

Yet, some feel that too much attention on the issue takes the focus away from the gains that have been made. David Ellington, CEO and founder of Netnoir.com, the first major black site on the Web, said: "I don't feel there is much of a divide anymore," said Ellington. "The Internet is now becoming relevant in our lives as a result of e-mail and chat sites, and African-Americans are going online in droves."

There is evidence that the divide has more to do with factors such as education and age. According to a research project released in February 2000 by Norman H. Nie and Lutz Erbring at the Stanford Institute for the Qualitative Study of Society, the digital divide is a "myth." They stated that: "By far the most important factors facilitating or inhibiting Internet access are education and age, and not income--nor race/ethnicity or gender, each of which accounts for less than a 5 percent change in rates of access and is statistically insignificant."

New technologies are initially adopted by the more affluent members of society, but eventually costs go low enough to enable mass participation. David Boaz, the vice president of the CATO Institute, in 'A Snapshot View of a Complex World' (IntellectualCapital.com, July 15, 1999) said: "When you look at the process, not the snapshot, the progress is amazing. It is sheer scaremongering to write reports about 'information haves and have-nots.' The reality is a little less exciting: have-nows and have-laters. Families that do not have computers now are going to have them in a few years."

Where the debate on the digital divide is at its most contentious is in relation to the Third World. Concern has been expressed by governments and industry leaders that the third world is being left behind in the digital stakes.

Speaking at Creating Digital Dividends, this year, Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina expressed a common sentiment, saying: "We are all part of one global ecosystem. When one part of us is excluded or handicapped either through conscious discrimination or benign neglect, the rest of us will suffer."

Some campaign groups think that addressing the digital divide in the third world ignores the real problems in the region. Ann Pettifor, director of Jubilee 2000, speaking at a G8 summit in Japan this year said: "To the thousands of children in the poorest countries who die each day of hunger IT training is irrelevant. They cannot eat cybercake. The G8 are in danger of insulting African leaders who have travelled from the other side of the wealth divide to tackle the cause of that divide - which is debt."

Bill Gates speaking at Creating Digital Dividends pointedly referred delegates to the priorities of many of those living in the third world by saying: "Mothers are going to walk right up to that computer and say: 'My children are dying, what can you do?' They're not going to sit there and, like, browse eBay or something. What they want is for their children to live. Do you really have to put in computers to figure that out?"

There are many aspects to the digital divide debate. The articles exclusively commissioned by Internet Freedom from Dr Norman Lewis, Andrew Calcutt, Bobson Wong and Kimberley Heitman will all help start to unwire the digital divide.