Benjamin M. Compaine: declare the war on the digital divide won… or just don’t!

Back in 2001, Benjamin M. Compaine edited a book entitled The Digital Divide: Facing a Crisis or Creating a Myth?, composed by previously published articles — including the difficult to find Forrester report The Truth about the Digital Divide by Walsh, Gazala & Ham — and a brand new concluding chapter on his own: Declare the war won.

The whole book combines good research results with an almost global and non hidden aim to advocate for non State intervention, in other words, that there is no need for the Government to foster any Information Society at all because things are just doing their own evolution. In some articles this advice for non intervention comes clear from the facts and figures presented. In some other articles is more a matter of taste and how do you read the stats. In most of the remaining cases, and specially in the closing chapter, in my opinion there is absolutely no close relationship among what’s presented and what is deduced, with existing concept leaps that, again in my opinion, are not logic compliant.

Compaine’s objections to any kind of expenditure to i.e. subsidize computers relies on the true facts that personal computers have cut down costs while increasing power in a much shorter path than, say, the television evolution. Thus, computer and Internet adoption or penetration has increased quite quickly and will keep on doing it at the same rate because of two main reasons: the already said decrease in costs and the increasing ease of use of computers (due to better graphic user interfaces, etc.). In his own words:

  • The United States has seen an unprecedented rapid adoption of the Internet and email between 1994 and 2000 among all strata of the population.
  • Many other similar technology-inspired products achieved near universal adoption without massive government or even private programs: radio, television sets, and VCRs among them.
  • Prices for computers and similar devices have been falling constantly and substantially, to levels equal to a decent color television set.
  • Though services such as telephony and cable have tended to lag behind in adoption rates due to ongoing fees, free Internet access is available using a broadcast TV and radio model in territories that include most of the population.
  • Current rates of adoption for those groups variously included on the unwired side of the early divide are greater than for the population as a whole.
  • As a result, some gaps have already disappeared. For example, from 1994 to 1998 there was high visibility of the gender gap: Initially more than two-thirds of Internet users were male. By 1999 that was history. It simply reflected that early users carne from computer science and engineering disciplines that were more heavily male.
  • Among those who do have access to computers and the Internet, patterns of use are similar across income, gender, and ethnic lines.

to which I add a couple of quotations of his, which summarize his conclusions from the preceding assertions:

  • But surveys have found that services such as chat rooms (sex is popular), sports, and game playing top the list of activities, from where he infers that i.e. there is no more democracy with the Internet (more information, more participation) because people just use it for entertainment
  • A society that has more important issues, such as feeding and housing its people, providing for safety and security, and creating general well-being would place access to entertainment and information well down on the list of priorities

My criticism to these two statement is radical:

  • Comparing the evolution of TV with computer science is shocking to me: while TV sets have only had two main improvements for decades (color and the remote control) until the 20th century eighties or nineties, the personal computer (let aside big computing monsters) has changed his own definition from one year to the next one: there’s more difference among two computers in 2 years lapse, than among two TV sets among 20 years lapse.
  • One important conclusion from the preceding statement is that obsolescence of old equipments makes expenditure on computers much higher compared to television: a family would buy one TV set each i.e. 10 years vs. several PCs for the same period.
  • The second important conclusion is that new personal computer features — including power, but also the kind of software you run it with and the increasing networking issues — make of the machine not an entertainment device, but capital in the economic sense of the word: the PC is a productive machine, not a stupid box.
  • Taking ICTs not as media or entertainment, but as capital, the next statement is evident: capital requires human capital, capacity building, training. Even if the machine itself penetrates with ease, is its use that we must measure, specially its intelligent and productive use.
  • And, indeed, computers are not just machines: technological literacy, related to the “ease of use” and the nice “graphic user interfaces” is just a part — and a small one — of digital literacy, which has the biggest barrier in informational literacy: the concept of digital immigrants is absolutely not related to having a machine at home, but to digital behaviour and understanding
  • Thus, when people choose not to buy a computer or go online, it is highly likely not to be a matter of choice — as Compaine states, hence we can forget about this rational decision takers — but a matter of ignorance: I might never ever admit negative taxes on my enrollment fees, but I wouldn’t reject a grant to pay my degree.
  • And yes, feeding is far more important than entertainment. But if ICTs are not entertainment but a means to get food in a more effective and efficient way, it might well be worth giving them a chance. Actually, all you cannot eat can be interpreted as a barrier to food: roads, schools and governments included.
  • Last, but not least: even if some technology adoption is fast, it could be highly desirable to make it even faster, specially under the capacity building perspective and the fastest path of change of ICTs we started with some lines ago. You can either buy a TV set this year or let the decision be taken the next one. Would you not invest — in your country, in your enterprise, in your own education — this year and let it (or not) for another day?

By the way: the framework of both Compaine and my criticism is based on the digital divide inside the United States of America. If this debate is placed in any developing country, the scope and scale change dramatically… to worse, of course.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2007) “Benjamin M. Compaine: declare the war on the digital divide won… or just don’t!” In ICTlogy, #42, March 2007. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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7 Comments to “Benjamin M. Compaine: declare the war on the digital divide won… or just don’t!” »

  1. I absolutely agree that it is essential for their to be some kind of pubic responsibility both for providing computers and for making sure that every American has access to an affordable high speed connection. Too much government information, education, even telemedicine, is developing on the internet to leave anyone behind. The political debate for the 2008 election is taking place on line. Are we going to cut out large groups of Americans out of the process? There are interesting programs like ConnectKentucky and some initiatives in North Carolina to provide both the computers and improve access to the internet. There is some interesting information and policy proposals on

  2. Thank you. I read your summary. “…social networks can improve the democratic system, by decreasing democratic deficit.” There is another side to this. The more debate, information and political action take place on the internet, the greater the deficit for those without access to it. I think anyone interested in promoting social action on the internet must also be part of the fight for affordable, high speed internet access for all.

  3. I appreciate the rather straightforward report on my book provided here by Ismael Peña-López. However, I think that he and these comments miss the main point.

    1. What the empirical data was showing c. 2001—and continues to hold true—is that a major proportion of households (in the US) without Internet access choose not to do so. Many are elderly. Others just don’t see the need. And others still have access at work and see no further need for it at home. In most cases it is not an economic need that would be fixed by some government subsidy or program. Indeed, my book reported that even in very poor neighborhoods, most households subscribed to cable, which is far more expensive than an Internet connect. These households saw great value in cable—apparently not so to be online.

    2, Broadband is unavailable in some very sparsely settled locales, but by being so sparsely populated it overall encompasses few people. In many cases these are ranchers and others who can afford satellite or other solutions should they care. In a few years some flavor of fixed wireless is likely to be economuically viable to reach even those locales.

    3. The Internet certainly has wonderful benefits for promoting democracy, providing social services and the like. What makes you sure that the very folks who are the laggards in getting it are the ones who would use it for this? After all, speaking of democracy, voting is free but half of those who could, don’t. Newspapers are a wonderful source of information and are cheap. But only about a third our households buy one. TV news is free, but viewership is barely a third of households and is falling.

    My overall conclusion in 2001 is the same as today: the Internet is wonderful—look at what we are doing here. But the hardware and connectivity are not the major barriers for getting the nonconnected. Any government expenditures would be most efficient if well targeted and thus relatively small.

    Thanks again for the discussion.

  4. Pingback: ICTlogy » Ben Compaine revisited: the digital divide is not (just) about infrastructures

  5. Pingback: ICTlogy » Reason for Not Subscribing to Internet Service

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