Not Another Digital Divide: Perspectives From 2012

Last year, the New York Times ran an article on the newest, latest, and greatest digital divide in America: wasting time online.  This article almost immediately generated heated responses from critics all across the web.  Perhaps no critic was so thorough as Christopher Mims in his comprehensive response on the popular MIT University blog and magazine Technology Review.

Mims summarized the contentious argument thusly:

[W]hile all kids are spending more time with media, those with lower socio-economic status were spending even more of it, and on activities like Facebook that aren’t exactly conducive to learning. In other words: even when you give poor people access to technology, they don’t know what to do with it!

The NYT article gets worse before it gets better, but it does serve an important role in our national dialogue–even if to serve as a whipping boy–on closing the digital divides our country, as all countries, must face; the article drives home a persistant cultural bias with which many of us in the developed world consistently grapple.

First, as Mims points out, perhaps we should put an end to the concept of a digital divide entirely.  While a radical proposition at first, upon closer inspection we see that there may be some truth to this argument.  Jessie Daniels, Associate Professor of urban public health at Hunter College and CUNY and author of a forthcoming book on Internet propaganda, sat down with Mims to help elaborate on this idea.  As Daniels contends:

I think we’ve all sort of accepted the “digital divide” framework, but there are some real problems with that.  First of all, saying there is a “digital divide” presumes a shared understanding of that term and there’s not one.  The original NTIA report from 1998 defined “digital divide” as someone with a desktop computer with (dial-up) Internet access. Since that time, those technologies have faded, yet the terminology has persisted. What many people have done is to talk about “multiple divides” or, as the New York Times did today, “new divides.”  But I find this framing problematic.

I would argue, and lots of others have too, that the framing of “digital divide” treats lots of complex ideas about access to and use of Internet technologies in a simplistic, “either or” kind of way.  Following that 1998 NTIA report I mentioned, there were lots of research and popular press stories that talked about “technology haves and have nots.”  That’s far too simplistic for adequately understanding what’s happening with technology access and use.  And, it leads people – both researchers and journalists – to start asking the wrong kinds of questions, such as: “what’s wrong with the technology have-nots?”  And, “why can’t the technology have-nots behave more like the technology haves?” Given that in the original research, the middle- and upper-classes, whites, and men were more likelyt to have access to technology, those sorts of questions about the characteristics of the “have-nots” just point us to old ways of thinking about class, about race, and about gender.[sic]

In short, by using such a specific subset–white males of the middle class in the United States for example–as your measuring stick, you inherently miss the nuanced approaches to technologies that other cultures bring to the table.  To use Jakarta as an example, an upsurge in mobile browsing has led to an independent blogging phenomenon–and circulation of which is largely spurred by social networks (Economist Intelligence Unit, “Digital Economy Rankings 2010”).  According to the Grey Lady, this would would be a classic example of too much time spent on social media, when in reality their social media presence is largely related to their news cycle.  Daniels calls this “digital fluency”, which while it carries on its own metaphorical baggage, seems to more adept at incorporating these socialtal and cultural shifts as a result of the advanced proliferation of ICT across the globe.

In the end, this article makes the point that not only should we consider retiring the phrase “digital divide”, perhaps it is not even the true enemy of the developing world.  An important observation to keep in the back of everyone’s mind is that perhaps it is the developed world’s hubris, rather than the digital divide, that is the true limiting factor as we continue into the 21st century.

MB

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