Information and communication technology (ICT) has pervaded almost every aspect of society, from dating and the labor market to governance and shopping. However, not every member of society has been successfully integrated into the information society. The increasing isolation of those suffering from this digital inequality continues to deepen the divide. While information technology persists in conquering ever more aspects of social life, the new form of inequality is affecting the social and economic prospects of those left without ICT knowledge or access. Without access to digital information or resources, these people face a digital divide that sociologists are working to overcome.
Keywords Cultural Capital; Digital Divide; Digital Inequality; Digital Society; E-Government; E-Learning; Generic Medical Products; Information & Communication Technology (ICT); Information Society
The term digital divide rose to fame in the mid-nineties, predominantly due to its use by Vice President Al Gore in a 1996 speech. Originally, it referred to the distribution of personal computers in American households. With the turn of the century, however, the question of Internet access became a crucial aspect of the debate in the United States and around the world.
In its simplest explanation, one could say that the digital divide represents the division between people with and without access to and practical knowledge about modern technology, specifically the Internet and technology categorized as information technology (IT). But further elaboration is, of course, necessary. There exists, for example, a digital divide between developed and underdeveloped countries, for example the difference in available digital resources between the U.S. and Ethiopia. Pick and Azari have analyzed the effects of IT usage in 71 developing and developed countries to specifically identify steps that can be taken to help developing countries in their progress (2008). They have also managed to elaborate on the effects that investment and information technology have on a country's progress.
In a global perspective, the difference between developed and developing nations in regard to IT access is immense. While in developed countries it is perfectly normal for more than half of households to own computers, in many developing nations it may be nearly impossible to find more than two people out of a hundred who own a computer. This disparity became the topic of two World Summit on the Information Society conferences hosted by the United Nations in Geneva and Tunis (2003, 2005) as well as a series of further related events. The continuing aim of these conferences, whose reports can be found online, is to find workable solutions for bridging the international digital divide. In the same spirit, a group of faculty members of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began an initiative called One Laptop per Child, which builds inexpensive, rugged, energy-efficient laptop computers and distributes them to children in countries such as Uruguay, Rwanda, and Mongolia. These computers enable teachers worldwide to better educate children about technology and their world.
But the term "digital divide" does not just describe a global disparity. Within developed nations, too, access to information technology can be unequal, and this inequality's effects are becoming increasingly grave. As information technology continues to pervade everyday life and the job market, those without access are left further and further behind.
Causes of the Digital Divide
The causes behind the national digital divide are manifold. Poverty and social class are issues that come into play even within the most developed nations. These issues can be described in terms of access to cultural capital or symbolic capital, a theoretical conception originally formulated by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1986). According to Bordieu's model, members of a lower social class have little or no opportunity to acquire the traits, habits, or information necessary to accomplish a rise in status, income, class, or livelihood. In the worst cases, a lack of information, which is increasingly available only online, would bar these classes from informed participation in civic life and democracy.
In the case of the digital divide, a lack of cultural capital would make it much harder for children born into low socioeconomic classes to gain the knowledge necessary to command information technology. Possessing this command, according to the Bourdieu theory, is a necessary form of capital if one is to be a part of modern society, which increasingly relies on the use of technology such as email and Internet videophones. From arranging a date to securing job information to handling client agendas, the demands of everyday private and professional life require not only the capability to use information technology but also the ability to do so with ease.
From the point of view of those already fluent in the use of this technology, it may seem very simple to be able to handle technology. But even something as simple as reading a website and finding its significant content requires a thorough initiation.
Today, the requirements have reached a level designated as media-multitasking. Successfully performing a variety of simultaneous tasks, such as coordinating activities on a cell phone while simultaneously surfing the Internet, requires a great deal of prior learning. Further, the learning process for such habitual routines is fairly time-consuming and gets harder with the increased age of the learner.
Therefore, we have to think of other factors besides mere class status when considering the digital divide, such as those of age and generation. Elderly people often have difficulty adjusting to swift changes in technology. The two major problems they are facing, even when they are presented with access, are a) their own fear or resentment, and b) a form of technological illiteracy. As Foehr and Roberts have argued, reading web content requires a multitude of learned skills (2008). For those who weren't educated into this cultural technique at an early age, the learning process can be long and difficult.
The symbolic-capital theory applies in these cases, too. Consider the following analogy: buying into a fledgling market requires only a small amount of start-up capital, but once a market has gained momentum, it becomes much more difficult and requires an ever higher margin of investment to buy into it. It is the same with IT. If a person has not grown up within the development of the technology, then more effort and more symbolic capital will be required of them in order to obtain even a moderate amount of technological knowledge.
In other words, those on the losing side of digital inequality will face a widening gap between themselves and the technologically literate as well as an increasingly steep learning curve as they try to catch up.
This effect is visible in the impact that Internet use has on U.S. workers, as Paul DiMaggio and Bart Bonikowski (2008) have shown. Just demonstrating the ability to use Internet technology, whether at work or at home, has a significant positive impact on workers' earnings and chances on the job market. The ability to use the Internet, symbolized, for example, by possessing one's own e-mail address, can not only serve as an indicator to employers that a worker is computer literate and therefore more employable but also enable workers to find better job opportunities.
In sum, it is necessary to shrink the digital divide, for knowledge of ICT must now be considered a condition of participation not only in the labor market, but also within the political and social spheres in the forms of access to certain markets as well as government services. However, ICT must not be seen as only a mechanism of exclusion. ICT can also be a means to empower those who have been excluded. Many citizens, previously barred from certain forms of political and social participation, or, because of age or disability, dependent on others when it comes to fulfilling certain administrative requirements, now have a chance at participation and independence through technology in the form of e-government. Even if this goal is not equally realized across all U.S. states, as Rubaii-Barret and Wise have shown, efforts are being made all over the U.S. to ensure that more people have easy access to government information and services (2008).
Because spreading information about consumer products becomes more difficult in a globalizing market, consumer empowerment has become increasingly important. Take the example of health care: a number of cheap generic medical products, for example, are only available through Internet sources. Studies, like one undertaken by Rains, have shown that Internet access and use can be positively correlated with personal health care (2008). Specifically, access to broadband Internet in correlation with age and area of residence (whether rural or urban) are factors that contribute to personal health. In this regard, the promotion of personal health is negatively affected by digital inequality. On the other hand, though, access and use can be linked to better health as well as increased opportunities for social and economic participation. Enabling access to e-health is therefore a crucial factor to reduce the effects of digital inequality.
According to Matusitz and Breen, e-health now covers a wide range of fields. As an ever greater number of aspects of healthcare are relocated to the Internet (which increases digital inequality), the amount of actual discourse between patients and doctors is decreasing, making e-health an often problematic social transformation (2007). Notwithstanding, those on the down-side of digital inequality, who have less access to Internet technology or no accurate knowledge of how to use the Internet, are unable to access new developments in treatments or the comparative resources and support offered by patient groups.
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