101 Reasons for the Digital Divide

Posted on November 21, 2010


World English Dictionary
digital divide
— n
informal the gap between those people who have internet access and those who do notFrom Dictionary.com

In it’s most basic definition, the digital divide represents a discrepancy in access to information technology. The reasons for this gap are almost innumerable. I chose “101” only to illustrate that their are multiple studies putting forth multiple reasons for why this divide exists and continues to exist.

From Andrew Chadwick’s chapter “Access, Inclusion, and the Digital Divide” we learn that the digital divide is affected from multiple social, economic and geographic influences. He also highlights some studies that stress the digital divide as part of a larger system of complex barriers. These include: mental access, material access, skills access, and usage access. Or alternately the digital divide is compounded by a series of other embedded barriers: the access divide, skills divide, economic opportunity divide, and the democratic divide.

The most common evidence used to describe the digital divide is the economic differences between developed and developing nations. Chadwick looks towards many other causes especially in his study of the divide within the United States – finding age, education, income, race and ethnicity all contributors. But ultimately it appears that the digital divide is just an added trend in other barriers of access. Within the US, access to education is a long-standing problem and the digital divide falls right in step with all the factors contributing to this discrepancy. Globally, governments, infrastructure, economics and education have all contributed to the continuing gap between the global north and south and the digital divide continues that trend.

Whatever the reasons for the divide, it is hard to deny it exists.

Global Digital Divide illustrated by NASA’s observations of electricity. (source)

In “The Digital Divide: The Role of Political Institutions in Technology Diffusion,” Helen V. Milner takes a different approach looking specifically at the influence that types of governments have had in affecting the spread of access to the information technology. Looking at other studies of governmental impacts on the digital divide and her own statistical methods, she concludes that:

Democracies adopt the Internet at a much faster pace than do autocracies.

She points to the ways in which information technology can be inhibited through governmental control which can only be implemented effectively through more authoritarian control than democracies allow. These methods include: firewalls, routers, software filters, internet police, coercion, restricted access, high access price and a national intranet. Autocratic governments are more drawn to limit access as:

The Internet threatens autocrats because it promotes uncensored access to information, the wide sharing of that information, and the capacity to overcome
collective goods problems, thus enhancing the public’s ability to organize against a regime.

We see this sort of impact in China as they struggle to maintain their position as a one-party authoritarian government but still seek to compete in the global economic arena. From a July 9, 2010 article in The New York Times

Internet censorship in China is among the most stringent in the world. The government blocks Web sites that discuss the Dalai Lama, the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement and other Internet sites.

Web sites in China are required to employ people who monitor and delete objectionable content; tens of thousands of others are paid to “guide” bulletin board Web exchanges in the government’s favor.

China has an incredible number of people on the internet, but compared to their total population, they still lag behind the frontrunners:

As Clay Shirky points out in Here Comes Everybody, China lost the race to sequence the SARS virus–despite their proximity to the disease and their scientific research infrastructure–to a small Canadian lab, Genome Sciences Centre. Because of their “obstacles in cooperations.” The Chinese government placed “too many restrictions on sharing either samples of the virus, or on information about it.” While the Canadians were able to cooperate with many different networks, receiving collaboration and samples from the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg and the CDC in British Columbia.

Thus, while autocratic governments prohibit their citizenry to fully engage in a global network, they suffer the consequences in both economic and social capital.

Together, Chadwick and Milner build an extensive list for the reasons why the global divide exists, but I am still left with questions:

Considering Chadwick’s chapter and the discrepancies he found between many wealthy European (and democratic) nations, how can we explain the digital divide between countries in the European Union (Finland, Denmark, Iceland vs. Germany, France, Switzerland)?

How does the digital divide affect the digital “revolution”? What about the role of Twitter in Iran?

How are cell phones contributing to the digital divide?

Is the digital divide shrinking?

Does the digital divide impact the effectiveness and usefulness of eGovernment?

Why does the existence of the digital divide (and its persistence) fail to curb the enthusiasm of technological optimists?


Posted in: COM 597