The Digital Divide Is Rubbish

Article excerpt

Lack of internet access is one sort of exclusion that shouldn't worry us, argues James Crabtree

Perform a web search for "digital divide" and prepare to discover a dotcom cottage industry. Rational discussions of technology and social opportunity have been replaced by the spectre of new and horrifying technological inequality: the digital divide.

The digital-divide industry is difficult to pin down. A mix of wonks and journalists, with a captive audience of worried politicians, it sees dangerous inequality lurking in almost any technological development. This, in turn, brings shrill calls for immediate remedial government action - and the government is only too happy to respond with a plethora of strategies and initiatives to "bridge" the existing or impending chasm. No matter that, compared to previous technologies, the internet and the mobile phone have been adopted with speed and equality. It seems that no technological step forward can be announced without a chorus of voices heralding new and previously unimagined exclusions.

You might think it important to ensure that politicians don't forget the less fortunate in the new economy. This is correct, but it is dangerous to accept the concept of digital divide unquestioningly.

The term - a foggy shorthand for any and all potential inequalities involving technology - suggests that access to information technology may be a cause, rather than a symptom, of inequality. While the idea may increasingly become true, it is not at the moment. The debate is at its most focused when discussing internet access. However, even here it addresses a problem that (in the UK, at least) will soon solve itself. Although the government is unlikely to meet its headline target of universal internet access by 2005, other technologies will ensure full coverage. PC ownership may be flattening out, but digital television will be a popular and near-universal form of web technology.

Despite the doomsayers, internet and mobile technology has been adopted with unprecedented speed; and allowing for the fact that, in general, it is wealthy people who buy new technologies first, the spread has been achieved with great social equity. Access costs have dropped significantly, and will continue to do so, and the introduction of digital TV will act as a Trojan horse to deliver internet access to those who don't want to own a PC.

What about those who don't want to go online? …