What are people talking about when they mention the digital divide?

I dedicate this post to everyone who has heard or read the phrase “the digital divide” and you didn’t know what were talking about.  Or, perhaps you had a general idea, but you wouldn’t be in a position to have an informed conversation about it.

How would you feel about taking a cross-country trip without a cell phone?  Over the past years I have conducted informal surveys during presentations to various groups.  I ask them about their comfort level traveling cross-country without a cell phone.  While it is just an informal experiment, there is an clear trend.  In general (yes there are certainly exceptions), the younger the person, the more anxiety he/she seems to have about the idea of a disconnected road trip.  Maybe it is because the younger people have never known life without a cell phone, or perhaps it is something else.  Whatever the case, the cell phone is a relatively new technology, but one that has transformed the way that we think about communication. I’m certain that it is changing values, highlighting the value of being continually connected to select friends and family, regardless of physical location.  And yet, this “connectivity” is not everywhere.  There continue to be people all around us who have limited access to computers, cell phones, the Internet, and other current technologies.  Or, they may have access but lack the necessary confidence, knowledge, or skills to make use of the technologies.

It may be a financial issue, or because they live in an area with limited access.  They may live in a place where there is ample technology but firm restrictions limit access to large portions of the web.  For others, it is a self-restriction, a fear of technology or a lack of interest in learning how to use the new tools.   Some call this the “digital divide.” Those who are concerned about this issue argue that limited access prevents people from full participation in society, as well as decreased economic and educational opportunity.  It may even limit their ability to cultivate critical contemporary communication skills that have a direct impact upon one’s success in both work and school.

For a primer on the digital divide, consider reviewing one or more of the following.  I’m an advocate for the historical perspective, so the first three links take you on a quick historical tour.

As you review these and other sources, consider the following six distinct digital divide causes.

  1. Self restrictions – People who are afraid of or who are intentionally avoiding technology.  As a result, they find themselves cut off from society or at a disadvantage in certain situations.
  2. Low access – People in communities with limited access due to poverty or limited resources (both urban and rural communities).
  3. Limited training – People in schools that do not provide adequate training.
  4. Lack of immersion – People who have the technology and access in their schools and public community spaces but not at home.  As a result, they always seem to use the technology with a strong accent.  They are literate, but not fluent.  This lack of fluency puts them at slight or significant disadvantages depending upon the situation.
  5. Restricted Access – People in locations that have high levels of censorship.
  6. Unlimited Access – People who have ample access and no restrictions or guidance.  This is an unusual one, but one that is getting more attention.  They have the access, but have not learned how to self-monitor, how to unplug, and how to analyze the affordances and limitations, the benefits and the dangers.  They often suffer from over-media-cation and miss out on life beyond the screen.

Now we move on to a few suggested readings.

Who’s Not Online? from the Pew Internet and American Life Project web site.  The article is a bit dated, but gives us a good introduction to the topic, and a valuable historical look at the topic. – http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2000/Whos-Not-Online.aspx

The Ever Shifting Internet Population from the Pew Internet and American Life Project web site brings you a few years forward.  This report will illustrate some of the different causes of “the digital divide.” – http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2003/The-EverShifting-Internet-Population-A-new-look-at-Internet-access-and-the-digital-divide.aspx

Now that you have the historical perspective, jump to this 2012 study from Pew called, Digital Differences, where you learn that the problem still exists.

A New Understanding of the Digital Divide @ Edutopia.  This article points out that, while more people may have access, it isn’t equal access, and that makes a difference when it comes to opportunities.  Maybe both people have access to transportation, but one person has a bicycle and the other a car.  There is a parallel when we look at digital access.

The Discourse on the Digital Divide: Are we Being Co-opted? from the UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies –  This is not an easy read, but it does a great job providing an overview of the different perspectives on the Digital Divide. – http://repositories.cdlib.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1081&context=gseis/interactions

The New Digital Divide – This article highlights the 6th type of digital divide that I mentioned above.

Digital Divide Hits the College Admission Process – Here is a specific example of how limited access or skill may limit one’s ability to explore their options for higher education.

Digital Divide Sees Elderly Left Behind – Consider all the things in society that are pretty much only accessible online today.  Who loses out when we go paperless?

Different Shades of Digital Literacy: The New Digital Divides – This post explains that the digital divide applies to those who may have access but they have have not moved from consumer to creator in the digital world.

These are just a few sources to get you started, but with a few “information literacy” skills, your favorite search engine, and a little time, I’m sure that you can find plenty more.  Please consider sharing addition sources in the comments.