The Term ‘Digital Divide’ Doesn’t Work Anymore - Pacific Standard

The Term ‘Digital Divide’ Doesn’t Work Anymore

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Unlike educational gaps in literacy or mathematics, the digital gap does not have a basic closure benchmark that can be held up as an achievement. As technology changes, ambitions shift.

By Rick Paulas

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(Photo: roderickt-uk/Flickr)

Last month, the marketing research company Experian released a study examining the United Kingdom’s digital divide. There was nothing shocking about their numbers — 84 percent of U.K. residents use the Internet, roughly the same percentage as those living in America — but the data was released in a manner atypical for discussions about the divide.

Rather than the usual binary online/offline statistics, Experian divided U.K. users into three categories. There were the Day-to-Day Doers, whose usage is “defined by practicality and less about must-have gadgets” and account for 52 percent of the population. There were the Digital Devotees, who spend the “most time using the Internet” and make up 32.4 percent. Finally, there were the remaining Digital Dawdlers, the 16 percent who have been “left behind.” What’s interesting about the categories isn’t that they exist — any conversation about the latest meme with friends and family can attest to differing levels of online engagement — but that the concept rarely makes its way into conversations about the digital divide.

“Digital divide” denotes a chasm that can be crossed. What we should be talking about is a “digital spectrum,” the endpoints of which widen with each innovation.

“Traditionally, the way the digital divide has been portrayed has definitely been a binary,” says Crystle Martin, a postdoctoral researcher at University of California–Irvine who specializes in studying digital literacy. “It’s been viewed, if you give people access to technology, they will be able to be online and able to access all the things available. But it actually doesn’t turn out to be true.”

What the categories in the Experian results mean is that questions regarding the digital divide have progressed and moved to a more complicated next iteration. Simple “yes or no” questions no longer suffice. The questions now must also address access (does the person have a home computer or are they smartphone-dependent?) and speed (do they have dial-up or broadband?). These factors aren’t simply ancillary, they are integral.

This distinction is important because it casts light on another concept at play: Those left behind are further behind than ever before.

Earlier this year, Australia launched a three-year examination into its own digital divide. Six months in, they released some initial findings, including that nearly 85 percent of the country is online. This number is predictable, not only because it mimics the pattern of developed nations, but because it follows the path of adoption that communications scholar Everett Rogers laid out in his seminal book Diffusion of Innovations.

According to Rogers, the adoption track proceeds like so: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards, the final 15 percent before full saturation. But the difference between the forms of adoption Rogers discussed and Internet usage is that, rather than simply being late to the party, laggards are now at a greater disadvantage than they’ve ever been:

[T]eachers assume their students have unrestricted access to the internet and set homework accordingly; businesses assume their customers are internet users and shape their offerings online; and governments shift resources to digital provision of information and opportunities to interact.

This is about your grandma still writing checks at the grocery store, sure, but it’s also that aunt with the aol.com email address, or that old pal that won’t take any forms of e-payment.

“Frequency and type of use — and usage time — are important [aspects] of the digital divide problem,” writes Jan van Dijk, professor of sociology and communication science at the University of Twente, in an email. “Some people are all of the time online and others only sometimes. Some use the Internet for fairly every daily activity and others for only one or two. The gap between these people is increasing.”

Unlike educational gaps in literacy, the digital gap does not have a basic closure benchmark that can be held up as an achievement; the goals are constantly shifting.

One consistent question I’ve asked those working in the digital divide sector has been: When do you believe your job will be over? When will enough people be online so you can focus on working in a different sector? The question gets dismissed pretty quickly. As soon as they get a new group online, a new gap has already developed. Laggards get Internet, but then everyone else gets smartphones, so that access gap must be closed. Then, everyone gets broadband, so that’s where the work must be focused. Then, whatever’s next. “It’s a moving target,” they tend to say.

Unlike educational gaps in literacy or mathematics, the digital gap does not have a basic closure benchmark that can be held up as an achievement; the goals are constantly shifting. “It’s more obvious now when the gap exists because lots of really important things are online,” Martin says. “Homework submission is online, applying to college is online, financial aid is online, lots of day-to-day services or resources that are needed to do their homework. It’s hard for kids who don’t have opportunity or access to catch up because they are always moving further and further behind.”

The digital divide is not some 100-meter race, where the fastest are waiting just past the finish line. It’s a never-ending marathon around a track, where the reward for finishing each lap is a speed boost — roller skates, a bike, a car — so that those leading the race go faster and faster, leaving the stragglers further in the dust. The gap between the two groups is ever-widening.

Perhaps the problem is one of terminology. “Digital divide” denotes a chasm that can be crossed. What we should be talking about is a “digital spectrum,” the endpoints of which widen with each innovation.

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