“The digital divide” terminology is often used in policy discourse to refer simply to access to information and communication technologies (ICTs). It is a misnomer in at least two ways. First, it suggests that there is something new and different about the particular information and communication inequalities that surround digital technologies, whereas it is just the most recent case of inequality spawned by the advent of new ICTs. Hence, we should include a historical perspective in our examination of communication technologies and inequality (see, e.g., Marvin 1988). Second, it is the definite article the in “the digital divide” that falsely suggests a single dimension dividing people into haves and have-nots when it comes to ICTs. Digital divides are better conceived as occurring at multiple levels of analysis and as a multidimensional phenomenon (Norris 2001).
Multiple Levels Of Analysis: Individuals, Communities, And Countries
One of the first things that researchers do when a new technology emerges is to track its diffusion through the population to note differences between the people who have early access and those who do not. The idea of a divide comes with the belief that access privileges people in some way; for example, people with access can communicate farther, more quickly, more easily, and less expensively than people without access. With respect to ICTs, there are continuing large-scale survey research efforts to track patterns of access and utilization. These are generally at the individual or household level of analysis. Some of the better known are the Pew Internet and American Life Project which began its reports in 2000; the US Department of Commerce (2004) which began reporting in 1995, a series of reports by German public stations ARD and ZDF since 1997, and the World Internet Project, an international collaborative project looking at the impact of ICTs. These and other microor individual-level studies produced a familiar pattern. Those with relatively early access to ICTs tend to be relatively well educated (Howard et al. 2002), at higher income levels (Chakraborty & Bosman 2005), younger (Loges & Jung 2001), and members of a majority race or ethnicity (Kim et al. 2002).
While the majority of studies are done at the individual or household level, ICT inequalities are also meaningfully analyzed at the level of community or residential area. There are, in other words, divides between communities that are or are not able to take advantage of resources that are available in digital form; for example, resources offered by institutions that concern quality of everyday-life dimensions such as health, transportation, leisure, education, and political representation. Communities that have integrated the Internet and other ICTs into their indigenous communication infrastructures (Matei & Ball-Rokeach 2003) are prepared to engage the digital worlds in and around them. There are many efforts to close community-level digital divides (e.g., Hayden & Ball-Rokeach 2007). Researchers have found that interventions to close community-level digital divides are most successful when they take into account the existing and particular communication infrastructure of a community and adjust their efforts accordingly (Borgida et al. 2002). For example, some communities may benefit more from building a local network, while an Internet cafe may be more beneficial in others (Ferlander & Timms 2006).
In addition to the individual/household (micro) and community (meso) levels of analysis, there are studies of digital divides between nation-states (macro). According to a report of the International Telecommunication Union (2006), the average level of Internet penetration in the world was 13.3 percent in 2004. In this instance the haves are generally the developed world and the have-nots are the developing nations. For example, Europe and the Americas had penetration rates of 31 percent and 28 percent, respectively, while Asia and Africa had lower rates of Internet penetration – 8 percent and 3 percent, respectively.
The study of ICT digital divides has also been grounded in the context of larger issues of globalization. An important aspect of these inquiries is attention to the active negotiations of technologies by developing countries and marginalized populations. These often overlooked groups may create rich networks of association and commerce utilizing inexpensive versions of ICTs such as Internet cafes, prepaid phone cards, or mobile phones. Cartier et al. (2005), for example, refer to such negotiations by rural-to-urban migrants in China as the activities of “the information have-less.” Wilkin et al. (in press) observed that even in a global city like Los Angeles, it is possible for some new immigrant groups (e.g., Latinos) to have very low rates of Internet connection, relying on lower-tech technologies to maintain their networks of association.
The Many Digital Divide Dimensions
In addition to the vertical dimension of ICT access (haves/have-nots, have-less) that are of primary concern in the early diffusion of digital technologies, horizontal dimensions of digital divides emerge as people go beyond access to consider qualitative dimensions of how ICTs are employed in daily life. For example, the technological quality of connection is likely to affect people’s Internet use. In terms of broadband penetration rates, there are significant differences across countries. In 2006, South Korea led all countries with 83 percent broadband penetration, followed by Hong Kong (81 percent), Iceland (74 percent), Israel (69 percent) and Taiwan (65 percent) (Cox 2006). The speed and ease of connecting to the Internet is likely to affect the frequency of Internet use and the range of Internet activities (US Department of Commerce 2004).
Hargittai (2002) speaks of a skills divide or a “second-level digital divide.” Among those with relatively good ICT access, there are profound differences in the skills people develop when they engage ICTs. Generally, the people who develop higher-level Internet skills are well-off (Jung et al. 2001) and better educated (Bonfadelli 2002). Socio-economic differences have been observed in the adolescent population, again with higher socio-economic status being associated with a higher skill level (Jung et al. 2005). Given the importance of ICT skill level to issues of education and employment, studies are beginning to examine students’ educational achievement as a function of Internet skill level (Huang & Russell 2006).
As with any other communication technology, there are wide variations in what people do with ICTs in the course of seeking to achieve everyday-life personal and social goals. What people do on the Internet, for example, may reflect individual differences (e.g., skill level or personal goals), but often these differences are grounded in their socio-cultural and ethnic orientations (Kim et al. 2002). Another important source of variation is age (Loges & Jung 2001). Age, of course, reflects the widely varying histories of cohorts or people with respect to their information and communication practices. The socio-cultural differences associated with gender (Kennedy et al. 2003) and occupation (Thompson 1998) have also been found to affect the ways in which people engage ICTs in everyday life.
There are substantial divides or differences in how people go online, and these may affect what they are willing and able to do online. For example, whether people go online mainly on a home computer or on a computer at another location, or whether they go online with personal computers or with mobile devices, are important factors that are likely to affect what they can or will do online. How people go online can depend upon individual choice, but it is also largely affected by the national ICT infrastructure. A case in point is Japan where, because connection to the Internet via mobile phones developed earlier than Internet connection via home computers, more people go online via their mobile devices than via home PCs (Ito et al. 2005). For example, 33.5 percent of Japanese Internet connectors access the Internet exclusively via mobile phones (NICT 2005), fewer people (28.3 percent) access the Internet exclusively via PCs, and 38.2 percent use both mobile phones and PCs.
Another horizontal or qualitative difference that might be viewed as a divide is the relative importance of the Internet and other ICTs vis-à-vis other media. This issue bears upon the position of ICTs in a larger media and communication ecology. Researchers have examined variations in people’s Internet behavior in context of their home environment where many other media are present (Beentjes et al. 2001). Another approach to this issue is to ask people how much they would miss the Internet if it were unavailable (Jung et al. 2005) or by asking people to choose which media they would give up if forced to do so (USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future 2005).
It is important to examine multilevel and multidimensional digital divides in the light of Castells’ observation: “The fundamental digital divide is not measured by the number of connections to the Internet, but by the consequences of both connection and lack of connection” (Castells 2001, 269). Discussions of the digital divide need to be grounded in their historical context and within the larger issue of communication technology and inequality. In the scholarly literature, discussions about the digital divide have become increasingly critical of this terminology and have begun to contextualize various kinds of divides within the broader contours of society. Nevertheless, this terminology continues to be widely used in policy settings, often being juxtaposed with debates about “digital opportunities.” Future research will continue to be focused on the many dimensions of these divides, on the reasons that this language maintains its currency in national and international policy debates, and on the social, political, and economic consequences of failures to adequately address the complexity of the issues in this area.
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