Digital divide

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In the beginning, the Internet, and particularly the World Wide Web, was extolled as a powerful force toward the democratization of information and, ultimately, of politics and economics. This was the idealistic vision of the Web's founder, Tim Berners-Lee. By placing such a wealth of information and opportunity at individuals' fingertips, the Web, according to its most ardent supporters, was to act as the great societal leveler. While some aspects of that vision may have leaked through, most observers note that the technology has taken a very different course, and has led to what is popularly known as the digital divide.

Both inside the United States and on the global level, the gulf between those individuals, families, organizations, and businesses that enjoy access to the Internet and those that do not constitutes the digital divide. The seeming ubiquity of the Internet in U.S. culture in the early 2000s seemed to gloss over the lingering digital divide. Indeed, amidst the hype surrounding the New Economy, it became difficult for many Americans to recognize that the majority of the world's population had yet to make a phone call, much less log on to the Internet. And while the cost of personal computers and Internet software and access has inched downward since the mid-1990s, the digital divide persisted in various forms and with various implications.


Discussion of a gap between the Internet haves and have-nots formally began with the publication of "Falling Through the Net," a report issued by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1995. At first associated primarily with racial disparities, the general tenor of the discourse gradually broadened to include a wider array and matrix of social indicators, particularly those related to class. New York-based Jupiter Communications found the greatest disparity in Internet usage to be along incomerather than raciallines. While wealth distribution is very strongly correlated to race and ethnicity in the United States, analysis of the digital divide by the early 2000s tended to consider a more holistic analysis of inequalities.

The digital divide, according to some observers, isn't a qualitatively new phenomenon; rather, it is the extension of age-old inequalities and social discrepancies into the Information Age. Some sociologists viewed the digital divide as a modern extension of chronic unemployment and lack of access to basic social services. With financial transactions; social, political, and economic news; and, increasingly, the pace of social life moving at Internet speed, the digital divide carries the possibility of exacerbating the deep economic divisions existing in U.S. society.

The U.S. Department of Commerce in late 2000 reported that 12.7 percent of Americans earning less than $15,000 per year had access to the Internet in their homes, compared with 77.7 percent of those making more than $75,000 a year. The Journal of Housing and Community Development noted that racial divisions intersected with income levels; 23 percent of African-Americans and Hispanics combined maintained home Internet access, while 46 percent of Caucasians were connected at home. Significantly, however, those low-income households that did have access to the Internet were relatively likely to use it to their economic advantage. For instance, those earning less than $15,000 were the most likelyat about 25 percentto use the Web for employment searches.

The evolution of the digital divide was a mixed bag. Between 1998 and 2000, according to the Department of Commerce, African-American Internet access rose from 11.2 percent to 23.5 percent; while Hispanic access jumped similarly jumped from 12.6 percent to 23.6 percent. While this doubling of access for these groups was an important gain, it still represented a significant gap between these groups and white Americans. Over the longer term, the problem was even more acute. Between 1984 and 1998, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage gap in computer ownership between the highest and lowest income groups expanded from 20 percent to 64 percent.

The digital divide in the United States also encompassed a geographical disparity, primarily between the urban and suburban populations on the one hand and rural inhabitants on the other. According to Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, nonmetropolitan residents had a lot to gain from digital technologies since they stand to mitigate some of the disadvantages of geographical isolation, such as their relatively great distance from markets. Despite the universal-access provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, however, access to high-speed networks was extremely limited in most rural areas at the start of the 2000s, particularly because Internet service providers (ISPs) can realize greater returns on their investments in densely populated metropolitan regions.

A study by Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly concluded that, despite the more optimistic predictions of the Internet as a great societal equalizer and force for democratization, the innovations and advantages wrought by digital and information technology were likely to remain closely bound to other social indicators, such as income and education levels, race and ethnicity, and age.

In a global economy driven by knowledge and information in which the Internet is the increasingly dominant medium of interaction, Internet speed, access, use, and fluency are staples of the ability to successfully compete. With competition increasingly based on quick, information-based innovation, companies that failed to incorporate the Internet into their core operations risked placing themselves at a severe competitive disadvantage.

