The Concept of the Digital Divide

The ‘digital divide’ is a phrase commonly used to describe the disparity in computer access and use between various social, economic, and racial groups within New Zealand.

The quote below from William Mitchell of MIT outlines the concerns that the digital revolution can cause between the haves and have-nots in our society:

“The electronically enabled shift of activities back to the home, and the formation of 24-hour, pedestrian-scale neighbourhoods… potentially produce the conditions for vigorous local community life… But as localities adapt, with varying degrees of success, to the new conditions and demands, there will be losers as well as winners. Much existing housing stock will turn out to be ill suited to the integration of workspace.

“Low-income communities may attract less investment in new telecommunications infrastructure, and in any case may lack populations with the education and motivation to take advantage of it… These places will experience the downside of the digital revolutioion… In particular; there is an obvious and serious danger that this reconfiguration of urban patterns will further cluster the affluent while leaving the poor in places with few good jobs and services.

“Today, for example, high-flying Silicon Valley professionals can commute in their air-conditioned cars from gated residential communities to campus workplaces with guards at the entries, scarcely noticing that they are passing through marginalised, crime-ridden areas like East Palo Alto. Urban areas could well continue to congeal into introverted affluent, gated communities intermixed with “black holes” of disinvestment, neglect, and poverty – particularly if, as the unrestrained logic of the market seems to suggest, low-income communities turn out to be the last to get digital telecommunications infrastructure and the skills to use it effectively.”

(William J. Mitchell, Dean of Architecture, MIT, in his book e-topia or Urban Life, Jim – But Not As We Know It)

Recent Research on the Digital Divide:

Recent research indicates that access to Internet connection in the home is key to bridging the digital divide. The Garner Group’s report, Digital Divide and American Society, presented to the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology in October 2000, examined the gap between the technologically destitute and wired citizens across the United States.

“1. Access to the Internet in the home – While half of US households have Internet access, the penetration rate differs drastically based on socio-economic status, which is a combination of household income and education level. Currently, Gartner research shows that 35 percent of lowest socio-economic status Americans have Internet access, compared to 53 percent in the lower-middle socio-economic bracket, 79 percent in the upper-middle bracket and 83 percent in the highest socio-economic bracket.”

Other Models of Computers in Home Schemes:

1.0 United Kingdom

1.1 – Free computers for the poor

The government wants to tackle the digital divide Chancellor Gordon Brown has called on UK businesses and consumers to embrace the Internet, saying that future success depends on embracing the knowledge economy.

And he has pledged that the government will bridge the digital divide, and launched a pilot scheme to make free computers available to poor households.

Mr Brown argued that the internet revolution is here to stay, and could lead to a significant improvement in the performance of the UK economy – but it needs the support of government.

“If we’re to succeed in Britain, we must equip not just some but all of our companies and we must put the new technologies that are increasingly available within reach not just of a few people but all,” he said.

The chancellor was giving the keynote speech at the Net Summit 2000, which brings together business leaders and net visionaries, including Sir Martin Sorrell of advertising agency WPP, Jim Rose of internet auction site QXL, Martha Lane Fox of, and Esther Dyson of EDVentures.

1.2 – UK digital divide initiatives

Chancellor Brown said that the government was planning to provide 100,000 recycled older computers to low income families through the ‘Computers Within Reach’ scheme, with 35,000 available now.

And, with Education Minister Michael Wills, he announced a £10m initiative to wire up poor local communities, with 10 pilot schemes.

The first scheme, in Kensington in Liverpool, will provide 2000 computers available free on loan to local residents, along with cheap Internet access and a special local web portal and extra training opportunities.

“This will help overcome the barriers people may face in access to employment, education and local services and it will give many the opportunity for the first time to use the Internet,” Mr Brown said.

“We want to see not just some but everyone equipped for the challenges of the future. No one should be excluded from the benefits of the IT revolution,” he added.

Mr Brown said it was unacceptable that one in twenty low-income families had access to the Internet, compared to one in two of the better off.

And he announced that there would be 1000 learn direct centres and 1000 ICT learning centres by 2001, with free on-line training for the unemployed.

2.0 United States

2.1 – City of Boston

The City of Boston, United States, has embraced a citywide model to encourage greater community involvement. Programmes select and train low-income families in a manner that encourages enhanced employment opportunities for adults, improved academic performance for children, community collaboration and co-operation, and creation of Internet communities within and between neighbourhoods.

2.2 – Edison schools project

In the Edison schools project, supported access to technology is a key part of the model:

“Edison schools are technologically rich environments that prepare students for the workplaces of tomorrow. We believe that information technology can make students, teachers, and schools more effective—but only when used as a tool and not as a teaching machine. In Edison schools, technology is fully integrated with the education program and used to facilitate communication, research, writing, and analysis just as it is used in the real world. To support this integration, every student, teacher, principal, and administrator has easy access to classroom computers and other technologies, including video cameras, cassette tape recorders, VCRs, televisions, and laser discs. In addition, every family with a student in the third grade or higher receives technology for use in the home and every teacher receives his or her own laptop computer.”

2.3 – The MIT Community Connections Project, Roxbury

Richard O’Bryant and Randal Pinkett are conducting joint research at MIT’s Centre for Reflective Community Practice into the use of technology in low-income and urban communities for the purpose of community building, the impact of culture on the use of computers and the Internet, and the participation of under-represented minority groups with technology. Their current work involves a low-income housing development in Roxbury, where they will study the use of computer information technology to enhance and improves residents’ lives.

Useful References:

Wresch, William, Disconnected: haves and have-nots in the information age, Rutgers University, 1996

Bolt, David and Crawford, Ray, Digital divide: computers and our children’s future, TV Books, 2000

Schön, Donald, Sanyal, Bish and Mitchell, William, High technology and low-income communities: prospects for the positive use of advanced information technology, MIT Press, 1999

US Department of Commerce, Falling through the Net: defining the digital divide: a report on the telecommunications and information technology gap in America, July 1999, revised November 1999.