Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Digital divide thoughts

Here's a thought:

Was there a 'color TV' divide in the late 1950s?

A 'telephone' divide at the beginning of the 20th century?

A 'cell phone' divide in 1990?

Can you add to that the microwave-oven divide, the automobile divide, the video game divide, and the video recorder divide?

But seriously, if you were to sit down and compare how much it costs to get on the web in 1995 US dollars (cost of computer plus online service) and today, what would you learn?

This is from Wayback.org in late 1995, for a middle of the road PC: US$2,340 for an OptiPlex XL 5100 slimline 100MHz Pentium processor, with 8MB RAM, a 540MB hard drive, 15LS color monitor, Windows 95 or Windows 3.11, and a mouse.

Memory tells me that a dial-up AOL account account cost about US$22 in 1995. Today, you can get an online account for US$9.95 and buy a new decent laptop that is a gazillion times more powerful and flexible than the desktop I note above for under US$1000 (soon to be under $100!).

If you wanted to buy a used desktop in very good shape your cost is probably close to US$200. And it’s about 100 times better than the 1995 machine.

Oh, I should mention that $2,340 in 1995 money is $2,900 in today’s dollars.

In other words, it’s never been cheaper to get onto the Net than today. Do people need to get their heads on straight about this digital divide thing?

This is whats wrong with this argument:

By definition, the digital divide is the chasm separating the haves and have-nots in digital technology. On one side are people who can afford or who have access to computers, a high-speed broadband connection and the plethora of services from online banking to social networking to blogging. On the other side of the equation are people who cannot afford the technology, cannot get broadband access because of their location, or who have learning or cultural limitations to using the technology.

But it's not only that.

There are many digital divides: Rural and urban; poor and rich, immigrant and native; old and young; disabled and able; developing nation and developed nation.

All these factors have been studied and solutions have been debated for years. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. talked about such a divide in one of his last speeches four days before he died in 1968:

There can be no gainsaying about the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today…That is, a technological revolution with the impact of automation and cybernation…Modern man through scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance. Through our genius we have made this world a neighborhood. And yet we — we have not yet had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this.

(Read more about King and the modern day digital divide on this blog post by Bonnie Bracey Sutton at the Digital Divide Network.)

By definition, the various digital divides are closing over time to some extent. More people are adopting digital technologies as the costs drop and very few people who have computers abandon them completely.

In the U.S., Nielsen/NetRatings found that 78% of residential Internet users had broadband connections last November, up from 65% a year earlier.

But as far as total broadband penetration in the entire population, the U.S. came in 16th place among the top 20 economies worldwide in 2005, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

Pew Internet’s most recent survey from December 2006 showed the stark differences in Internet usage among various groups in the U.S. More than 80% of people aged 18 to 49 use the Internet, while only 33% of those older than 65 do. And in racial groups, 72% of whites and 69% of English-speaking Hispanics use the Net, while 58% of African-Americans do. Plus, 59% of those with a high school education use the Internet, while 91% of college-educated folks do.

BUT - If you’re a child growing up in South Korea, your Internet is 10 times faster at half the price than if you’re a child growing up in the Southern Tier or in the South Bronx, New York.

Beyond the political rhetoric and research numbers, there are real people stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide in communities around the nation and the world. It's complex but basically, there are three stages:

Stage 1: Economic Divide

In its simplest form, the digital divide is manifested in the fact that some people can't afford to buy a computer. Although politicians always talk about this point, it's growing more irrelevant with each passing day - at least in the industrialized world. We should recognize that for truly poor developing countries, computers will remain out of the average citizen's reach for 20 years or more.

In areas like North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia's advanced countries, computer cost is no longer an issue. Dell's cheapest computer costs US$379 (with a monitor) and is about 500 times as powerful as the Mac I used to write my thesis. While it's true that a few people can't even afford US$379, in another five years, computers will be one-fourth their current price. Would that all social problems would go away if we simply waited five years.

