Skip to main content
Engineering LibreTexts

9.6: Digital Divide

  • Page ID
    94946
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    As the Internet continues to make inroads across the world, it is also creating a separation between those who have access to this global network and those who do not. This separation is called the “digital divide” and is of great concern. An article in Crossroads puts it this way: 

    Adopted by the ACM Council in 1992, the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct focuses on issues involving the Digital Divide that could prevent certain categories of people — those from low-income households, senior citizens, single-parent children, the undereducated, minorities, and residents of rural areas — from receiving adequate access to the wide variety of resources offered by computer technology. This Code of Ethics positions the use of computers as a fundamental ethical consideration: “In a fair society, all individuals would have equal opportunity to participate in, or benefit from, the use of computer resources regardless of race, sex, religion, age, disability, national origin, or other similar factors.” This article summarizes the digital divide in its various forms, and analyzes reasons for the growing inequality in people’s access to Internet services. It also describes how society can bridge the digital divide: the serious social gap between information “haves” and “have-nots.”

    The digital divide can occur between countries, regions, or even neighborhoods. In many US cities, there are pockets with little or no Internet access, while just a few miles away high-speed broadband is common.

    Solutions to the digital divide have had mixed success over the years. Many times just providing Internet access and/or computing devices is not enough to bring true Internet access to a country, region, or neighborhood.

    A New Understanding of the Digital Divide

    In 2006, web-usability consultant Jakob Nielsen wrote an article that got to the heart of our understanding of this problem. In his article he breaks the digital divide up into three stages: the economic divide, the usability divide, and the empowerment divide.

    • Economic divide. This is what many call the digital divide. The economic divide is the idea that some people can afford to have a computer and Internet access while others cannot. Because of Moore’s Law (see Chapter 2), the price of hardware has continued to drop and, at this point, we can now access digital technologies, such as smartphones, for very little. Nielsen asserts that for all intents and purposes, the economic divide is a moot point and we should not focus our resources on solving it.
    • Usability divide. Usability is concerned with the fact that “technology remains so complicated that many people couldn’t use a computer even if they got one for free.” And even for those who can use a computer, accessing all the benefits of having one is beyond their understanding. Included in this group are those with low literacy and seniors. According to Nielsen, we know how to help these users, but we are not doing it because there is little profit in doing so.
    • Empowerment divide. Empowerment is the most difficult to solve. It is concerned with how we use technology to empower ourselves. Very few users truly understand the power that digital technologies can give them. In his article, Nielsen explains that his and others’ research has shown that very few users contribute content to the Internet, use advanced search, or can even distinguish paid search ads from organic search results. Many people will limit what they can do online by accepting the basic, default settings of their computer and not work to understand how they can truly be empowered.

    Understanding the digital divide using these three stages provides a more nuanced view of how we can work to alleviate it. More work needs to be done to address the second and third stages of the digital divide for a more holistic solution.

    Refining the Digital Divide

    The Miniwatts Marketing Group, host of Internet World Stats, has sought in 2018 to further clarify the meaning of digital divide by acknowledging that the divide is more than just who does or does not have access to the Internet. In addition to Nielsen’s economic, usability, and empowerment divides, this group sees the following concerns.

    • Social mobility. Lack of computer education works to the disadvantage of children with lower socioeconomic status.
    • Democracy. Greater use of the Internet can lead to healthier democracies especially in participation in elections.
    • Economic growth. Greater use of the Internet in developing countries could provide a shortcut to economic advancement. Using the latest technology could give companies in these countries a competitive advantage.

    The focus on the continuing digital divide has led the European Union to create an initiative known as The European 2020 Strategy. Five major areas are being targeted: a) research and development, b) climate/energy, c) education, d) social inclusion, and e) poverty reduction.


    Sidebar: Using Gaming to Bridge the Digital Divide

    Paul Kim, the Assistant Dean and Chief Technology Officer of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, designed a project to address the digital divide for children in developing countries. In their project the researchers wanted to learn if children can adopt and teach themselves mobile learning technology, without help from teachers or other adults, and the processes and factors involved in this phenomenon. The researchers developed a mobile device called TeacherMate, which contained a game designed to help children learn math. The unique part of this research was that the researchers interacted directly with the children. They did not channel the mobile devices through the teachers or the schools. There was another important factor to consider. In order to understand the context of the children’s educational environment, the researchers began the project by working with parents and local nonprofits six months before their visit. While the results of this research are too detailed to go into here, it can be said that the researchers found that children can, indeed, adopt and teach themselves mobile learning technologies.

    What makes this research so interesting when thinking about the digital divide is that the researchers found that, in order to be effective, they had to customize their technology and tailor their implementation to the specific group they were trying to reach. One of their conclusions stated the following:

    Considering the rapid advancement of technology today, mobile learning options for future projects will only increase. Consequently, researchers must continue to investigate their impact. We believe there is a specific need for more in-depth studies on ICT [Information and Communication Technology] design variations to meet different challenges of different localities.

    To read more about Dr. Kim’s project, locate the paper referenced here.


    9.6: Digital Divide is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

    • Was this article helpful?