The tension between addressing the digital divide on the one hand and taking advantage of what the Internet had to offer on the other sometimes lead to difficult situations. Many companies, in the interest of creating value and attracting customers via their Web sites, began offering special Web-only deals, which prompted some analysts, concerned with widening the digital divide, to cry foul. At the heart of the Information Age in Silicon Valley, meanwhile, the point was drawn out by the fact that, according to Computerworld, Latinos and African-Americans were underrepresented in information-technology companies by about 50 percent. The potential implications for those on the "wrong" side of the digital divide can be serious, according to some analysts. As cultural and economic life grows more and more bound to the Internet and digital technology, those outside of the loop may grow increasingly isolated from the mainstream of society, creating or exacerbating serious rifts that can rupture tranquility.

In addition to the technical and economic aspects of the digital divide, some analysts have pointed to the deepening psychological and ideological components, whereby individuals not on the cusp of the New Economy and technological innovations find themselves frustrated and remote from the endless barrage of media coverage that so popularized Internet culture. Stories of millionaires, breakthrough digital technologies, and the wonders of the New Economy, such observers note, may have intensified the already existing divide between the Net-savvy and the Net-illiterate.

Still others look at the digital divide as a marketing problem stemming from varying cultural attitudes toward technology. According to MC Technology Marketing Intelligence, the divide has as much to do with the degree to which groups perceive technology as a central component in their lives as to levels of access along the lines of social indicators. These perceptions feed and are fed by the nature of marketing campaigns, which tend to gravitate toward those groups that have consistently been the "tech-haves" rather than the "tech-have-nots." Some companies, therefore, began to make a concerted effort to tap the traditionally underserved markets. Gateway, for example, launched an extensive campaign to build brand loyalty in the growing Hispanic community, pitching itself as a manufacturer of affordable computers catering to Hispanics.

Whatever the precise explanations and implications, the issue was taken seriously enough in political circles to warrant close attention. President Bill Clinton launched a crusade to close the digital divide in December 1999, and featured the problem in his State of the Union address a month later. The Clinton Administration was particularly concerned with the effects of the digital divide in the nation's school systems. If high standards of learning were to be increasingly associated with access to the Internet, then deep disparities in Internet access in schools imposed fundamental inequities upon children. By the end of the 20th century, over 90 percent of U.S. schools were wired for the Internet, though the extent of the access still varied considerably. Meanwhile, America's Network in 2001 listed the digital divide as the most pressing problem faced by the Federal Communications Commission under President George W. Bush.

There were, however, some holdouts when it came to addressing the digital divide. Indeed, some refused to accept that there was a problem at all, in sisting that market forces had lowered the prices of digital technology and Internet access to the point that just about everyone could log on to the Internet if they so desired. According to such observers, the remedy lay not in any governmental policies or public investments but in the further unleashing of market forces. The Consumer Electronics Association, for example, held that digital technology was on its way to overwhelming market penetration, and that there wasn't a genuine crisis but a situation more likely born of the political realm.


An issue generating extremely mixed feelings was the level of responsibility companies feel, or should feel, in remediating the digital divide. According to an InformationWeek survey of 500 information-technology and business professionals, direct business involvement in addressing the digital divide was far from standard. While 77 percent of the respondents registered personal concern with the digital divide, only one-third reported that their companies maintained programs to enhance computer access in their communities. There were pragmatic reasons why companies might choose to help bridge the divide. For instance, running or sponsoring educational programs in conjunction with local schools or training institutes can provide a source of income and help nurture strong links between the company and the community. Moreover, offering space for learning computer skills can contribute to the supply of skilled computer workers.

Access, however, was only part of the problem, and bringing the Internet to traditionally underserved areas still left several stones unturned. Once access is available, the task of developing technological "fluency" begins. For example, fluency with the Internet involves not only the ability to surf the Web and download files, but the knowledge of how to create a successful Web site and develop grass-roots communication networks. As a result, technological education will be just as important as reading and writing in a world connected via the Internet and where cyberspace coexists on a par with physical-world interaction. A popular approach among policy makers, including the Clinton Administration, in the late 1990s and early 2000s was the creation of community technology centers, at which individuals of all ages can attend courses and use on-site computer resources for training, research, and personal use.

