The Digital Divide

Introducing the digital divide debate
London, England -- Some people have access to Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) and others do not. But does it follow that 'the digital divide' is the key demarcation of our age? Andrew Calcutt looks behind the government-sponsored attempts to counteract social exclusion by 'closing the digital divide.'

'They reflect activity by less than 5 per cent of the world's population.' So says the UN High-Level Panel on ICTs, reviewing its own figures for e-commerce and Internet traffic. The disparities are incontrovertible. As the UN report goes on to say, there are more hosts in New York than in the entire continent of Africa; more in Finland than in Latin America and the Caribbean combined.

As a rough indication of inequality, the term 'digital divide' has some merit. However, it is not a scientific measure. According to its criteria, the CEO who has not got time to send emails and values his privacy so much he refuses to carry a mobile phone, would be counted among the 'information-poor'; while the woman working in a call centre for little more than the minimum wage, appears in the list of 'information-rich.' An extreme comparison perhaps, but one which shows the poverty of measuring riches in relation to a single, technical factor. Far more realistic, surely, to record wealth in terms of the universal equivalent, money, i.e. the element into which all technologies and many other factors are ultimately convertible. Measuring their income is still the best way to find out whether people are rich or poor.

Seen in this light, the concept of 'the digital divide' is illustrative but scientifically spurious. So too are many of the policies associated with 'closing the digital divide.' They say a lot about the people who have devised them; but they do not measure up to the task which they purport to address.

The UK Department of Trade and Industry Report 'Closing the Digital Divide: information and communication technologies in deprived communities' is introduced by a member of the government who styles herself 'e-Minister' and 'Champion Minister' (as well as 'minister for Small Business and e-commerce'). This tells us that New Labour is a little too fond of neologisms (perhaps they really think that coining new terms creates new contexts). The attribution of the report to PAT 15 (Policy Action Team), which was commissioned to write it by the Social Exclusion Unit, suggests a new network of unelected, publicly-funded bodies which may even outstrip the extravagances of the National Economic Development Council and others in the sixties and seventies.

But what of the substance of the report? Its essential premise is that government-supported initiatives which provide ICT access to people in deprived areas are essential to the maintenance of the nation and to the development of the national economy. Improved access is linked with the regeneration of community and the remodelling of the workforce. As the e-Minister/Champion Minister/Minister for Small Business and e-commerce says: "To prosper nationally and to compete globally we need to empower people at the local level to become active participants in society. Social inclusion and economic success are not mutually exclusive - they are mutually reinforcing."

All this from a few ministerial boxes? If only it were so easy. Unfortunately, the minister is so keen to advance the idea of social entrepeneurship she has overlooked the syllogism underlying her hopes for government-sponsored virtual communities: ICTs can facilitate social interaction; British society is in danger of fragmenting. Therefore, ICTs will reverse this process by guaranteeing the renewal of community.

The flaw in this argument is that there is no necessary relationship between the communal potential of ICTs and the ways in which people choose to use them. Thus half a century ago both radio and TV were promoted as interactive media which would underpin social solidarity and political activity. But they have since become associated with couch potatoes and the sovereignty of the individual consumer. Likewise, the Internet was touted a decade ago as the site of the new public sphere. But trends towards the privatisation of social life have largely reformulated the Net over the past few years (the continued existence of a discussion site like this one shows the ongoing potential of the Net as the location for public debate; but that does not alter the reality of its transformation, as one critic puts it, into a digital 'mail order catalogue').

The current emphasis on the private is underlined by the way in which text messaging has taken the place of graffito as a characteristic activity of young people. Nobody wants to leave their mark in public nowadays, because the only people who live in the public sphere are the homeless. The rest of us inhabit what Wellmann calls 'networked individualism'. These are the trends which ICTs currently catalyse. The mere installation of cables and white boxes in deprived areas will not reverse them.

Similarly, we cannot expect that connecting more people to the Internet will have a galvanising effect on the economy. Despite reports of unfilled vacancies in the IT sector, the real shortage which is slowing the economy is not the dearth of knowledge workers but the lack of productive investment. As Cyberia CEO Phil Mullan has pointed out elsewhere, the widely-accepted split between the e-conomy and the rest indicates that there is not enough of a dynamic to update the economy as a whole. Whether or not a few low-grade workers enter the picture is unimportant.

Looked at as a whole, the government-sponsored initiatives for closing the digital divide amount to trying to reverse white flight by setting up car pools in inner cities. That was a race issue, not a question of automobiles. Measuring today's social questions in terms of digital technology is equally short-sighted.

Author of White Noise: contradictions in cyberculture (Macmillan: 1999), Andrew Calcutt lectures in Innovation and Communications Studies at the Docklands campus of the University of East London.