Determinants of the Digital Divide in Rural Communities of a Developing Country: The Case of Malaysia*

Article excerpt

The computer is regarded as an important tool for the socioeconomic development of communities, particularly in the developing world, and studies have shown that the digital divide has led to the increasing wealth gap between the rural and urban areas in these countries. Key socioeconomic factors which impact computer usage in rural agricultural and fishing communities in Malaysia are examined in this study. Using the probit model, this study found that access to computers, type of rural community, ethnicity, education, language of communication, gender, social networks (encouragement from peer, family, and teachers), and age are the main factors affecting computer usage. High cost of computers, low computer literacy, and lack of relevance and interest were cited as the main reasons for people not using computers in rural communities. Furthermore, strategies for closing the digital divide in Malaysia are also discussed in this paper.

Keywords: Computer Usage, Rural Communities, Digital Divide, Malaysia

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Introduction

The global socioeconomic landscape has undergone major foundational changes, and much of these changes can be attributed to the transformational power of the information and communication technologies (ICTs hereafter). The IT revolution has been a key catalyst in the emergence of the new economy -an economy in which a large proportion of the socioeconomic wealth creation results from the adoption, integration, and diffusion of ICTs. As Kevin Kelly aptly puts it:

The new economy is about communication, deep and wide. Communication is the foundation of society, of our culture, of our humanity, of our own individual identity, and of all the economic systems. This is why networks are such a big deal. ... Communication, and its ally computers, is a special case in economic history. Not because it happens to be the fashionable leading business sector of our day, but because its cultural, technological, and conceptual impacts reverberate at the root of our lives (Kelly, 1998: 5).

The IT revolution has transformed the underlying structure of the global economic systems-traditional factors of production such as land, labor, and capital play an increasingly less significant role in determining competitiveness and wealth of countries in a knowledge-based society. Countries, enterprises, and communities are able to transcend the limitations of the physical space by using electronic media to create value-moving from "the physical place to the cyberspace." Computers also allow various stakeholders to overcome the shortages of human and financial capital by way of outsourcing globally and accessing funds from the global financial market.

ICTs and related technologies have become the fulcrum of socioeconomic development for smaller economies such as Finland, Ireland, and Singapore. These countries have successfully transformed their economies to be knowledge- and innovation-based economies over the last three decades. The role of ICTs in enhancing socioeconomic development is well documented in literature (Brynjolfsson and Hitt, 1995; 2000; Nair et al., 2005; 2008). Pilat and Wolfl (2004) have shown that ICTs have contributed to increased productivity growth in many of the OECD countries as well as the fact that smaller economies such as Finland, Ireland, and Korea experienced large labor productivity growth rates due to ICT utilization.

However, it is questionable whether the benefits of advanced ICTs are also enjoyed among rural communities in many developed countries. To improve the situation, various fiscal and non-fiscal policies have been introduced to encourage computer usage among rural communities. Those policy measures include encouraging computer ownership, providing access to public computer facilities, and introducing computer literacy programs. While these moves have been successful to some extent in increasing computer usage among the rural population in developed countries, they are either not implemented or not effectively deployed in developing countries. …