There were disagreements, of course, as to just what lay in store for the digital divide. While the U.S. Commerce Department expected the gap between ethnic groups to widen by 2005, Jupiter Communications predicted that in this category the divide would narrow. Jupiter held that by the middle of the decade, household income would be the leading indicator in assessing the digital divide, reporting that only 21 percent of households earning less than $15,000 would be online, while 78 percent of households bringing in at least $75,000 would enjoy Internet access. Jupiter expected the ethnic and racial gaps to remain, but in extremely diminished form, with 64-percent access for African Americans, 68 percent for Hispanics, 84 percent for Asian Americans, and 76 percent for Caucasians.


The global dynamics of Internet access were expected to undergo some drastic changes through the first decade of the 21st century. While the United States and other western countries led the way in access at the start of the decade, by 2010 the two largest Internet user communities were likely to be China and India, as Internet availability begins to catch up to those countries' populations.

In booming Internet markets, such as Asia, internal disparities play a significant role as well. The Asian Development Bank (ADB), in its report Asian Development Outlook 2000, cautioned against the long-term effects of the limited and uneven development of information technology in the region, noting that, absent the adequate physical and network infrastructure, underdeveloped countries and communities of Asia risked being left even further behind their more developed neighbors when the Internet-based economy really takes hold. Among some key figures highlighting the regional divide, as reported in Asian Business, were the telephone and computer penetration rates in the Philippines, at only 3.7 percent and 1.5 percent, respectively. By way of comparison, the significantly more developed Hong Kong boasted telephone and computer penetration rates of 55.8 percent and 25.4 percent, respectively. Moreover, only 5 percent of public-school students and teachers in the Philippines enjoyed Internet access.

The report concluded that Asian countries should implement policies that encourage the development of a modern telecommunications infrastructure and eliminate regulations that inhibit private investment for such projects. A broad telecommunications and information-technology policy forum was conducted by the Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) eAsean Task Force, which formed in 1999. Meanwhile, the ADB insisted, as important as the technological infrastructure is the development of educational infrastructure and human resources so that the mass of the population can contribute to and take advantage of the blooming Internet culture.

In other regions, such as the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, overall penetration was even lower, and the institutional and infrastructural barriers to bridging the digital divide were generally higher. Precarious political systems and little tradition of a strong, modern industrial and information economy made the building of Internet-ready populations and infrastructures exceptionally difficult to negotiate, though many countries had made important moves in that direction. Some leading companies from more developed nations, moreover, have viewed the Internet development of those regions as a potentially beneficial undertaking, and have initiated donation programs to send computer equipment to and wire schools and community centers in those countries. For example, IBM maintained programs aimed at not only delivering equipment but also at providing hands-on technical training in such countries as Brazil, Mexico, and Vietnam.

Only about 5 percent of the world's population was online as of 2000, and many observers saw this discrepancy as the tip of a much more ominous iceberg. With half the Earth's inhabitants living on less than $2 a day, activists, philanthropic organizations, and, increasingly, businesses and policy makers saw the growing disparities highlighted by the digital divide as the fuel for explosive global instability and potential upheaval that could have severe human and economic costs. President Joaquim Alberto Chissano of Mozambique, for instance, pointed out that the number of Internet hosts in New York City exceeded those in all of Africa. Recognizing such dangers, the Group of Seven (G-7) wealthiest industrialized nations, at their 2000 summit in Okinawa, placed the digital divide on their planning agenda for the first time. At Davos, Switzerland that same year, the World Economic Forum assumed a positive stance, pointing to the digital divide as a "digital opportunity," whereby the remediation of the divide could be a springboard for more systematic reparation of societal inequalities. And, according to the Far Eastern Economic Review, major technology companies such as Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, recognizing the emerging difficulties posed by the digital divide, sponsored an international conference addressing digital inequality.

