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section heading icon     divides

This page provides an overview of the 'digital divide', in reality a set of divides.

It covers -

It is supported by a more detailed multi-page profile on the divides, highlighting statistics, major government reports, academic studies and public/private sector initiatives.

subsection heading icon     introduction 

The notion of a digital divide gained attention in the 1990s with recognition that some people and institutions were not going online or were not going onto broadband.

That notion proved increasingly elastic as 'digital divide' became a mantra to justify a range of practical initiatives, digital pork barrelling, media headlines, advocacy documents and industry studies.

We question the use of 'the divide' as a shorthand. In practice it is arguably more effective to consider a range of divides that result from different circumstances and that are most effectively treated in different ways, rather than through a 'one-size fits all' approach.

Those divides include information rich v information poor, those with skill sets and big pipes versus those with few skills, those accessing the net at home versus those reliant on telecentres and cybercafes, and infrastructure that has the performance characteristics of jam tins & string. 

subsection heading icon     one divide or many? 

Pippa Norris's The Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty & the Internet Worldwide (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 2001) suggests that there are at least three major divides:

  • a global divide between the developed and undeveloped worlds
  • a social divide between the information rich and the information poor
  • a democratic divide between those who do and those who do not use the new technologies to further political participation

There is a similar nuanced analysis in Mark Warschauer's excellent Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide (Cambridge: MIT Press 2003) and Branko Milanovic's Worlds Apart: Measuring International & Global Inequality (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press 2005). Themes from Warschauer's work were highlighted in his 2002 Reconceptualizing the Digital Divide paper.

The statistics highlighted on the demographics page of this guide suggested that as of early 2001 around 67% of Australian households were not connected to the net (the apparent discrepancy in NOIE and other figures reflects access via work) and that users were young, male, earning in excess of $75,000, employed, and living in metropolitan areas. That figure had changed significantly by 2010 but disparities in access and use remain.

on low incomes, without tertiary education, living in rural/remote areas, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, with disabilities, with a language background other than English, and aged over 55 are less likely to be online.

Why? Barriers to online access include set-up and access costs, lack of physical access, disinterest/confidence or perceptions of irrelevance, security concerns, lack of skills/training and illiteracy.

Skills differentials are highlighted in Eszter Hargittai's 2002 Second-Level Digital Divide: Differences in People's Online Skills paper , in Launching into Politics: Internet Development & Politics in Five World Regions (Boulder: Rienner 2002) by Marcus Franda, in The Global Information Technology Report 2001-2002: Readiness for the Networked World (New York: Oxford Uni Press 2002) by Geoffrey Kirkman, Peter Cornelius, Jeffrey Sachs & Klaus Schwab and in The digital divide: Why the "don't-wants-tos" won't compute: Lessons from a New Zealand ICT project, a 2003 paper by Barbara Crump & Andrea McIlroy. Literature is reviewed in Maria Trujillo-Mendoza's 2001 dissertation The Global Digital Divide: Exploring the Relation between Core National Computing & National Capacity & Progress in Human Development over the past Decade.

Jorge Schement has argued that the persistence of information technology gaps reflects ongoing payment for information services that involve recurrent regular decisions (eg having a regular income sufficient to pay a monthly bill) rather than information goods such as a television that are generally paid off in the short/medium term. Schement suggests that could explain why poorer households experience less rapid and consistent diffusion of services such as the net or telephone than they did with radio and television.

Brendan Luyt's 2004 paper Who benefits from the digital divide? argues that promotion of the digital divide as an international policy issue benefits four groups: information capital, developing country governments, the development 'industry' and global civil society.

The OECD noted in 2005 that Liberia's population shared an international 256 kbit/s connection, the equivalent of just one baseline residential broadband connection in the OECD -

A single Danish resident has more bandwidth than the whole of Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Comoros, Turkmenistan, Chad and Niger combined. And a single 100 Mbit/s broadband user in Japan has access to as much international connectivity as the 45 countries with the lowest international connectivity combined.

subsection heading icon     books and studies

Apart from reports noted earlier in this guide, the divide/s have attracted increasing academic and community attention. 

For a perspective from the left consult Herbert Schiller's Information Inequality: The Deepening Social Crisis In America (London: Routledge 1996) and Information & The Crisis Economy (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1986), William Wresch's Disconnected: Haves & Have-Nots in the Information Age (New Brunswick: Rutgers Uni Press 1998), Cyberimperialism?: Global Relations in the New Electronic Frontier (New York: Praeger 2000) and Cyberghetto or Cybertopia (New York: Praeger 1998) both edited by Bosah Ebo. Deconstructionists can turn to Defining Away The Digital Divide: A Content Analysis of Institutional Influences on Popular Representations of Technology (PDF) by Lynette Kvasny & Duane Truex, proudly "informed by Bourdieu's sociology of language".

