The Digital Divide

Education and the workplace have been revolutionized by information technology. The jobs of tomorrow will depend heavily on people’s literacy with computers and the Internet. Forecasts are that by the year 2010, 25% of all of the new jobs created in the private and public sectors will be “technologically oriented” (American Association of University Women Educational Foundation Commission on Technology, Gender and Teacher Education, 2000). In both economic upturns and downturns, access to jobs will require training and competency in technology (McClelland, 2001).

Yet, access to training in IT is not equitable and some people have greater access than others with the likelihood depending on the income, racial, and gender categories of which people are members. White Americans are more likely to have access to computers and the Internet than African Americans. Males have more access than females, and wealthier Americans have more access regardless of race and gender. The digital divide is a term that has been used to refer to the gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not; between those who have the expertise and training to utilize technology and those who do not.

According to Chistopher Latimer in a report to the New York State Forum for Information Resources, social gaps in society cause the digital divide, but the digital divide, in turn, may intensify existing social gaps and create new ones. Because members of minority groups and people from lower socioeconomic groups have less access to technology, they are likely to be even further disadvantaged from attaining some of the higher positions in tomorrow’s economy, widening the economic divisions that already exist. The trend is already occurring.

According to a report of the National Science Foundation (Papadakis, 2000), 46. 6% of White families in the United States own a home computer, whereas only 23. 2% of African American families own one. Although computer purchase and use rose for both Whites and Blacks over the last several years, the gap between racial groups has widened. During the 4–year period of 1994–1998, Papadakis reported that computer ownership increased 18% nationally, but the gap between Blacks and Whites widened by an additional 7%. The gap seems to persist at the college level.

For instance, the Office of Institutional Research at a community college in northern Virginia polled the commuter–oriented student population and, even among this group, computer ownership was higher among White students than it was among Black students. Socioeconomic status also plays a large role. Of Americans with incomes of under $15,000, 12. 7% have computers in their homes. The percentages climb steadily with income such that families who earn more than $75,000 annually have a 77. 7% likelihood of owning a computer.

The racial variable is often confounded with income, because Blacks and Hispanics make up a larger proportion of the lower income groups than do Whites. Nonetheless, some racial differences continue to exist, even when income is statistically removed from the phenomenon. For example, the lowest likelihood of computer ownership is for Black households whose income is below $15,000 (7. 7%). For all families earning less than $35,000, the percentage of White households owning computers is three times greater than the percentage of Black families and four times greater than the percentage of Hispanic families.

It is not only crucial that everyone has the access and knowledge to use computers and the Internet for the jobs for which they will compete upon finishing school, but it is also critical for school performance itself. Survey data from a large number of eighth–grade students in the United States. They specifically noted the relationship between children’s having access to a computer at home and their scores on standardized tests. They found that reading and math scores were related to home ownership of computers.

Not surprisingly, they also found that White students were more advantaged than Black students; wealthier students were more advantaged than poorer students. More surprisingly, the data showed that, controlling for the number of households who had computers, wealthy students obtained more of an advantage from their computer ownership than did poorer students, and White students obtained more of an advantage than Black students. Policymakers have good reason to worry about the digital divide. Wealth and socioeconomic status have frequently made education and employment opportunities more accessible to some than to others.

Unequal distribution of wealth, even in the public sector, has created schools that are unequal in facilities, staff, and, in the end, academic performance of its students. The unbalanced relationship between race and socioeconomic status bears prime responsibility for the lower academic performance of traditionally underrepresented minorities. The cycle perpetuates itself as underrepresented minorities are in a disadvantaged position to compete for the higher paying technology jobs of today’s and tomorrow’s workplace. The same precipitating factors are more difficult to glean in the case of gender.

Nonetheless, compared with men, women are underrepresented in their use and ownership of computers. Women take fewer technology classes in high school and college, are far less likely to graduate college with degrees in IT fields, are less likely to enroll in postgraduate technology fields, and are underrepresented in the higher end of technology jobs. A recent study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW, 2000), for example, highlights how the vast majority of girls and women are being left out of the technology revolution.