Among political and business leaders gathered at the United Nations State of the World Forum in 2000, there was an emerging consensus that governments must stress education and technological infrastructure in their national strategies in order to ward off at least the worst excesses of the digital divide. In many countries, the problems to surmount are far more deeply based, including the uprooting of entrenched gender and ethnic discrimination and the quelling of political unrest. But most leaders agreed that the basic issues behind the digital divide were very real and a pressing issue of fundamental social and economic equality that needed to be addressed.


Albrecht, Karl, and Ronald Gunn. "Digital Backlash." Training & Development, November 2000.

Armstrong, Anne A. "Missing the Boat." Government Executive, August 2000.

Blanks Hindman, Douglas. "The Rural-Urban Digital Divide." Journalism and Mass Communications Quarterly, Autumn 2000.

Chanda, Nayan. "Asian Innovation Awards: The Digital Divide." Far Eastern Economic Review, October 19, 2000.

Chon, Kilnam. "The Future of the Internet Digital Divide." Communications of the ACM, March 2001.

"Damning the Digital Divide." America's Network, October 1, 2000.

"The Digital Divide." CMA Management, July/August 2000.

Ebenkamp, Becky. "Divide and Culture." Brandweek, January 29, 2001.

Fattah, Hassan. "The Digital DividePolitics of a Real Problem?" MC Technology Marketing Intelligence, September 2000.

Foley, Kathleen. "Deeds, Not Words, Will Fix the Digital Divide." InformationWeek, March 26, 2001.

Gomolski, Barb. "Web Users Get Special Deals: Is It the Digital Divide or Just Good Business Sense?" InfoWorld, February 26, 2001.

Hecht, Ben. "Bridging the Digital Divide." Journal of Housing and Community Development, March/April 2001.

Hoffman, Thomas. "Leaders: Education Key to Bridging Digital Divide." Computerworld, September 11, 2000.

Kim, Michael C., and Dennis A. Steckler. "Leaping the Digital Divide." Best's Review, February 2001.

Lach, Jennifer. "Crossing the Digital Divide." American Demographics, June 2000.

Lipke, David J. "Dead End Ahead?" American Demographics, August 2000.

Melymuka, Kathleen. "Dabbling at Diversity." Computerworld, December 11, 2000.

Rombel, Adam. "The Global Digital Divide." Global Finance, December 2000.

Wallman, Kathleen M. H. "Counting Down the Top Ten." America's Network, March 1, 2001.

SEE ALSO: Children and the Internet; Cyberculture; Digital Economy 2000 Report

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Digital Divide




The digital divide has been conceived as the lack of access to information and communication technologies among underrepresented ethnic minorities, those of lower socioeconomic levels, and people living in rural locales. Several studies have characterized these disparities along dimensions of gender (Kvasny 2003), age (Loges and Jung 2001), race (Hoffman 1999, Kvasny 2003, Payton 2001), geographical location (Sipior et al. 2004), and educational resource characteristics (NTIA 2000, Payton 2001, Kvasny and Payton 2005). Karen Mossberger and Caroline Tolbert (2003) have found that African Americans are less likely to have access to information and communication technologies and the skills to use such technologies, even when controlling for other factors, such as income and education. Similar findings have been documented for Hispanic and Native Americans. Despite these foundations of physical access, the digital divide concept is not limited to a binary taxonomy of access versus nonaccess, or the typical classification of have and have not. In fact, the digital divide warrants a broader definitionone that is inclusive of social, economic, and technology-use attributeswhich can capture the notion of digital equity. This concept rests on critical issues of how individuals can use information provided by these technologies and what strategic skills are desirable to prosper in the competitive environment of todays global information age.


