Beyond the digital divide
Type of work: Report
Categories:Digital Divide | e-Learning and Instructional Technology | Education | Social Media & Social Software
Given the integral role of digital technology in contemporary society should we be concerned with enduring inequalities in individuals’ ICT use? Is the so-called ‘digital divide’ a 20th century problem set to soon disappear from all but the margins of society? Do governments have a part to play in ensuring that all members of society are able to access the opportunities afforded by ICT use?
In this paper we argue that the digital divide continues to present a serious and significant threat to the establishment of the UK as a successful digital society. There is overwhelming evidence that as ICT becomes woven into the fabric of everyday life then the divisions in ICT use are strengthening rather than diminishing. At the same time, individuals from all sectors of society can be considered as being digitally disadvantaged – not just those who are socially excluded in general.
The time is therefore right for countries such as the UK to be reconsidering their efforts to tackle the digital divide. Over ten years on from the popular emergence of the concept, the digital divide remains an important issue that demands renewed attention. With careful thought and due consideration it should be possible for policy makers, technologists and other concerned stakeholders to develop a revitalised policy agenda which builds upon but moves beyond previous digital divide policy-making.
As a precursor to such work, this paper considers the reasons why the digital divide remains a complex and entrenched social problem. Firstly, there is a diverse and wide range of technologies which can be considered as ICTs – not just computers and the internet. Similarly, there is a diverse and wide range of activities for which ICTs can be used if individuals so choose – from learning and employment to leisure and entertainment. One of the primary challenges facing policy makers is to match the affordances of ICTs with the everyday needs, interests and desires of individuals. In this sense the digital divide continues to demand a complex set of policy responses which go far beyond simply increasing levels of hardware provision and support, and then assuming the ‘gap’ to have been ‘bridged’.
From this background the paper argues that a ‘charter for change’ is needed – a list of basic entitlements which we contend that every individual in the 21st century digital age can reasonably expect. At the very least, then, we argue that government should seek to…
Enable all individuals to make informed and empowered choices about the uses of ICTs whilst ensuring these individuals have ready access to the resources required to enable them to act on these choices.
With this in mind, we also offer a list of assumptions about the digital divide which we feel should underpin future discussion and action. Furthermore, the paper concludes by highlighting some key areas of contention which will require consideration and clarification before sustained progress can be made – namely:
- Who should take a lead in coordinating and driving the digital divide effort?
- How do we ensure ready access to hardware and software for all individuals?
- How do we ensure ready access to relevant content and services for all individuals?
- How do we ensure ready access to skills, social and technical support and know-how for all individuals?
- How do we ensure that all individuals can exercise an empowered choice about their ICT (non)use?
Given these wide ranging challenges, this paper is intended to act as a resource for discussion and action across a wide range of different sectors – from the education community to the technology industry, from social policy makers to community practitioners. Although the digital divide is often seen as an individual problem, it undoubtedly requires collective solutions. As such, above all, we hope that the issues and arguments raised in this paper can act as a catalyst for a sustained period of dialogue and development concerning the digital divide and the establishment of a more equitable information society.