Discuss the effects of the Internet on the digital divide
In the modern digital age, the vast number of people who are either exposed to or making use of the internet increases by hundreds of people every second. Even countries that were once viewed as greatly less technologically advanced are making leaps and bounds in the area of technology and the internet. However, although the gap between the different type of cultures has begun to be bridged, there is still an marked way to go when it comes to making sure everyone in the world has an equal and fair amount of access to the digital world, and this stark difference is commonly referred to as the digital divide. ‘The digital divide refers to the perceived gap between those who have access to the latest information technologies and those who do not’, (Compaine 2001). There is a social divide which is the inequality of access and use of disadvantaged groups within society, and a democratic divide has emerged between people who use the internet in order to participate in life.
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The driving force behind the increasing number of internet users today is the young people – the most common users and advocates for new and advanced technology. In an article written by the Internet Health Report, they detail the important statistics of the number of people around the world who have access to the web. Firstly they state ‘In Europe nearly 80% of people have Internet access, while only 20% of people in Africa can access the Internet’. Countries in Africa are usually seen as less economically developed – which links to the other statistics that have been unveiled. They then discuss ‘people between the ages of 15-24 make up almost one-quarter of all people online. But even among them, regional differences make for a stark contrast. In Europe, 96% of youth are online, compared with only 40% of young people in Africa.’ These statistics allow us to see how even in countries where internet usage is deemed to be much lower, it is still the young people who are the main driving force behind it.
One of the largest reasons that has helped to continue the digital divide between cultures, rather than breach it, is how affordable the internet and the money that you need to have in order to gain access to it. Universal internet access is seen to be one of the primary foundations needed in order to have everyone connected through the internet. There are many reasons as to why households are still not connected to the internet, and one of the main ones is the cost of broadband and data for the actual connection. ‘It is estimated that only 41% of the world’s households are connected to the Internet. Half of them are in less developed countries, where household Internet penetration has only reached 28%. This is in stark contrast to the 78% of households in more developed countries’, (Tyson 2015). These facts back up the clear digital divide between countries who are seen to be at different levels of both economic and technological development.
Every country is encouraged to aim to reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were established in order for all the countries in the world to have equal opportunities. They are described as ‘a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.’ There are a number of different reasons as to why families who live in areas of severe poverty would not be able to have access to the internet. Usually, it is simply because of their lack of wealth, meaning they are unable to buy the resources needed for this access. It could also be because of political factors – such as citizens in North Korea having restricted access to news and information due to them living in a dictatorship. Another reason could be due to their lack of education, which has meant that don’t have the knowledge to be able to figure out how to use the internet. Bridging the digital divide not only involves gifting less advantaged people mere access to the internet but also helping to teach them ways to use it correctly.
Another aspect of the digital divide which has been explored is the ‘knowledge gap’. The people in the world who already have access to information are also the only ones who are continuing to get access to more, newer information. The gap that already existed is being enlarged, as the people who knew less to begin with are, in comparison, still acquiring less information because of the divide there, to begin with.
There have been a number of different types of people whom all have different opinions on the effect that the internet has on the existing digital divide. Firstly there are the cyber-optimists, who ‘hope that the development of the Internet has the capacity to reduce, although not wholly eradicate, traditional inequalities between information-rich and poor both between and within, societies’. There are also people who believe this to be the exact opposite, named cyber-pessimists who ‘believe that the digital technologies will reinforce and exacerbate existing disparities’. Finally, there are also people who sit in the middle of these two extreme viewpoints, named cyber-sceptics who ‘suggest that both the fears and hopes are exaggerated, with technologies adapting to the social and political status quo, rather than vice versa.’ We are unable to pinpoint if one of these viewpoints is solely correct as many different studies have shown both the positive and negative effects that the internet has had on every aspect of the world.
Not only do cyber-optimists and cyber-pessimists share differing opinions on the effects of the internet on the digital divide, but they have also established different effects and models to show how the internet will change the world in the future, which are called diffusion models. The first is the normalisation model, which is where the cyber-optimists suggest that the way the internet spreads which follow a usual pattern, and those people who are already technologically advanced will always be ahead of others. Once the internet has spread to everyone, the technology that we are using will become more simple and less expensive, which will lead to a call for new types of technology in order to surpass the previous. Cyber-pessimists instead emphasise the ‘stratification model’, which they believe offers a more accurate portrayal of what will really occur. This is where the groups already ingrained within the technological world will continue to have an advantage in the digital world.
Thus far in this essay, there has only been a discussion of the digital divide occurring between different cultures and countries, places of extremely different technological advancement. However, in many places, there are also digital divides within countries themselves. This is due to the many different types of hierarchy throughout these countries, such as economic standing, age, education level, and many others. Specifically within the UK, there have been many studies undertaken to detail the apparent divide. A prominent charity in Britain named Age UK conducted a digital inclusion evidence review in order to find out how many elder people in the United Kingdom either have little or no access to the internet regularly or have never used it. One of the standout statistics from the review is ‘around 6 million people aged 65+ not having the internet at home, 3.7 million of whom are aged 75+’, which shows us how even though the UK is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, there are still a large number of people who are being left behind with these new advancements being made.