Digital equity raises issues of social justice and can be defined as a trend toward equal access to information and communication technologies among societys citizens. Even more, digital equity enables individuals to gain knowledge and skills to use technological tools, computers, and the Internet (i.e., behavioral outcomes). The National Institute for Community Innovations reports that:

According to recent research by the National Center for Educational Statistics, 98% of schools and 77% of instructional rooms have computers and are connected to the Internet. But many classrooms and important educational projects are not connected, and these educators are deprived of excellent Internet-based resources. Most important, even though a school or classroom may be connected, the technology may not [be] used by studentsleaving many young people technology-illiterate, without key skills they need to succeed in todays job market. (National Institute for Community Innovations 2005)

Similarly, Austan Goolsbee and Jonathan Guryan reported that Californias public schools were funded by nearly $937 million for a program known as E-Rate (education rate) during the 1998 to 2000 school years, of which a substantial portion provided Internet access and technologies. This program noticeably closed the digital divide for Internet access between wealthy and poor California schools. If one assesses effectiveness in terms of access, the California E-Rate initiative has been successful. Goolsbee and Guryan note, however, that despite this accomplishment, Internet access did little in the way of improving student performance; they conclude that the Internet itself seems unlikely to be a silver bullet for solving the problems of Americas public schools (2006, p. 65).


In its 2003 fiscal budget, the administration of President George W. Bush reduced funding for community-based technology-related programs and training initiatives by $100 million, as shown in Figure 1.

Much of this funding previously supported underrep-resented minorities, children, and rural programs. While the digital divide is an immediate and direct effect of the eradication of these training initiatives, the more dire consequences rest in the lack of social justice produced by such digital inequities. Evidence of these outcomes has been documented by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) report A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet (2002). The NTIA reports that individuals benefit from being prepared with technology skills, and 57 percent of employed Americans over the age of twenty-five use a computer in the workplace. By 2010 jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

are expected to increase by 67 percent according to the U.S. Department of Labor as reported in the 2002 CyberEducation Report by the American Electronics Association. In addition, the costs associated with broadband access to the Internet heighten digital exclusion and often preclude minority, low-income, rural, and undereducated populations from access to the social justice associated with social, community, economic, and education capital foundations.

Unlike other forms of communication media (e.g., radio, television, and printed materials), the Internet is distinctive because of its integration among diverse communication modalities, such as broadcasting, reciprocal interaction, group discussion, person-machine interaction, and reference research (DiMaggio et al. 2001). The digital equity principle examines how Internet access is used, and evidence supports the argument that parity is achievable when all populations gain the knowledge and skills to impact social inclusionthereby stimulating social justice. The most noteworthy form of inclusion would necessitate equalities (therefore reducing or eliminating disparities) in education, health care, and economic and financial systems.

The digital divide or inequity issue is not limited to the United States. According to statistics from the World Summit on the Information Society, a comparison of Internet access and use in eight industrialized nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) compared to the rest of the world indicates that: (1) In 2004 fewer than three out of every one hundred Africans used the Internet, compared with an average of one out of every two inhabitants of the industrialized countries; (2) the eight industrialized countries are home to just 15 percent of the worlds population but almost 50 percent of the worlds total Internet users; and (3) there are more than eight times as many Internet users in the United States than on the entire African continent. Sundeep Sahay and Chrisanthi Avgerou concluded that information and communication technologies are key to the development of poorer nations and offer the potential for turning around uncompetitive industries and dysfunctional public administration, and for providing unprecedented opportunities for the information-intensive social services, such as health and education (2002, p. 73).

SEE ALSO Cyberspace; Inequality, Political; Internet; Property Rights; Property Rights, Intellectual


American Electronic Association. 2002. CyberEducation, U.S. Education, and the High-Technology Industry: A National and State-by-State Overview.

Benton Foundation Press Release. 2002. Bush Abandons National Strategy to Bridge the Digital Divide.

DiMaggio, Paul, Eszter Hargittai, W. Russell Neuman, and John P. Robinson. 2001. Social Implications of the Internet. Annual Review of Sociology 27 (1): 307-336.

Goolsbee, Austan, and Jonathan Guryan. 2006. World Wide Wonder? Education Next 6 (1): 61-65.

Hoffman, Donna L., and Thomas P. Novak. 1998. Bridging the Racial Divide on the Internet. Science 280 (5362): 390-391.

