Information access is the ability to identify, retrieve, and use information effectively. Access to information is vital to social, political, and economic advancement. Traditionally, information has been disseminated in a variety of formats that have been widely accessible, often through public libraries. Many individuals also relied on other people and the media for information. However, advances in computer technology have revolutionized information access, making vast stores of business, education, health, government, and entertainment information accessible on the World Wide Web. Yet, despite technology's dramatic impact on the extent and availability of digital information, many people do not have access to these resources.
The Digital Divide
The gap between those who have technological access, and those who do not, is known as the "digital divide." It is attributed to constraints imposed by educational attainment, socioeconomic status, gender, age, disability, and geography as well as limits experienced by particular ethnic and racial groups. The disparity between the digital information "haves" and "have-nots" is reflected in access, content, literacy, and training, and remains a persistent international problem. Resolution of inequitable access is particularly important for developing nations because they cannot build and maintain economic independence without adequate information.
In the United States, the October 2000 Department of Commerce document, "Falling Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion," reported increases overall in Internet access and use. However, the digital divide continues in some sectors of the American population, particularly among blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, individuals with disabilities, people fifty years of age or older, and single-parent households. For many, the cost of computer ownership and Internet Service Provider (ISP) connections creates significant barriers and high-speed, broadband connections via cable, digital subscriber line (DSL) , or satellite remain beyond reach. Geography is also a difficult constraint with many rural areas still not wired for Internet access. In some rural communities, the only access method is through large ISPs that do not have local access telephone numbers, making the cost of using the Internet prohibitive.
Effective use of information content requires a complex set of competencies. With the uneven quality of web resources, as well as the absence of a consistent organizational structure, locating relevant and reliable information can be difficult and time-consuming. Search and meta-search engines as well as hierarchical subject indexes and portals were developed to improve access to specific information. Virtual reference desks, some with access to experts through AskA services, were opened. However, search precision remains problematic because, even when used in combination, search engines neither examine the entire web nor return all types of files equally.
Most information on the Internet is in English and its use requires basic reading proficiency. This narrow orientation limits the accessibility of web resources for many in a multilingual world as well as for the illiterate and readers with limited skills. Optimal use of the Internet also requires competency in navigation and searching; without appropriate instruction, these skills can be difficult to master. Adequate training is crucial because even the most poorly constructed search will generally produce some results. The challenge then is not only connecting to the Internet or retrieving information, but also effectively evaluating the results.
Modes of Access
Most people connect to the Internet from home, work, or public access sites like libraries, schools, and community centers using personal computers, e-mail stations, interactive digital televisions, game stations, or web kiosks. However, even more flexible options are beginning to emerge, including web-enabled cellular telephones and handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs) . Because cost is a barrier to access for many, the increasing affordability and wider distribution of cell phones and PDAs may help bridge the digital divide.
The need for improved access has led to the development and refinement of applications. Web browsers, like Netscape and Microsoft Explorer, use graphical interfaces with embedded hyperlinks for navigation, making the underlying commands transparent to the user. With these applications, the Internet became more accessible and it emerged as a global information source. Scholarly, scientific, and everyday research was transformed by access to full-text documents as well as by the digitization of primary sources. Text translation applications minimized language barriers and text-to-speech technology improved access for the visually impaired. Educational opportunities were extended to new audiences and business access to management information and market intelligence was improved.
Asynchronous applications, like e-mail, bulletin boards, and listservs as well as real-time or synchronous applications, like instant messaging, chat rooms, and video conferencing, altered communication patterns and changed the flow of information substantially. The gap between limited local information and highly specialized but distant resources was dramatically narrowed, particularly in agriculture and healthcare. With geographical information systems (GIS), maps could be individualized and produced on demand. Combining XML applications with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) led to the development of virtual advisors with a voice interface that provides drivers with personalized traffic and news reports, e-mail, stock market, and sports news. Intelligent agents and push technology mine and filter user-specified data from the web and push it out directly to desktops. Driven by these still-evolving applications, the web has become crucial to the flow of information.
Impact on Society
Digital information access has affected virtually every aspect of modern life by opening new communication pathways and fostering greater individual participation in society. Technological access has changed everyday activities like banking, shopping, and travel as well as business, education, and the economy. The Internet has not only eased traditional boundaries and opened access to global resources, it has also generated new questions as society struggles to adapt to rapid and often autonomous information access.
Copynright laws developed for earlier publication mediums have been difficult to adapt to electronic publishing and intellectual property rights have been jeopardized by the cut and paste functions of word processors. As different constituencies try to balance First Amendment rights with the desire to protect children from inappropriate material, legal questions related to filtering and censorship have emerged. Without the government's role in regulating the Internet clearly defined, resolution of these and other emerging issues has been difficult.
Although technology has opened exciting new avenues of "information access," the full benefits of these advances will remain elusive until the digital divide is closed. Until that is accomplished, many individuals and communities will be barred from participation in an increasingly technological world. As United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted in his World Telecommunications Day remarks on May 17, 2001, addressing access to technological information resources is a worldwide problem that will require international commitment and efforts to resolve.
see also Digital Libraries; Distance Learning; Home Entertainment; Home System Software.
Nancy J. Becker
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Annan, Kofi. World Communications Day May 17, 2001 Message. <http://www.powerup.org/world_telecom.shtml>
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Falling through the Net. U.S. Department of Commerce. <http://www.digitaldivide.gov/>