By many accounts, the digital divide-the gap between people who actively use modern information technology like the Internet and those who don’t-is shrinking rapidly. Internet usage grew by 238% globally between 2000 and 2006. But, according to University of Washington researcher Karine Barzilai-Nahon, too many decision makers in local and national governments have a simplistic view of the issue of Internet accessibility. She argues that a more sophisticated approach would provide a fuller and more accurate measurement of who is being left behind.
For instance, counting the number of computers in a given public school provides a false sense of how many students are able to access the Internet, Barzilai-Nahon argues. That’s because many of these students have little or no access to the Web outside of the classroom, a factor that can severely hinder the development of technoliteracy. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 37% of students from families with incomes below $20,000 are able to use a computer at home, while 88% of students from families with incomes beyond $75,000 have regular Web access outside of the classroom.
“Single factors such as ‘access’ are convenient [for policy makers] since they are easy to measure. Additionally, these simple measures can be used to influence public opinion since lay people can relate to them. However, the major reason policy makers gravitate towards technologically deterministic measures [focusing on the availability of equipment as opposed to computer literacy] is their need to justify allocation of resources, a task which is made easier if they can create benchmarks and compare one nation to another against this benchmark. Policy makers like to have an ‘objective’ comparative tool. In other words, the fact that these measures may [only] be appropriate in a particular context is given very little thought,” Barzilai- Nahon writes in her paper in the October 2006 issue of The Information Society.
Barzilai-Nahon encourages policy makers to “use a different yard-stick when measuring the digital divide,” such as:
* Affordability of access relative to other expenditures. For example, a single parent who has to pay for day care during working hours may not have the discretionary income for a monthly subscription to broadband service. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the price of a high-speed DSL connection in the United States is around $32 per month, compared with $42 for high-speed cable modem access.
* Social and governmental support and constraining factors, including funding for training.
* Socioeconomic factors, including age, education, geography, race, and language.
“The conceptual framework proposed in this study should be considered a call-to-arms [for] a more comprehensive approach to the digital divide for research and policy making,” Barzilai-Nahon concludes. “This paper is by no means a final word or a comprehensive survey of global digital divide/s. If we are serious about understanding the complexity of the divide, further efforts that build on the model above are required,” she writes.
Data Box: Measuring the Digital Divide
* At the end of March 2006, 42% of Americans had a high-speed Internet connection at home, up from 30% in March 2005.
* Home broadband use among African Americans grew by 121% during that period, from 14% of all adults to 31%.
* Americans whose household incomes were between $40,000 and $50,000 saw the fastest adoption of high-speed Internet capabilities, up by 68% between 2005 and 2006.
Source: The Pew Internet and American Life Project, http://www.PewInternet.org.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST,March-April 2007.