Reframing the Digital Divide

Bari Samad's picture

The term “digital divide” has been commonly used to represent the gap between those who have “access” to technology (particularly the Internet) and those who do not. Ten years ago when the Pew Internet and American Life Project started researching the digital divide as an issue of “access”, they found the differences in access were stark across locations, including at home, in schools and at work.

Over the past decade, although the access gap has been getting narrower, there are still gaps. According to Digital Differences, a recent report by the Pew project, “differences in internet access still exist among different demographic groups, especially when it comes to access to high-speed broadband at home”.

According to the same report, mobile Internet access has also changed the demographics of who is accessing the Internet. People who previously did not have access are now getting online via smart phones, even if they are not connected via desktops or laptops. The main findings of the Pew report about the state of digital access are that:

  • One in five American adults do not use the internet. Senior citizens, Spanish-speaking adults, adults with less than a high school education, and those living in households earning less than $30,000 per year are the least likely adults to have internet access.
  • Among adults who do not use the internet, almost half reported that the main reason they don’t go online is because they don’t think the internet is relevant to them. Most have never used the internet before, and don’t have anyone in their household who does.
  • The 27% of adults living with disability in the U.S. today are significantly less likely than adults without a disability to go online (54% vs. 81%).
  • Though overall internet adoption rates have leveled off, adults who are already online are doing more. And even for many of the “core” internet activities, significant differences in use remain, generally related to age, household income, and educational attainment.

Reframing the Digital Divide

Jen Schradie, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley used the Pew data to extend the discussion about digital inequality beyond simple questions of who has internet access and who does not.

Howard Besser, a professor at NYU, is a strong advocate for reframing common understandings of the digital divide as much more than simplistic problems of access. While differences in access persist, Besser and Schradie are essentially reframing the digital divide conversation to focus on the gaps in digital literacy.

In her study, The digital production gap: The digital divide and Web 2.0 collide Schradie makes an important distinction between the producers and consumers of information:

“Having Internet access is not enough. Even among people online, those who are digital producers are much more likely to have higher incomes and educational levels”.

The Internet and the social web, Schradie argues, is more of a stomping ground for the affluent than a digital democracy. In short, it’s elitist and strongly delineated along socio-economic (class) lines. Analyzing data gathered from more than 41,000 American adults surveyed between 2000 and 2008 in the Pew project she found that:

  • Less than 10 percent of the U.S. population is participating in most online production activities
  • Despite users’ racial, ethnic and gender differences, all 10 online activities showed a socio-economic class divide
  • People with a high school education are less likely to produce online content than those with a college or graduate degree
  • In seven of the ten activities, people with a lower incomes are less likely to create content
  • Location and control of access also matters. Those with access at both work (and more flexible work policies on non-work related online activities) and home are more likely to be content producers than those who access the Internet at work or a library with limitations.

Digital Literacy

In addition the growing gap between producers and consumers of information that Schradie points to, Besser asserts the digital divide encompasses a number of gaps relating to digital literacy:

  • Information Literacy - This refers to the ability to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate and effectively use the needed information.
  • Appropriateness of Content - There is a huge gap in relevant and useful content and it poses significant barriers to underserved populations and even furthers social disparities.
  • Access to Content - The era of rich public domain content is in decline. According to Besser, “Digital content has become one of the hottest commodities around, and the content industry is using lobbying power, technological innovation, and market muscle to make sure that everyone pays for content.” Increasingly content online is only available to those with access to paid subscriptions and licenses (e.g. via universities or employers).

Besser sums up it up well:

“Much of the promise of the digital age is an increase in democratic values and of broadening public participation in the various aspects of society and culture. In order for this promise to be realized, we need to take concerted action to narrow a host of different digital divides and allow everyone an equal opportunity to partake in this democratic promise.”

Stay tuned for more on this important topic and how you can get involved.