Kvasny, Lynette. 2003. Liberation or Domination: Understanding the Digital Divide from the Standpoint of the Other. In Proceedings of the Information Resources Management Association (IRMA) Conference, ed. Mehdi Khosrow-Pour. Hershey, PA: Idea Group.

Kvasny, Lynette, and Fay Cobb Payton. 2005. Minorities and the Digital Divide. In Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology, ed. Mehdi Khosrow-Pour, 1955-1959. Hershey, PA: Idea Group.

Loges, William E., and Joo-Young Jung. 2001. Exploring the Digital Divide: Internet Connectedness and Age. Communication Research 28 (4): 536-562.

Mossberger, Karen, and Caroline Tolbert. 2003. Race, Place, and Information Technology. Telecommunications Policy Research Conference: Programs and Papers Archive.

National Institute for Community Innovations. 2005. The Digital Equity Toolkit.

National Telecommunications and Information Administration. 2000. Falling Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion.

National Telecommunications and Information Administration. 2002. A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet.

Payton, Fay Cobb. 2003. Rethinking the Digital Divide. Communications of the ACM 46 (6): 89-91.

Sahay, Sundeep, and Chrisanthi Avgerou, eds. 2002. Letter from the Guest Editors Sundeep Sahay and Chrisanthi Avgerou. Special Issue: Information and Communication Technologies in Developing Countries. Information Society 18 (2): 73-76.

Sipior, Janice C., Burke T. Ward, Linda Volonino, and Joanna Z. Marzec. 2004. A Community Initiative that Diminished the Digital Divide. Communications of the Association for Information Systems 13, Art. 5 (January): 29-56.

World Summit on the Information Society. 2006. Whats the State of ICT Access around the World.

Fay Cobb Payton

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The digital divide refers to the gap between those who can effectively benefit from information and computing technologies (ICTs) and those who cannot. The term is a social construction that emerged in the latter half of the 1990s, after the Internet came into the public domain and the World Wide Web (Web) exploded into the largest repository of human knowledge that has ever existed. For those who can both contribute and retrieve information from the Web, ICTs hold the promise of broad collaborations in science and technology, transparency in government, rationality of markets, and shared understandings between peoples. Sadly this utopian promise applies only to an elite few. As of 2003, less than ten percent of the world's 6.4 billion people have had access to the Web (NielsenNetRatings, February 2003). While information poverty is rarely blamed as a direct cause of human suffering, the digital divide raises ethical questions of universal access. Like access to food or clean water, access to essential information has moral and ethical implications that merit consideration in the formation of public policy.

Differing Divides

The digital divide is a problem of multiple dimensions. In 1999 Rob Kling summarized the problem from (a) a technical aspect referring to availability of the infrastructure, the hardware, and the software of ICTs, and (b) a social aspect referring to the skills required to manipulate technical resources. Pippa Norris (2001) described (a) a global divide revealing different capabilities between the industrialized and developing nations; (b) a social divide referring to inequalities within a given population; and (c) a democratic divide allowing for different levels of civic participation by means of ITCs. And Kenneth Keniston (2004) distinguished four social divisions:

  1. those who are rich and powerful and those who are not;
  2. those who speak English and those who do not;
  3. those who live in technically well-established regions and those who do not;
  4. those who are technically savvy and those who are not.

From a global perspective, a high concentration of access to ICTs is observed in North America, Europe and the Northern Asia Pacific while access is noticeably sparse in the southern regions of the globe, particularly in Africa, rural India, and the southern regions of Asia. The poorer nations, plagued by multiple burdens of debt, disease, and ignorance are those least likely to benefit from Internet access.

The entry costs to secure equipment and to set up services are far beyond the means of most poor communities. Startup costs and expenses of technical maintenance compete with resources needed for essential human survival. Policy makers are challenged to find justification for investment in ICTs when local and national resources are limited and where the urgent needs of people for basic nutrition, health care, and education remain unsatisfied. If ICT development is justified in these countries, it is on the belief that ICTs are instruments to be wielded in order to meet essential human needs.

Overcoming Divides

One formidable obstacle to ICT diffusion is language. There is a self-perpetuating cultural hegemony associated with ICTs (Keniston 2004). By the year 2000, only 20 percent of all Web sites in the world were in languages other than English, and most of these were in Japanese, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese. But in the larger regions of Africa, India, and south Asia, less than 10 percent of people are English-literate while the rest, more than 2 billion, speak languages that are sparsely represented on the Web. Because of the language barrier the majority of people in these regions have little use for computers. Those who do not use computers have little means to drive market demands for computer applications in their language. Left simply to the market, this Anglo-Saxon hegemonic cycle will continue unhindered.

If the digital divide is viewed purely as a technical problem, the solution is within reach. European and North American capitalism has the means to intervene where market forces lack the power to bridge the divide. It is not an unrealistic task to tie every nation, every tribe, and every community, no matter how isolated, into a common interconnected information infrastructure. It is within technical means to manufacture low-cost, durable computers for wide distribution. It is within fiscal means to distribute these devices to places where computers are most lacking. Gifted programmers and translators can be recruited to convert existing online resources into many different languages.

Beyond Technical Issues

While such technical solutions can be conceived, the problem of the digital divide is not primarily a technical problem. Expenditure of monies for ICTs comes with no guarantee that problems that plague the poor of the world will be addressed. Policy makers cannot simply thrust technology into people's hands with any expectation that it will be used. Experimentation has shown that new initiatives tend to fail unless they are built from existing social and economic structures (Warshauer 2003). ICT projects must be conceived from an assessment of actual needs defined locally by target populations. Planners must pay attention to existing human networks and social systems, taking into account local language and cultural factors, literacy and educational levels of users, and institutional and social structures of the community.

M. S. Swaminathan, one of India's best-known scientists, suggests that if technological and information empowerment is to reach the unreached, then policy makers must focus their "attention to the poorest person" (Swaminathan 2001, p. 1). This concept, coined by Gandhi as antyodaya, provides a model for technical development using a bottom-up approach. Digital initiatives of the Swaminathan Research Foundation have demonstrated how ICTs can change the lives of the poor in remote villages by strategies that enlist local involvement from their inception. Projects begin from assessments of specific local needs and by instituting practices that rely entirely on local villagers rather than distant agencies and technical experts. Including the excluded in the empowerment brought by knowledge and skills is the most effective approach to harnessing technologies in the interests of the poor. The divide may never be fully closed, but where a bridge is to be spanned, it will be constructed by active participants from both sides.


SEE ALSO Information Society; Internet; Networks; Poverty.


Keniston, Kenneth (2004). "Introduction: The Four Digital Divides." In IT Experience in India: Bridging the Digital Divide, ed. Kenneth Keniston and Deepak Kumar. Delhi: SagePublishers, pp. 11–36. This book examines the history of the "digital divide" as seen from observers on both sides of the abyss. A collection of essays from social scientists, policy analysts, and technologists, the book lends special focus to the social and technical problems that emerge with introduction of new technologies in remote and impoverished regions. It reviews the fundamental issues facing policy makers whose decisions impact the balance between expert direction and local control, between modern goals and traditional values, and between future hopes and immediate needs.

Kling, Rob. (1999). "Can the 'Next Generation Internet' Effectively Support 'Ordinary Citizens'?" The Information Society 15: 57–63. Rob Kling (1944–2003) was professor of information systems at the School of Library and Information Science at Indiana University. This article was originally delivered as a white paper in 1988 to the Clinton Presidential Advisory Committee on High Performance Computing and Communications, Information Technology, and the Next Generation Internet (NGI). Kling advocated a focus on social value in planning and resource allocation for the NGI. Policies should privilege methods of Internet access for ordinary people over exotic media advances that benefit only technological elites. NGI initiatives should seek to reduce cost and improve value for ordinary citizens and strengthen IT infrastructures for the public commons.

Norris, Pippa. (2001). Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty, and the Internet Worldwide. New York: Cambridge University Press. Pippa Norris is Associate Director of Research at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. This book examines the digital divide from case studies involving Internet access of users from 179 countries. Norris describes the ways in which people in different cultures make use of the Internet for information and civic engagement and she attempts to provide a descriptive model to explain patterns of participation on the Internet. Norris reviews the manner that institutional entities have created or enabled opportunities for public engagement and she analyzes how the various publics have responded to these opportunities.