Stage 2: Usability Divide

Far worse than the economic divide is the fact that technology remains so complicated that many people couldn't use a computer even if they got one for free. Many others can use computers, but don't achieve the modern world's full benefits because most of the available services are too difficult for them to understand.

Almost 40% of the population has lower literacy skills and yet few websites follow the guidelines for writing for low-literacy users. Even government sites that target poorer citizens are usually written at a level that requires a university degree to comprehend. The British government has done some good work on simplifying much of its direct.gov.uk site information, but even it requires at least a high school education to easily read.

Lower literacy is the Web's biggest accessibility problem, but nobody cares about this massive user group.

Senior citizens face the second-biggest accessibility problem, but again there is little interest in the guidelines for making websites easier for older users. Companies don't even have the excuse that it doesn't pay to cater to this audience, because retirees are rich these days. Even though seniors are the main remaining source of growth in Internet use, companies are still endlessly fascinated by young users and ignore older, richer users who would be much more loyal customers - if only someone bothered to sell to them.

Whereas the economic divide is closing rapidly, I see little progress on the usability divide. Usability is improving for higher-end users. For this group, websites get easier every year, generating vast profits for site owners. Because they now follow more e-commerce user experience guidelines, companies that sell online typically have conversion rates of around 2%, which is twice the conversion rate of the bubble years. That's all great news for high-end users, but the less-skilled 40% of users have seen little in the way of usability improvement. We know how to help these users -- we're simply not doing it.

The digital revolution can create additional barriers for people with disabilities: for example, by creating a digital divide - a widening of the socioeconomic gap - between people with and those without disabilities, rather than helping to close these gaps.

These gaps are highlighted when the disposable income available through the disability pension is compared with the average disposable income of the able bodied. The digital revolution may be at the forefront of a divide between the educational and interrelated disparities of people with disabilities and most of society’s so-called "normal" members.

People with disabilities need a collective and empathetic approach so as not to add to the social exclusion and impoverishment they already feel compared to mainstream society. They need to be regarded as more than just the stereotype of people with lesser abilities. They need collective assurances that using technology to develop new skills is not an elusive dream.

Stage 3: Empowerment Divide

We have the knowledge needed to close the digital divide and I remain hopeful that we'll get the job done.

The empowerment divide, however, is the hard one: even if computers and the Internet were extraordinarily easy to use, not everybody would make full use of the opportunities that such technology affords. In the west - the Internet is seen as a commercial tool - selling - buying - look at my ads. This ideology is being sold in underdeveloped nation as a consumer tool - they don't need it. What they need is an empowerment tool - an education tool.

Because new and inexperienced Internet users lack the initiative and skill to take matters into their own hands, some users remain at the mercy of other people's decisions.


The digital divide, on a global scale, doesn't appear to be in the process of shifting dramatically one way or another. While some celebrate one aspect of success here and there, technology does not slow down - catching up to where others were a few years ago means that those years constitute a digital divide.

The main problem with this is that people working on the digital divide are trying to get everyone up to present day technology when instead they should be preparing everyone for future technology.

The irony is that one of the best ways we can coordinate these efforts is through a website and digital technologies — but it would have to accommodate dial-up users.

What do you think?

Is the digital divide a fading problem or a glaring one that needs to be addressed? What solutions can you envision? If you've got something to say ... drop me a line or if you are in Geneva, Switzerland - come to the panel discussion that I am giving at at LIFT07

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Blogger Dannie Jost said...

If digital technology is a tool, and tools are used to solve problems, what is the problem that digital technology would solve with an optimum of leverage?

There are several latent issues underlying what you write, and to me an opening for action and an access to empowerment is always associated with translating the global issue down to the local and personal level.

I am really looking forward to this panel (and the whole of LIFT).

11:09 PM, February 06, 2007  
Anonymous Seth said...

A good take on digital divide! I stumbled upon your blog through google alerts - I subscribed to the keyword "digital divide" - and I really have to give credits to google.