There are useful essays in Public Access To The Internet (Cambridge: MIT Press 1995), a volume edited by Brian Kahin & James Keller as part of the Harvard Information Infrastructure Project, in Media Use in the Information Age: Emerging Patterns of Adoption & Consumer Use (Hillsdale: Erlbaum 1989) edited by Jerry Salvaggio & Jennings Bryant and in Cyberspace Divide: Equality, Agency & Policy In The Information Society (London: Routledge 1998) edited by Brian Loader. In 2001 the OECD published a succinct report (PDF) on Understanding The Digital Divide.

Competition In Telecommunications
(Cambridge: MIT Press 2000) by Jean-Jacques Laffont & Jean Tirole and Milton Mueller's Universal Service: Interconnection, Competition & Monopoly in the Making of the American Telephone System (Cambridge: MIT Press 1996) examine universal service regimes. Both might be read in conjunction with Eli Noam's provocative Interconnecting The Network of Networks (Cambridge: MIT Press 2001).

High Technology & Low-Income Communities: Prospects For The Positive Use Of Advanced Information Technology
(Cambridge: MIT Press 1999), a collection of essays edited by Donald Schoen, Bish Sanyal & William Mitchell, and Cutting Edge: Technology, Information, Capitalism & Social Revolution (London: Verso 1997) edited by Jim Davis, Thomas Hirschl & Michael Stack are other views from the left. 

There's a more iconoclastic treatment in The Digital Divide: Facing A Crisis or Creating A Myth (Cambridge: MIT Press 2001) edited by Benjamin Compaine. Erik Brynjolfsson's 1995 paper on Communications Networks & the Rise of an Information Elite: Do Computers Help the Rich get Richer? (PDF) is a detailed study by the eminent MIT economist. 

Technicolor: Race, Technology & Everyday Life
(New York: New York Uni Press 2001) is a more upbeat collection of essays edited by Alondra Nelson & Thuy Tu.

Manuel Castells' The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring & the Urban-Regional Process (Oxford: Blackwell 1989) highlighted the significance of divides within cities - most people, after all, do not live in the bush. In the US the Urban Research Initiative  on information technology and the future of the urban environment is producing a series of excellent research reports and maps.

Paulina Borsook's Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech (New York: PublicAffairs 1999) offers insights into the technolibertarian 'let them eat cake' approach: just throw enough PCs and broadband at any problem and it will go away.

Pippa Norris's superb Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty & the Internet Worldwide (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 2001) tartly notes that "Like gambling at Rick's bar - some popular accounts are shocked - shocked - to discover social inequalities on the Internet" and then goes on to analyse figures and issues.

The 2002 International Energy Agency Energy & Poverty (PDF) study suggested that around 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity and that 2.4 billion rely on primitive biomass (eg straw and dried cow dung) for cooking and heating. Charles Kenny of the World Bank noted that around 1.5 billion people live on US$1 per day, spending roughly US$10 per year on telecommunications where available. Only 2.2% of India's online population had ever engaged in buying or selling over the web, as of 2005. That is unsurprising, given the 2010 report by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment & Health that although some 563 million people in India have access to "modern communications" only 366 million have access to modern sanitation. As of early 545 million mobiles phones were in service in India, with penetration increasing from 0.35 mobiles per 100 people in 2000/1 to 45 per 100 people in 2010. The Institute's Director commented that -

It is a tragic irony to think that in India, a country now wealthy enough that roughly half of the people own phones, about half cannot afford the basic necessity and dignity of a toilet.

At that time the UN claimed that 1.1 billion people around the world lack safe water to drink, 2.4 billion have no access to water for decent sanitation and over 4 million deaths a year are attributable to poor water supplies.

The October 2000 London Business School paper (PDF) by Hammond, Turner & Bain on Internet Users versus Non-Internet Users: Drivers of Internet Uptake is suggestive, as is The Evolution of the Digital Divide: How Gaps in Internet Access May Impact Electronic Commerce, a cogent 2000 paper by Donna Hoffman & Thomas Novak.

subsection heading icon     national and regional analysis 

For ease of reference we have discussed particular national/regional statistics, studies and associated initiatives in a detailed supplementary profile on divides.

It covers -


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version of May 2010
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