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.

References
Barzilai-Nahon, Karine. 2006. “Gaps and Bits: Conceptualizing Measurements for Digital Divide/s.” Information Society 22:269-278.

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About davidnemer

Assistant Professor in the School of Information Science at the University of Kentucky.

Posted on December 3, 2012, in Digital Inclusion, Media, Research. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. So I’ve been doing a lot reading in this topic as well, but I’ve been looking general “digital divide” work, e-government, and HCI and how they understand the divide. In those space, I find that if we understand the digital divide to mean the gap between those who are using technical and information resources, what I’ve read indicates there are three phases or spaces of the “divide”. The first phase explained the gap as a lack of access to technologies. The second phase realized that it’s not just about access, and nuanced itself by explaining the gap through a lack of technical skill, including understanding how to use information to your advantage. My understanding is that the third phase points at larger systemic problems within the digital divide to understand the divide beyond economic or technical issues, highlighting how race, gender, and socioeconomic factors influence the digital divide.

    Do you have any resources that articulate which interventions produce what kind of results?It seems like its not just an issue of access, skill training, but multi pronged approaches would prove useful. Like not just training an individual how to use the technology, but also how to recognize when technology would be helpful, etc.

    • Hi Lynn, thanks for your comment and question. The research on digital divide is not really organized. You can find different scholars defining these phases completely different. But I agree with your phase distinctions. I believe that these different phases characterize how digital divide researchers have approached the issue in the past. 1st they thought it was an issue of access, then they thought it was an issue of appropriating the technology, and finally they realized that we also need to take into account socioeconomic, political and cultural factors. Although they represent different phases in the research history, I believe that when researching the digital divide we need to consider all possible factors from all phases. Something that I can affirm, for sure, is that we need to take a multi-factor approach when studying the digital divide.

      Scholars such as DiMaggio and Hargittai have come up with a new phase: the “virtual divide”, which is characterized by the difference of content production by different groups of people (age, race, gender, etc), So, here, the complete lack of access is not an issue anymore.

      Now, answering your question, there aren’t many studies out there that would tell you which interventions may cause a specific result. Like I said, this is a multi factor problem. There is a paper by Forestier, Emmanuel, Jeremy Grace, and Charles Kenny. “Can Information and Communication Technologies Be Pro-poor?” that gives you some policy suggestions on how to spread the internet and telephones. You may also find some studies by Harigittai that talks about education and digital literacy.

      The issue of “how to recognize when technology would be helpful” seems very subjective because it depends from person to person. That is why we need research to perform qualitative and context based studies, and unfortunately, we don’t have many.

  2. Thanks for the blog David, picked it up after Susan Dray posted to Facebook.

    Lynn I’d like to add a sort of stage 1.5 to your three phases. People often in principle have access, computer, internet, etc., but the quality is not what is expected by current apps. I live on a small scottish island, so network capacity/speed is particularly noticeable here, but is a problem also in mainland rural areas, and when you look at the whole picture, including age of computers … much more widespread. We spent a whole afternoon some while ago trying to get a neighbours iPad to work as her PC was too old to run a sufficient version of iTunes.

    Of course these technological issues tend to correlate with social disadvantage (age, income, etc.) and skills (e.g. grandparents get cast off computers as they ‘only need them for email’). So, interacts with your second phases.

    In principle even the lowest level is way better than the best one could hope for 10 years ago, but of course software developers implicitly assume that the rest of the world is like them, nit juts socially culturally, but also in terms of technological access … hence the 2 Gb update every couple of weeks etc.

    • Hi Alex, great point. This reminds me of how much politics is embedded in our technology nowadays.

      Take a look on my comment to Lynn’s comment about other phases on the digital divide. Thanks for the visit!

    • Alan, you are totally right. I grew up in rural America and every time I go home, I encounter a very similar scenario to what you posed and I empathize.

      At first, I wanted to label this as an issue with not having access to the right “infrastructure”, but that the word “infrastructure” isn’t quite right, since we are thinking about cases where individuals have access to the internet, access to technology, and access to the skill sets to use the technology, but the technology is not in “synch”. I wonder if a better descriptor of this phenomenon is about having access to not just technologies and infrastructure, but access to the right constellations of those technologies that make their own kinds of semi-stable working infrastructures. These semi-stable working infrastructures are made of the “right” technologies and the “right” skill sets that allow for people to take advantages of the opportunities that technologies can create.

      In this way, when we think about the digital divide, we don’t just understand the importance of the technical infrastructure, but also the necessity of the human infrastructure.

  3. The constellation is certainly right, but maybe even more radical is to think about having the ‘right’ constellation, but redefining ‘right’. If you take the ‘synch’ thought the issue is not necessarily about having the right technology, skills, social support networks, etc. to be effective in C21 society, but maybe about making sure what us necessary is achievable. If software and services were designed to be usable with less resources, then not only would that help the digital divide, but also sustainability, power use, etc. Of course fewer new devices would mean less profit for computer companies … and less landfill = lower GDP (yea economics are crazy!), so gov’t would not be so happy either.

  4. What a great post! I am far from an expert on the field but like you already mentioned I think there is a problem with the word “digital”. Reading on early literature the word was used to describe technologies and more specifically developing and developed nations. But there is a second divide from my point of view that exists even for those that have access to technology. So digital divide is too generic to describe differences between technological divide and what I would call informational divide. The later is probably more social or cultural than technological. For example, how many people know how to filter through the right information? If you think of the DIKW pyramid this in the long run will definitely impact societies.

    The other issue is that we think of the divide as geographical. But, if we perceive that there is also an informational divide then geography may matter little. The divide may exist within social layers of a small town and not locations within it.

    It is a topic that I would like to conduct research on and have some ideas currently but the research itself seems challenging. The problem may be so embedded and twisted around other variables that isolating the relationship of interest and eliminating spurious relationships may be methodologically challenging.

  5. I just picked up this blog from twitter and blogged a full response to is at http://dadamac.net/blog/20130120/quantitative-approaches-answer-wrong-questions

    I’ve been actively involved, for over a decade, in the practicalities of crossing the digital divide between UK and several locations in rural Africa, Policy making usually seems totally unrelated to reality as I know it – and sadly the same is true for most of the academic research that I check. I was therefore delighted to find this post from someone in academia putting forward a viewpoint that I wholeheartedly agree with.

    We need far more genuine collaborative research, by academics working with practitioners, so that reality checks start to feed into policy making. Please contact me pamela.mclean@dadamac.net if you are interested in making this a practical reality.

  6. I just picked up this blog from twitter and blogged a full response to it at http://dadamac.net/blog/20130120/quantitative-approaches-answer-wrong-questions

    I’ve been actively involved, for over a decade, in the practicalities of crossing the digital divide between UK and several locations in rural Africa, Policy making usually seems totally unrelated to reality as I know it – and sadly the same is true for most of the academic research that I check. I was therefore delighted to find this post from someone in academia putting forward a viewpoint that I wholeheartedly agree with.

    We need far more genuine collaborative research, by academics working with practitioners, so that reality checks start to feed into policy making. Please contact me pamela.mclean@dadamac.net if you are interested in making this a practical reality.

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