Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Is the digital divide a defunct framework?

By Jenna Burrell

In the mid 1990s, the "digital divide" became the special purpose concept for talking about inequality in relation to computers and the Internet. It emerged during a time of transition, as the Internet went from a novelty to a necessity in the view of policy-makers and the general public in global centers. In the beginning of the terms usage, the digital divide was a simple measure of who had access to the Internet and who did not, and was correlated with the usual demographic categories — gender, race, age, income, and education level. In later years, the term was refined adding some consideration for varying skills and literacies among users, it became “the gap between those who can effectively use new information and communication tools, such as the Internet, and those who cannot.” (Mitchell 2002). This shift in language, towards talk about ‘effective’ use indicated that we might distinguish and even rank users by how well they use the Internet.

In the intervening years, the technologies composing the Internet have changed. The worldwide user population has also changed becoming more globally diverse. Many more users are connecting from the margins of the global economy. This is the case in Ghana where, since 2004, I have been studying Internet use and the Internet café scene. According to ITU statistics, Internet use grew in many such countries from less than 1% in 2000 to as much as 50% (for countries like Albania and Azerbaijan) and up to a more modest 14% and 28% for Ghana and Nigeria respectively. The dramatic online demographic shift has yet to be fully addressed in either scholarship or discussions of policy. From these global margins, there are problems of access and inclusion that endure even for those who have gained connectivity. To characterize these problems as a matter of deficient user skill is inapt. Less attention has been paid to exclusionary technical designs and configurations, overreaching security measures, and problematic trends in the commercialization of the Internet.

New users confront mystifying barriers in trying to join online cultures – ranging from Yahoo! chat rooms to Wikipedia. They find limited content and services of local relevance. An unaware ethnocentrism at network centers (in Silicon Valley and elsewhere) underlies decisions that may shape the totality of the Internet but from a position of limited knowledge or interest in the way the Internet is experienced in these margins. Commercial interests, where they run afoul of populist priorities, may be countered and challenged in places like the US and Western Europe. See, for example, the network neutrality debate in the US or Google’s greatly scaled-back plans for implementing ‘Street View’ in Germany. However, there is less opportunity for this for those outside of the customer base or political constituencies in these network centers.

I’d like to highlight a few of the long-standing challenges as well as some newer trends in the technical evolution of the Internet that work against equitable global access:

1) E-commerce vs. cash-based economies

Consider the last time you bought something on the Internet and then try to imagine what it would be like if that entire realm of Internet use was closed off to you. The population of Internet users connecting from cash based economies where there is no access to Visa is growing. While cheap money transfer by mobile phones has taken off in parts of Africa (the m-Pesa system in Kenya is the main case in point) there is still no universal, accessible system to facilitate general Internet purchases.

2) ‘Cloud computing’ as a transition from software to (inaccessible) services

The assumption of always-on connectivity that seems to be built into many of the phone apps and web services of recent years create the occasional annoyance for those of us who’ve been on the road and without network coverage at times. Such services often become totally unworkable in the global margins where general Internet access may be charged per minute and supplied through narrow bandwidth channels. Gigabyte-sized security updates pushed through the network by Windows Update stall computers in offices, homes, and Internet cafes in Ghana. Disabling Windows Update (which is the routine practice for handling this problem) leads to computers that are, in turn, disabled by viruses.

3) Advertising and local relevance

The trend in the high-tech sector, as of late, is towards local and personalized services, such as location-aware mobile apps and micro-targeted advertising. Yet generalized pop up ads and animated banners continue to predominate on the Internet. In the global margins this means advertisements that suck up bandwidth trying to gain eyeballs and click-throughs from users who often have no ability to obtain what is being sold (see the above comments on e-commerce). Being forced to view (and pay for) what all parties would agree is irrelevant content is unfortunate. Additionally, there is a connected problem, the lack of relevant and locally specific resources and content for populations in some parts of the world. A PhD student at the ISchool at UC Berkeley, Elisa Oreglia, spent time in farming communities in rural China. Villagers had quite good access to the Internet as a product of the Chinese State’s rural informatization program. Yet, these farmers did not see the Internet as connected in any way to their livelihoods. Policy-makers likely overestimate the demand for state-sponsored, official information sources. Rather what is needed are ways to radically lower the barriers to participation and content creation.

4) Exclusionary online subcultures

Newly connected user populations who are arriving late to the Internet, do not have a say in designing the community membership standards or setting norms of interaction in the online spaces they seek to join. Language barriers and the attempt to communicate in a second language, the use of local vernacular stigmatize these users from the global margins in spaces dominated by fluent monolinguals from its centers. The challenges of enhancing global participation confront resources such as Wikipedia where the project to build a Swahili Wikipedia (to offer one example) has struggled to gain interested participants (see Ford 2011). In my own research, I found many Ghanaian Internet users confronted ignorant and narrow perceptions of Africa among those they encountered online and had experiences with being banned or blocked by chat partners for seemingly minor missteps in interaction. In some cases crude region-wide blocks (based on detected IP address) have been set up to keep out Ghanaian and Nigerian users entirely (especially from dating sites and from online shopping) as part of overreaching security measures.

The conversation about the global Internet and the special inequalities it is at risk of generating must continue, but ways of talking about it must evolve. The conversation needs to keep up with both the way the technology itself is ever evolving and with changes in the Internet’s global user base. The main problem with the ‘Digital Divide’ as a framework is that it treats the technology as a black box and as a fait accompli, rather than as a continually evolving product of social and political negotiation among individual engineers and users, investors, businesses, and governments. The focus on ‘skills’ and ‘effective use’ feeds the misleading notion that there are correct and proper uses of the technology and a singular and universal stream of benefits to be drawn from Internet access. The reality is that users come to the Internet with divergent agendas and interests. Users do not gain from the Internet simply as atomistic individuals, as information consumers, but through their interactions with other users. In this they face all the challenges of communication and self-representation. Users interact with one another from very different positions of power in relation to their available resources, geographic location, and ability to set and enforce standards of online participation and membership.

The technologies that compose the Internet may be subject to the same scrutiny in terms of how they are designed, configured and managed from global network centers and how this wittingly or unwittingly produces inequalities. No technology is neutral and the Internet especially is one that is constantly in flux. Connectivity is not a simple binary and the world cannot be neatly divided anymore (if it ever could) into the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ Effective use is not just about skills and literacies, but also about being empowered to participate in the production of the Internet.

Cross-posted from the blog Global Policy.