There have a number of different barriers that have been established as reasons why these people choose not to, or have not been able to, have access to the internet. The first is the actual access to the internet itself. This could be due to the lack of affordable ways to access it, such as being unable to buy a computer or a smartphone for their own use, and also a lack of education, or being too stuck in their ways to want to educate themselves further.
The second barrier that is mentioned is motivation, whether these people are actually willing to want to learn and educate themselves more. These could be either be through a lack of interest, as they feel that they are better off without needing the internet. It could also be that the supposed money that they would spend on using the internet does not equal up to be beneficial for them in the long run. It could also be because not enough appealing content as ‘the bias of existing content towards the social, cultural and economic priorities of earlier-adopters may act as a considerable disincentive to people trying to engage in new technologies.’
The final barrier, as detailed by the ‘Royal Geographical Society’, is the basic skills and ability that these elderly people have in the usage of the internet. ‘In the consultations conducted as part of the Inclusion Through Innovation study, more respondents cited lack of training or skills as a problem which may prevent some groups from benefiting from ICT than those who cited lack of access’, as people who are of a certain age did not grow up with the technology that we have around us today. They also have a growing concern over the lack of security and safety that they feel they have when using a computer like they have a complete lack of privacy.
The final area of the digital divide that I will be discussing is the global digital divide, the broadest and most general form of the divide which concerns the whole world. Allowing people in lesser advanced countries to have access to technology encourages them to engage in debate and events that they would not have had the access to beforehand. In an article by the Guardian, Carter writes ‘It’s about encouraging the marginalised and disadvantaged to see what’s in it for them to be connected.”. Closing the digital divide means to not only help people in economic ways but also to educate them, allowing them to be involved in new aspects of the world. Companies are being founded all over the world in order to help educate and involve people with technology and the internet, passionate about helping people in disadvantaged positions. There has been a large focus on digital dividends, which are described as ’the broader development benefits from using these technologies’ (Mishra and Deichmann 2016). It is not just about merely accessing the world wide web from a smartphone or computer anymore, but also campaigning for widespread equal access for every different type of person who is using this technology.
In conclusion, it is easy to quickly state that the use of the internet has helped to increase the digital divide, as it has caused the nations and cultures who were already ahead and advanced to further themselves even more, due to them having the money and resources to be able to do so. Due to the lack of resources in the lesser developed countries, the fight to reduce the money required in order to access the internet is warranted, as it is only fair that the technology is cheap enough for the wider public to use.
Also, Pick and Azari wrote that ‘beyond the resources and programs, the results for a single nation seeking improved ICT depends on political will and leadership that appreciates how multidimensional factors, including the ones highlighted in this article, need to be combined for development.’ This point demonstrates how the way in which these leaders and countries choose to use the internet will then influence whether the technology has either a positive or negative effect on the people in their country. The internet has not either had a strictly positive or negative effect on the digital divide, but it seems that it solely depends on the way in which you choose to utilise the made available to you, and thus whether you are bridging or expanding the digital divide itself.
- Anon., 2019. Digital divide in the UK [online]. 21st Century Challenges. Available from: https://21stcenturychallenges.org/what-is-the-digital-divide/ [Accessed 1 Jan 2019].
- Anon., 2019. Sustainable Development Goals | UNDP [online]. UNDP. Available from: http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html [Accessed 9 Jan 2019].
- Anon., 2018. Who’s online, and who isn’t? [online]. Internet Health Report. Available from: https://internethealthreport.org/2018/whos-online-and-who-isnt/ [Accessed 5 Jan 2019].
- Carter, M., 2010. Technology as democracy: bridging the digital divide. The Guardian [online], 2010. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/activate/technology-democracy-digital-divide [Accessed 28 Dec 2018].
- Compaine, B., 2001. The digital divide. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
- Green, M. and Rossall, P., 2013. Age UK Digital Inclusion Evidence Report 2013 [online]. Ageuk.org.uk. Available from: https://www.ageuk.org.uk/Documents/EN-GB/For-professionals/Research/Age%20UK%20Digital%20Inclusion%20Evidence%20Review%202013.pdf?dtrk=true [Accessed 3 Jan 2019].
- Mishra, D. and Deichmann, U., 2016. World Development Report, 2016: digital dividends. Choice Reviews Online, 53 (11), 53-4889-53-4889.
- Norris, P., 2008. Digital divide. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
- Pick, J. and Azari, R., 2008. Global digital divide: Influence of socioeconomic, governmental, and accessibility factors on information technology. Information Technology for Development, 14 (2), 91-115.
- Tyson, G., 2015. Gareth Tyson’s Homepage [online]. Eecs.qmul.ac.uk. Available from: http://www.eecs.qmul.ac.uk/~tysong/ [Accessed 3 Jan 2019].