Digital Divide Research: one myth, problem and challenge.
The Myth: Digital Divide has a small literature. Pretty much, almost every book or paper on the topic will say this. I used to believe that not enough work has been done on Digital Divide, until I started studying for my qualifying exam. Fortunately or unfortunately I found out that the literature is actually very large. The problem is that the digital divide research is spread throughout all kinds of disciplines, such as: ICT4D, Community Informatics, HCI, Social Informatics, Sociology and Communication studies. In fact, the literature is not new, because it goes way back when academics were studying the diffusion of telephones and televisions.
The Problem: Quantitative approaches are addressed to answer the wrong questions. A lot of the research done on digital divide is done quantitatively. They rely on the data collected by International Telecommunication Union, World Bank and other agencies. And what these researches do is to identify a digital gap and try to correlate that gap with some sort of social, economic or political issue. For example, there is a cross country study done by Luis Andres, he says that, based on his quantitative analysis, in order to bridge the digital gap we need to liberalize the telecommunication market to promote internet provider competition. I agree, but Brazil has had this free market for about 15 years, and we still have a vast digital divide. So, obviously, this is not an issue for Brazil, something must be happening that is keeping the divide wide. What I’m trying to say here is that in order to fully understand and propose meaningful solutions, the digital divide research requires local and context based research. It doesn’t matter if it’s quantitative or qualitative, I don’t want to get into this argument, but we need to understand that each country has its own set of policies, people have different cultural backgrounds, so solutions need to be tailored and not based on general auto analysis.
The Challenge: “How to talk to policymakers?”. Policymakers of the digital divide tend to have a technological deterministic perspective. They focus on single factors, such as “access”, because they are convenient since they are easy to measure. These simple measures can be used to influence public opinion since lay people can relate to them. Policymakers also need to justify allocation of resources, which is easier to do when they can create benchmarks (Barzilai-Nahon, 2006). So policymakers are strung up on numbers, and how can we show them that subjective factors such as education and training can be of much better value to promote the digital inclusion than pure access? I don’t want to blame policymakers for approaching the digital divide quantitatively, but I’d like to leave this challenge for us, digital divide scholars, to realize a way to start conversations with people that can only see numbers.
Barzilai-Nahon, Karine. 2006. “Gaps and Bits: Conceptualizing Measurements for Digital Divide/s.” Information Society 22:269-278.