The Digital divide doesn't exist

by Brett Meyer, NTEN

The digital divide doesn't exist.

It's the definite article that causes problems, implying there's an easy way to think about the issues surrounding the inequitable access to technology -- and perhaps an easy solution. We can just bridge the gap, right? But anybody who's seen Cloverfield or I Am Legend knows what happens when a mass of people tries to cross a bridge to escape a bad situation: a bottleneck forms, infighting destroys group solidarity, and then something unforeseen destroys the bridge. (Or, less monster-centric, we may simply lack the requisite know-how to build a bridge that works.)

Given the difficulty in unpacking all of the socio-economic, cultural, political, educational, and other mutually-reinforcing components of digital inequality, simple metaphors can't carry the weight. Better, perhaps, to allow that the digital divide most closely resembles, well, the world.

The Bottleneck

While it's possible to argue that the role money plays in the persistence of digital inequality is diminishing, it is difficult. Sure, the average price of a computer has been falling for years, but that doesn't take into account the recurring cost of Internet access. And as web-enabled mobile devices gain popularity, actual computers may become less and less important to the information economy, but monthly fees won't. Then there's the segment of the world's population who don't have access to reliable power sources, let alone iPhones. Infrastructure, of course, requires more money.

Money isn't the only factor contributing to digital inequality, just the most significant (and possibly, the easiest to address). While a comprehensive 2003 report by Wenhong Chen and Barry Wellman rightly notes that "the digital divide is a continuum ranging from physical access, financial access, cognitive access, and content access to political access," they go on to assert that "Income is the most important factor that affects Internet diffusion." Another paper, The Determinants of the Global Digital Divide: A Cross-Country Analysis of Computer and Internet Penetration, concludes that "income is largely responsible for the global technology gap".

The Infighting

The mission statement of One Laptop per Child is artfully constructed: "To create educational opportunities for the world's poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning." Who could argue with that? Mohammed Diop, of Mali, presumably one of the very people OLPC wants to convince: "It is a very clever marketing tool. Under the guise of non-profitability hundreds of millions of these laptops will be flogged off to our governments. That's the only way of achieving the necessary economies of scale to get the price low. They've finally found a way of selling to a huge number of poor people."

With a finite amount of money earmarked for digital inclusion programs, let alone development work in general, it seems consensus can be difficult to build. Even an organization with the marketing muscle and international support of OLPC can't avoid infighting over whether or not they should build a version of their system featuring Microsoft's distinctly unfree Windows XP. Money, it's a drag.

Closer to home, Andrew Sears built some publicity with his piece, "How Google and Social Entrepreneurs Perpetuate the Digital Divide Among Nonprofits. Setting aside the problems with his numbers -- he notes that "While only 3.6% of foundation funding goes to nonprofits led by people of color, people of color make up 16.5% of nonprofit leaders," when the appropriate comparison would be to the overall budgets of those organizations, not to their makeup (and there are more) -- Sears makes some good points, particularly the idea that data and cultural perspective must be considered in addressing digital inequality. In the end, though, it's more money that he's after.

With so many needs to address, we all want our slice of the pie. Does that mean we'll end up taking from each other?

The Unforeseen

Much has been made of the possibility that technology will mitigate inequality by allowing the have-nots to leapfrog certain historical aspects of development. Cell phones and wireless technology mean rural areas don't need expensive landlines. And who needs libraries when we have Wikipedia and Kindles? Bharat Mehra claims, in New Media & Society, that "The internet has tremendous potential to achieve greater social equity and empowerment and improve everyday life for those on the margins of society." Few people working at nonprofits would likely argue with that.

With revolution, however, comes the unknown -- and unintended consequences. Danah Boyd has found that, in spite of their seeming ability to promote a true public sphere, social networks may, in fact, be furthering social divisions:

It wasn't just anyone who left MySpace to go to Facebook. In fact, if we want to get to the crux of what unfolded, we might as well face an uncomfortable reality... What happened was modern day "white flight." Whites were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. The educated were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those from wealthier backgrounds were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those from the suburbs were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those who deserted MySpace did so by "choice" but their decision to do so was wrapped up in their connections to others, in their belief that a more peaceful, quiet, less-public space would be more idyllic.

Even if we solve the problems of access and affordability, the digital divide may persist in ways we hadn't foreseen.

What Can We Do, Then?

By signing up to work with nonprofits, you've already served notice that you're ready to spend your social capital -- to write checks, to choose projects and programs, to hire, to conduct research -- in ways you believe will address digital (and other forms of) inequality. Just don't be surprised when your efforts have unintended consequences.

So, be mindful. Collect and analyze data about your work and the people you work with, then share it, openly. Advocate for network neutrality and increased spending on technology infrastructure and education. Perhaps most importantly, connect with your constituents. Andrew Sears suggests that you, "Immerse yourself in the community you are serving and learn from it." He's echoed by Danah Boyd, who deserves the last word:

Where you and your colleagues hang out matters. The "voices" of the Internet that you get are biased by the people who are in the places that you hang out. But do you know this? Do you account for it? Are you working to represent all people or just the people that you can see and hear? When you're trying to reach out to people, are you trying to reach out to all people or just the people in the environments that you understand? Are you embracing difference or are you only taking into account that with which you are comfortable?

article originally published at NTEN.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey