Perform a web search for “digital divide” and prepare to discover a dotcom cottage industry. Rational discussions of technology and social opportunity have been replaced by the spectre of new and horrifying technological inequality: the digital divide.
The digital-divide industry is difficult to pin down. A mix of wonks and journalists, with a captive audience of worried politicians, it sees dangerous inequality lurking in almost any technological development. This, in turn, brings shrill calls for immediate remedial government action – and the government is only too happy to respond with a plethora of strategies and initiatives to “bridge” the existing or impending chasm.
No matter that, compared to previous technologies, the internet and the mobile phone have been adopted with speed and equality. It seems that no technological step forward can be announced without a chorus of voices heralding new and previously unimagined exclusions.
You might think it important to ensure that politicians don’t forget the less fortunate in the new economy. This is correct, but it is dangerous to accept the concept of digital divide unquestioningly.
The term – a foggy shorthand for any and all potential inequalities involving technology – suggests that access to information technology may be a cause, rather than a symptom, of inequality. While the idea may increasingly become true, it is not at the moment. The debate is at its most focused when discussing internet access. However, even here it addresses a problem that (in the UK, at least) will soon solve itself. Although the government is unlikely to meet its headline target of universal internet access by 2005, other technologies will ensure full coverage. PC ownership may be flattening out, but digital television will be a popular and near-universal form of web technology.
Despite the doomsayers, internet and mobile technology has been adopted with unprecedented speed; and allowing for the fact that, in general, it is wealthy people who buy new technologies first, the spread has been achieved with great social equity. Access costs have dropped significantly, and will continue to do so, and the introduction of digital TV will act as a Trojan horse to deliver internet access to those who don’t want to own a PC.
What about those who don’t want to go online? The prophets of the digital divide would have us believe that barriers such as poverty, illiteracy and so on are holding people back. There is certainly something in this, but the nature of the debate makes it difficult to distinguish between the three distinct groups of non-adopters. First, those who want to use technology but can’t. Second, those who can but don’t want to. Third, those who can’t get access and also don’t want to.
Some see no compelling reason to go online. A recent Which? survey identified two dominant reasons for staying away: the internet is irrelevant and it is expensive. Both of these problems will be solved gradually, as costs decrease and net-based entertainment (beyond pornography and computer games) becomes more common.
The emphasis on access also reveals a paternalism within the digital-divide camp. Little is heard (quite rightly) about the cable TV, Palm Pilot or Nintendo divides. Each of these technologies is desirable to many; each in its own way may be important to the general good. Yet they are excluded and seen as less-than-equal technologies. The digital divide has led us to forget why people choose to go online in the first place: communication and information.
Furthermore, the focus on excluded groups means that precious little is heard of the teenagers, computer consultants and business people who stretch the boundaries of new technology. We see the internet as an industry of riches and rags: millionaire entrepreneurs standing toe to toe with excluded technophiles. In so doing, we risk ignoring the masses of ordinary people who will push the limits of what this technology offers. A poor understanding of such users will lead to poorly targeted policy.
As Labour has discovered with class sizes and hospital waiting lists, headline-grabbing targets distort real priorities. Targets mean million-pound access schemes are pressed upon the unready while – as a recent Demos pamphlet point-ed out – the most pressing digital public-policy issues, of data protection, personal privacy and the rise of new media monopolies, are being ignored.
The digital economy is critical to Britain’s future, and it is right that the government should attempt to ensure that no surfer is left behind. Yet politicians and the media need to treat the hand-wringing hysteria of the digital divide with healthy scepticism.
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James Crabtree works on the iSociety programme at the Industrial Society