The AAUW report shows that women and men are using computers as a “tool”–for accessing the Internet, using e–mail, and using word processing programs–at equal rates. However, there is a striking disparity in the number of women and men who are participating in the technological revolution at a more sophisticated level, the level that will allow them to be equal and active participants in the computer revolution that is taking classrooms and workplaces across the world by storm. Much of the debate about the digital divide has centered on the question of who has access to computers and the Internet.

A series of studies by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA, 1995, 1999, 2000, 2002) revealed that those in low-income, low-education, minority-racial, and rural location groups have unequal access to the new technologies. The most recent NTIA (2002) report indicated that the gaps in access are narrowing. However, this chapter argues that a number of fundamental aspects of the digital divide persist, above and beyond access issues. It examines continuing gaps that underlie the digital divide from a case study of Austin, Texas.

A highly wired city, Austin reveals the social and cultural barriers that remain in place when most conventional remedies, such as public access centers, Internet-connected schools and libraries, and computer training programs, become fairly widely available. So far this discussion of the digital divide has taken a structural point of view. Many analyses point to income as the key issue in access, which leads many to assume that when computers and Internet access become cheap enough for all income levels can afford them, and then lower income consumers will, as a matter of course, adopt and use them.

However, both the national NTIA research and the recent Texas study showed that, particularly within lower income populations, ethnicity is still related to less frequent use of the Internet. Economic structures related to class are crucial in limiting access to media, but culture, as indicated by ethnic differences, remains important. Bourdieu (1980, 1984, 1993a) introduced the concepts of habitus, field, and capital to elaborate the continuity, regularity, and regulated transformation of social action that solely structural explanations fail to account for, such as technology use by individuals and groups.

He described habitus as a set of dispositions that create “durable” and “transposable” practices and perceptions over a long process of social inculcation. The similarity of dispositions and practices experienced by members of the same social class constitutes class habitus for Bourdieu (Johnson, 1993). Such shared orientations help explain why groups acquire and hold dispositions against the use of certain technologies like networked computers, even when those technologies become accessible and receive favorable publicity in the media.

During the past decade, the Department of Commerce has conducted research on the extent of Internet access throughout the United States. Their initial studies warned of a growing digital divide, particularly when the data factored in demographic variables such as race and income. Inspired by studies such as these, local, state, and national organizations emerged to close the gap, to ensure that most (if not all) Americans enjoy access to the Internet in the same manner as they do basic services such as water and electricity.

What progress has been made since those earlier warnings? To answer that question the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), conducted a survey of about 57,000 households in September 2001, releasing their findings in 2002. Their results inspired many observers to conclude that efforts to close the digital divide have largely succeeded but that important work remains. Internet access has become an essential component to public life for most Americans.

Indeed, the Commerce Department found that in September 2001, 174 million Americans (two thirds of the population) were online. Moreover, during the time of their study, they found that roughly 2 million more Americans go online every month. Many of these new Internet users are children, the fastest growing group in the study. Already, three fourths of all teenagers use the Internet for study, socializing, and entertainment. Just think, a mere decade ago, Internet usage was a rarity, a research tool for scientists or a plaything for the wealthy.

Now the Net has wired itself into the fabric of our lives through stand-alone computers, personal data assistants, mobile phones, mall kiosks, and a growing number of other means that allow virtually anyone to go online from virtually anywhere. The Internet and ICTs are at present accessible to only a very limited proportion of the world s population. The diffusion of the communication networks is not uniform between countries or even within societies.

Indeed, it is estimated that not even half of the people on the planet have ever made a telephone call. This uneven access to the new media is believed to be giving rise to a digital divide between the information-rich and the information-poor. For some privileged groups life-chance opportunities may be significantly enhanced by access to the Internet through greater bandwidth and high-speed connectivity. For the majority of less well off, access may be non-existent or at best limited to slow telecommunications links.

As the rate of development of ICTs becomes faster and the competitive advantage to the information-rich increases, it is possible that the digital divide will act to reinforce and even extend existing social and material inequalities between people. Community informatics (CI) is the application of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to enable community processes and the achievement of community objectives including overcoming digital divides both within and among communities. But CI also goes beyond discussions of the digital divide.

