Is the digital divide of the past, present or future?

18th May 2020

Professor Simon Rogerson

De Montfort University, Leicester

Throughout history there have always been social divides predicated upon, for example, poverty, education, gender and status. Such divides have been challenged sometimes by governments, sometimes by radical politicians and sometimes by socially responsible individuals. Often such divides have been diminished by pragmatic people driven by justice and philanthropy. These towering figures who made a difference include Angela Burdett-Coutts, George Cadbury, Andrew Carnegie, George Peabody, Joseph Rowntree, Titus Salt and Louisa Twining.

With increasing technological global dependency, the digital divide has become one of the most significant social divides of our time. Technological advance continues to accelerate and so the digital divide is likely to become more acute with every passing day. In this age of the digital divide there is need for the modern philanthropist who, unhampered by convention, authority and tradition, can help and support the needy. A prime example of the modern philanthropist is Sir Tim Berners Lee who created the World Wide Web Foundation which focuses on establishing the open Web as a basic right and a public good.

It is twenty-five years since Terry Bynum and I wrote “Cyberspace: the ethical frontier” for the Times Higher Education, formerly The Times Higher Education Supplement. We explained that, “Information, as the new life-blood of society, empowers those who have it; but it also disenfranchises those who do not. Wealth and power flow to the information rich, those who create and use computing technologies successfully. They are primarily well-educated citizens of industrialised nations. The information poor - both in industrialised countries and in the third world - are falling further and further behind.”

Information often spawns knowledge and understanding. There are three groups of players affected by the information rich - information poor divide; those who create information, those who communicate information and those who consume information. Discrimination, prejudice or bias related to any of these groups is likely to lead to an increase in this aspect of the digital divide. For example, those controlling a communication channel might have a view about who or what might be allowed on the channel. The question is whether that view is morally and socially justifiable. If not, then some information will be unfairly barred from communication thereby curtailing choice in the consuming community.

The impact of such situations is far reaching both in breadth and depth. Here are some examples. Job opportunities which are only advertised online cannot be viewed by those without web access. Personal healthcare monitoring systems with online connections demand a level of computer literacy of the patient, as well as access to the online system. Online training and education courses are only available to those with online access which has sufficient capacity to allow functions such as video streaming and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) as these are an often integral to the course on offer.

However, the digital divide is more than simply information as a product. It is suggested that it is broad in its meaning; referring to unequal access to information and communication technology based on social, economic, cultural and political factors. It is multi-dimensional, encompassing a variety of diverse perspectives and dynamic changes over time as technology evolves. It is commonplace for single dimensions, such as location, gender, age and education, of the digital divide to be considered in isolation. This seems to be problematic as the digital divide occurs through a very complex interrelationship of factors which need to be considered in total. It is this which makes the digital divide one of the greatest challenges of today. Since the advent of accessible online computing, the digital divide existed, it exists today and it will exist tomorrow. It means that almost every aspect of life will be affected, particularly for those who are most vulnerable for whatever reason.

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