Digital Divide

The term ‘digital divide' refers to the widening gap between those with access to technology and those without. The issue has sparked a major debate, with former President Bill Cinton calling it "the chasm between the information haves and have-nots." The Dictionary of American History records how engineers began developing digital technology in the mid-20th century based on the concepts of German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716).

The innovation of Leibniz, who proposed a binary computing system, inspired such numerical codes as American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) that described objects with digits. Digital technology has transformed how people communicate, learn and work. It enables immense amounts of information to be compressed on small storage devices that can be easily preserved and transported, and quickens data transmission speeds.

Two-thirds of Americans use a computer at home and 50.5% of homes have internet connectivity, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Access to a computer and the internet and the ability to use those resources are widespread but there are disparities in access and use along racial and ethnic lines. The gap between Hispanics and white non-Hispanics increased during the late 1990s and early 2000s despite increases in computer and internet usage rates among Hispanics. It is thought that this is due in part to differences in English ability and to the lower use of the internet if Spanish is the first language at home.

Research into socio-economic traits by Paul DiMaggio (2004) and other leading writers has revealed that ethnic minorities are less likely to own or use computers and the internet, while education and family income are positively associated with IT usage and women were more likely than men to use computers both at home and at work. However, research into digital inequality has shifted over the years from examining topics such as gender, race and income to a discussion around how often people access the internet, how they use it and relatively new issues around technology such as the speed of broadband in urban and rural areas.

Two billion people around the world are reported to use the internet regularly and the majority of people living in urban and suburban America have reliable, high-speech internet access, but many who live in rural America do not. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, up to 11 million Americans living in rural areas are unable to access broadband internet services in their homes. Affordable broadband service could revolutionize life in rural areas, enabling people to pay bills, shop online, run businesses and enrol in college courses.

The administration of President Barack Obama moved swiftly to address this situation by putting aside $7.2bn in funding. Brian Depew, of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska, told the New York Times (May, 2011): "This is a critical utility. You often hear people talk about broadband from a business development perspective, but it's much more significant than that. This is about whether rural communities are going to participate in our democratic society. If you don't have effective broadband, you are cut out of things that are really core to who we are as a country."

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin pledged to roll out a high-speed Internet service to the entire state when it was shown Vermont ranked behind China, Vietnam, Bosnia, and Croatia in terms of connectivity, saying it is "a huge obstacle to job creation. High-speed broadband and cell phone service are the electricity of the modern age." Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, commented: "Young people, being digital natives, will not live where they aren't able to be connected. That's a problem because young people are the foundation for that wave of innovation that's essential to the progress of any rural community in America."

Northern Alabama is another part of the country which is facing major problems due to a lack of high-speed access. Benjamin Compaine, author of "The Digital Divide: Facing Crisis or Myth?" (2001) is one of the critics who deny the significance of the digital divide by claiming it is no longer relevant in the 21st century. Scholars such as Compaine argue that as technology becomes increasingly cheaper, therefore a family's income ceases to be relevant, because even those living in what is considered to be poverty can afford a machine capable of giving them the same informational access available to wealthier American families.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Digital Condition: Class and Culture in the Information Network
Rob Wilkie.
Fordham University Press, 2011
The Internet: An Introduction to New Media
Lelia Green.
Berg, 2010
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "The Digital Divide"
Redefining the Digital Divide: Beyond Access to Computers and the Internet
Valadez, James R.; Duran, Richard.
High School Journal, Vol. 90, No. 3, February-March 2007
Intellectual Property and the Digital Divide
Endeshaw, Assafa.
Journal of Information, Law and Technology, Vol. 2008, No. 1, February 2008
Exploring the Aspects of Digital Divide in a Developing Country
Acilar, Ali.
Issues in Informing Science & Information Technology, Vol. 8, Annual 2011
Gender and Computers: Understanding the Digital Divide
Joel Cooper; Kimberlee D. Weaver.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003
Digital Divide in Computer Access and Use between Poor and Non-Poor Youth
Eamon, Mary Keegan.
Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, Vol. 31, No. 2, June 2004
Closing the Digital Divide: Transforming Regional Economies and Communities with Information Technology
Stewart Marshall; Wallace Taylor; Xinghuo Yu.
Praeger, 2003
What Role Can Educational Multimedia Play in Narrowing the Digital Divide?
Macleod, Hilary.
International Journal of Education and Development using Information and Communication Technology, Vol. 1, No. 4, December 2005
Virtual Inequality: Beyond the Digital Divide
Karen L. Mossberger; Caroline J. Tolbert; Mary Stansbury.
Georgetown University Press, 2003
Globalization and Social Change: People and Places in a Divided World
Diane Perrons.
Routledge, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "The New Economy and the Digital Divide"
Media Access: Social and Psychological Dimensions of New Technology Use
Erik P. Bucy; John E. Newhagen.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Communities, Cultural Capital, and the Digital Divide"
Community Practice in the Network Society: Local Action, Global Interaction
Peter Day; Douglas Schuler.
Routledge, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 11 "A Human Rights Perspective on the Digital Divide"
Online Communication: Linking Technology, Identity, and Culture
Andrew F. Wood; Matthew J. Smith.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of the digital divide begins on p. 166
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