Feel free to drop me an email (mingkun (dot) aw (at) gmail (dot) com) to discuss on issues pertaining to digital divide as I am currently working on a project to bridge the global digital divide (sounds like a really futile attempt!).

Your help, advice and insights would be very much needed and appreciated for my project. I look forward to your email. :-)

5:54 AM, February 07, 2007  
Anonymous Auriela Beniamin-Bogdana said...

This is a really good take on the digital divide discussions. There is more to the digital divide than the technology. The social implications and the way that WSIS and governments are approaching them amount to digital racism is some areas.

Perhaps more discussions like this will start a new grassroots movement. I certainly hope so. I don't have access and only do because my parents can afford to send me to a local school where I get online.

Perhaps you could get involved here in Romania. That would certainly help.

8:13 AM, February 07, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Aurilia. I write from Korea and even here - were it is said that we have WIFI and connections that are cheaper than in the USA, there is a digital divide centered on a generation gap. Older generations rely on the younger generation to help and get connected but for those that are alone, there is no help. No help from government or non-government. We need also a grassroot movement to help but there are few leaders here and little discussion.

9:45 AM, February 07, 2007  
Anonymous Steven Ruebelson said...

Can you clarify the source numbers please ... "75% of online users", how many Americans are considered "online"?

Isn't the real digital divide in America between those online and the balance of the remaining 295 million Americans?

9:48 AM, February 07, 2007  
Anonymous Janice Mann said...

The digital divide is probably one of the most underrated social problems ever. When the first Bubble burst, the blow could have been cushioned if more emphasis was put on decreasing the Digital Divide. A lot of good technology products failed because they weren't useful or effective, but because the usefulness/effectiveness wasn't quite so obvious to the mainstream user.

I've found that recent web technologies such as RSS, Blogs, Wikis, and Web 2.0 Applications need to be demonstrated to people first hand in order it for to really sink in.

A lot of friends, family members, and clients didn't really "get it," until I helped them set-up their own set of feeds on Netvibes or showed them how to post songs or videos to their blog. But once I did, they really understood the value of such a technology, and are now excited to be using it.

9:49 AM, February 07, 2007  
Anonymous Taran Rampersad said...

Globally, internet access itself is at 16.7%. Not even 20%.

Solving that divide will help solve other nationalist divides simply through evolution. This, of course, is the problem of nationalist divides - they segregate rather than connect, which is exactly the problem.

Find better ways to connect people, and you'll find less of a divide.

10:21 AM, February 07, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The internet is slow to recognise its responsibilities as an ethical player. If we have racism, a digital divide is its new colonial frontier. Passions surrounding the access and control of IT worldwide have triggered a cultural revolution.


10:26 AM, February 07, 2007  
Anonymous Matt O'Neill said...

it'll be interesting to see how things pan out in the panel you're hosting at lift.

that said, talk is fairly meaningless unless backed up by action. i hope some of the lift participants will help narrow the gap a bit in their respective countries.

10:28 AM, February 07, 2007  
Anonymous Mark Lloyd said...

Digital divide still separates students. Two of every three white students — 67 percent — use the Internet, but less than half of blacks and Hispanics do, according to federal data released Tuesday. For Hispanics the figure is 44 percent; for blacks, it's 47 percent.

This creates incredible barriers for minorities.

Not using the Internet narrows their ability to even think about the kind of work they can be doing, It doesn't prepare them for a world in which they're going to be expected to know how to do these things.

The new data come from the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the Education Department. They are based on a national survey of households in 2003.

Overall, 91 percent of students in nursery school through 12th grade use computers; 59 percent use the Internet.

Within those numbers, the digital divide between groups is a national concern.

Studies have shown that access and ability to use the Internet help improve people's learning, job prospects and daily living.

Schools have taken steps to close the gaps.

Virtually all U.S. schools are connected to the Internet. The gaps in Internet usage between whites and minorities, though sizable, are smaller during the school day.

12:48 PM, February 07, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I always enjoy your insights. How was LIFT07?


5:02 AM, February 14, 2007  

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