Warschauer, Mark. (2003). "Demystifying The Digital Divide." Scientific American 289(2): 42–48. Mark Warschauer teaches Informatics in the Department of Education at the University of California at Irvine. He has conducted qualitative research on technology adoption in Egypt, China, India, Brazil, Singapore. In a three-year longitudinal case study in Egypt, Warschauer examined the steps that governmental agencies took to introduce ICTs in the schools and he observed the various impacts that were manifested from those initiatives. From his observations, Warschauer concluded that policies which promote the mere presence of new technologies in schools without a corresponding emphasis on social mobilization and transformation can squander limited resources while leaving problems of sociotechnical inequities in tact.


NielsenNetRatings. (2003). "Global Internet Population Grows an Average of Four Percent Year-Over-Year"" Available from Nielsen NetRatings provide ongoing measurement of Internet usage. Detailed information collected by Nielsen is intended primarily for commercial use, however summaries are published monthly and may be accessed at

Swaminathan, Monkombu Sambasivan. (2001). "Antyodaya Pathway of Bridging the Digital Divide." Available from (Lecture delivered before the Tilak Smarak Trust, Pune, India, August 1, 2001.) Through his involvement in hybrid grain research in the 1960s, geneticist Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan played a principle role in the introduction of high-yielding wheat varieties that significantly contributed to India's "Green Revolution" (1967–1978). In 1987 the celebrated scientist created the Swaminathan Foundation, with the aim of supporting fledgling technological development projects that directly address hunger, poverty and environmental concerns. The foundation is known for its emphasis on bottom-up participatory approaches to economic development where local control is the key element to the introduction of new technologies.

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The digital divide is a term that describes access, or lack thereof, to technology for completing a task. Having the proper equipment and knowing how to use the accompanying technology efficiently has become increasingly important. As more of the world goes online, individuals and businesses that are digitally literate and able to access technology effectively are reaping great rewards both personally and professionally, leaving behind those who are not digitally literate.

Among the major concerns in bridging the digital divide is the need for becoming information literate in terms of reading, writing, and applying skills when using computers. This is especially true in lower socioeconomic areas of the United States and in third world countries.

Moving the term digital divide to another level recognizes that aging computers often cause a significant slowdown in Internet access, thus creating considerable problems in communication online.


Increasing knowledge and efficient access to the Internet are two related forces that need to be addressed to close the digital divide. The need for developing realistic and meaningful digital skills and knowledge is extremely important for all people, regardless of their age. More and more business and communication are being conducted via the Internet. Information that relates to daily life and involves personal development and safety are often available on the Internet as opposed to being sent through the postal system or even phoned to new or regular customers.

Learning to access information online provides an opportunity for business growth and development. Online education is becoming an increasingly common offering of a college's curriculum in an attempt to better serve potential and current students. Because more people are working at home, there is a pressing need to bridge the digital divide in providing this population with all the essential tools in order to complete their work.

Having greater access to read and research information online provides the opportunity to become an informed citizen at local, state, and national levels. Even beyond that is the opportunity to think globally in studying topics that apply to the entire world.


The digital divide is beginning to be decreased by providing greater access to technology and the Internet. Cyber-cafes are available in most large cities. Most libraries in the United States provide Internet access. Wireless capabilities and laptop computers along with phenomenal cell phone interface capabilities make access to communication easier than it has ever been historically. While public areas seem to provide better grounds for equalizing the digital divide, many homes because of a lack of connectivity and affordability do not have the technology, which can instantly create a digital divide.


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Kuttan, Appu, and Peters, Laurence (2003). From digital divide to digital opportunity. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow.

Smith, Craig Warren (2002). Digital corporate citizenship: The business response to the digital divide. Indianapolis: Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Warschauer, Mark (2003). Technology and social inclusion: Rethinking the digital divide. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Webopedia. Digital divide.

Dorothy A. Maxwell