Digital Divide vs Digital Inclusion - Where Are We At?

After reading Danica's blog post Digital Divide and Social Media: Connectivity Doesn’t End the Digital Divide, Skills Do and Simon Phipps's post The New Digital Divides in Computer World UK related to it, I decided to write down my own little addition to this social perspective.

Yes, digital divide concept sucks. This old, outdated and completely wrong term has been the 1990's-2000 fashon. In the same basket are: "information society," "digital gap", and all the issues based on access to newer, more, and better technologies. This corresponds to a framing of social conditions on a binary basis as “haves” and “have-nots.”

In a similar fashion, Virginia Eubanks in the "Digital Dead End" refers to the same phenomenon as representing a species of “magical thinking”, whereby discussion of ICTs tends to be accompanied by unjustified optimism. This equates to a view of ICT as a simple solution to complex social problems – a “myopia shaped by race, class and gender inequality” (Eubanks 2011: xvi).

The digital inclusion issue is a complex one with no simple solution. The way that "access" or connectivity is not the only solution posisble, the skils-based approach is probably not the magic pill for solving poverty and exclusion.

Intragroup Differences and Inequalities

In the debate about gender inequalities in the information and communication (ICT) field, Eubanks (2011: 29) makes an important critique to other similar studies, many of which fail to consider the “intragroup differences.” Eubanks explains that even among women themselves, there is a big difference between women in terms of race, class, age, social status, that define injustice in the information age (ibid.). She states: “Through an intersectional lens, it becomes obvious that a woman's experience of the information economy is very much dependent on where she stands in relation to power.”

One of the conclusions from this book is that economically poor people are often technically skilled and possess basic technology (ex. PC, phone, internet). Eubanks also mentions that women, unlike some common prejudice, do like technology and do like learning more about its possibilities & use.

However, there are social divisions, and they are not as much women/men, but they are also men/men, and women/women. For example, for a white woman living in the west, highly educated & possessing computer (or regular access to one), the divide is not the same as for women of color, with less education, working 14 hours/day just to survive.

"When you are just surviving, you're in a survival mode. You don't think about technology, you don't think about the latest anything. You are surviving. And that takes you a whole life – just to survive. Especially women! Women love to learn and are able to learn. They really like technology and want technology. If you offered a woman a system that they created, for everyone, they would want it, they would engage with it. But it's not like that." (Eubanks 2011: 6)

In brief, statistics regarding ICT often refer to middle class, “relatively privileged” people, who own a personal computer or have access to one. This makes it difficult to understand different experiences with ICT – age, class, ethnicity, sexuality, ability and nationality.

The way to go is to look from different positions, and not just from one point of view. The point of view of "providing skills" looks very similar to "providing access" -- some communication experts would call it "the colonialist view." The way we look from above (we, the digitally literate with all the access to all the gadgets possible) towards those who [we consider] digitally poor is wrong.


Here are some conclusions/ways to counter the binary approach to technology:

  1. Participatory design. Eubanks proposes – a democratic solution would be to promote engagement in these processes in order to ensure everyone's interests and needs are taken into account. It is imperative that the design of technical artifacts includes all people's experience, not just the privileged ones;
  2. Popular technology: people should be recognized as experts of the ICT that they are using, and that they stay closest to the problems, but also to their solutions;
  3. The discourse should change from access to ICT tools, to promoting "a real world technology" inlcuding personal specific practices and policies;
  4. Researchers in STS & social media and social justice issues need to change their methodology: instead of bringing in statistical methods from online research, that participatory action research, with real users, one by one, should take place.

This way, there will be a much better understanding on where the real problems come from, what are their reasons and consequences, instead of simplifying social problems into technology fixes, and generalized solutions.