It goes on to examine how and under what conditions ICT access can be made usable and useful to the range of excluded populations and communities and particularly to support local economic development, social justice, and political empowerment using the Internet. Thus a framework is emerging for systematically approaching information systems from a community perspective that parallels MIS in the development of strategies and techniques for managing community use and application of information systems closely linking with the variety of community networking research and applications.

This is based on the assumption that geographically based communities (also known as physical or geo-local communities) have characteristics, requirements, and opportunities that require different strategies for ICT intervention and development from the widely accepted implied models of individual or in-home computer/Internet access and use. Because of cost factors, much of the world is unlikely to have in-home Internet access in the near future.

Thus CI represents an area of interest both to ICT practitioners and academic researchers and to all those with an interest in community-based information technologies addressing the connections between the academic theory and research, and the policy and pragmatic issues arising from community networks, community technology centers, telecenters, community communications centers, and telecottages currently in place globally. The types of communities we are concerned with are those suffering economic and social disadvantage relative to other groups and neighborhoods within the city, town, or region.

These are the communities in which the level of earning potential and capacity for income generation is poor. Unemployment figures are high and educational attainment is low. Poverty and discrimination are visible. People’s confidence in and aspirations for the future are low. Most of the people living in these communities find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide for reasons not so much of access (although this can certainly be a factor) but of social and economic exclusion.

Within these communities too there are often large numbers of hard-to-reach groups. These are the people who are beyond the net of social inclusion initiatives and whom in terms of turning around and transforming neighborhoods and regions it is perhaps most crucial to reach. ICTs can be used as a tool for reconnecting individuals and groups. With appropriate interventions and support, the influence of ICTs on the local economy can be more positive than negative. Poor and disadvantaged communities do not have to be left behind in the digital economy.

They can be information society “shapers” rather than “trailers” (Shearman 1999a). ICTs open the door to the future. Having a share in the future is not just a question of “catching up. ” It means having access to the new opportunities at the same time as everybody else. It is about having the chance to be at the forefront, to shape the direction of local economic, social, and community development. This means going beyond the basics of Internet access and training provision. Providing access and resources is just the first step.

Leaving it at that condemns these communities to a perpetual second-class existence—always lagging behind. With a bit of imagination and thought, community-based ICT projects can offer a way out of this. One way of working toward this is to promote the use of state-of-the-art technologies in community contexts. Community-based ICT projects are not normally perceived as being at the technical cutting edge of their field or pioneers in applications development. But local ICT projects can be both state-of-the-art and community based.

Community enterprises like Artimedia in Huddersfield and Batley and Mediac in Sheffield develop projects that encourage people to experiment with state-of-the-art technologies. Many of the cultural projects they are engaged in require people to acquire sophisticated ICT skills such as image compression, converting sound into streamed media and output from digital format to video. It goes without saying that a medium that is increasingly adopted into society is approaching average parts of the population.

However, in my view, digital divides are about relative differences between categories of people. In the 1980s and 1990s, most of these divides concerning possession of computers and Internet connections increased, as was convincingly demonstrated by the American and Dutch official statistics supplied earlier. One is free to predict that these divides will close rapidly, an argument to be dealt with later, but their existence in the present and recent past cannot be denied. The argument about cheaper hardware is correct, but only partly so. It neglects many facts like:

(a) The new media add to the older mass media that do not disappear: One still needs a TV, radio, VCR, telephone, and perhaps a newspaper; low income households continually have to weigh every new purchase (with the newspaper beginning to lose); (b) Computers are outdated much faster than any of the medium and continually new peripheral equipment and software has to be purchased; and (c) “Free” Internet access or computer hardware is not really free, of course. There are nominal monthly fees, long-term service agreements, privacy selling, and low-quality service, for instance.

However, the most important problem of this interpretation, and the next one, is their hardware orientation. Perhaps the most common social and political opinion is that the problem of the digital divide is solved as soon as every citizen or inhabitant has the ability to obtain a personal computer and an Internet connection. In contrast, my analysis suggests that the biggest problems of information and communication inequality just start with the general diffusion of computers and network connections.

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