Academic journal article Nebula

Digital Divide 2.0 and the Digital Subaltern

Academic journal article Nebula

Digital Divide 2.0 and the Digital Subaltern

Article excerpt


Initial awareness of issues relating to the digital divide were raised by the 1999 study Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide from the Department of Commerce in the United States. (1) The development and perpetuation of a digital divide between the information 'haves' and 'have nots' was framed as a problem of 'access.' In the context of the increasing online population, debates about social inequity have often been directed at technical barriers to access, the physical infrastructure, and economic impediments to the adoption of the medium by all members of society. However, like the Internet itself, the nature of this divide is changing and has evolved in the last decade. New theories of understanding and new strategies of intervention are required to overcome new barriers to access presented by digital divide 2.0. This paper seeks to inform this process by focusing on those currently excluded from access to the digital environment not so much by a lack of physical infrastructure but rather by forces related to cultural capital and consciousness. This group without a voice in discourses about access has become a new type of digital subaltern. However this digital subaltern has qualities unique to the digital environment that they do not share with their analogue counterparts.

Internet Access

When an individual accesses the Internet, they do so alone. While they might be sharing content over the network with others, the actual interface with the screen occurs alone, even if it is in a room full of other people accessing the Internet, such as at an Internet cafe. In order for access to occur a number of elements need to be present. The most obvious of these is the physical hardware of the computer and network. This hardware is enabled by the software that allows it to operate. While these two elements--hardware and software--are important, the third element--wetware--also plays a pivotal role. Wetware is a term less widely deployed than hardware or software. We can trace its relatively recent origins back to science fiction and cyberpunk literature. (2) Wetware represents the knowledge and experience held in the brain of an individual accessing the Internet, their ability to operate the computer interface at the screen and their literacy in the digital environment on the screen. Unlike hardware and software, wetware manifests as an analogue rather than a digital platform. Visual content from the screen and audio from speakers are interpreted through the eyes and ears of the user.

These three elements form a matrix of access. All three need to be present for any individual point of access to work, and the relative strength of each of these elements will then determine the strength or utility of the access at that point. Each element can potentially compensate for weaknesses in the other two. Powerful computers can run poorly designed software, good software can provide a user interface to aid weak wetware, and a highly proficient user can make better use of their equipment. While all three can act to support the other elements of access, there is also a threshold at which access is no longer available, a point at which the screen (assuming one is present), rather than acting as an avenue for access, will instead become a barrier.

This atomised user at the screen exists in a wider social context, both online and in their immediate physical and social environment, and this also plays an important role in the value of access and its availability. In order to develop a fuller understanding of Internet access, the on and off screen positioning of the potential user must be monitored. This requires the development and evaluation of a fourth element of access--culture-ware or 'cultware' (3)--the context of access in relation to the rest of society.

Unlike the other three components of access, 'cultware' is a commodity that is hard to define and evaluate. …

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