Digital Divide: bridging the gap

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are all getting a very tangible lesson on the digital divide: on how deep (and wide) the technological divisions within our society – and between societies – really are. The fact that there are digital ‘haves’ and digital ‘have-nots’ is having much more profound implications for many people than it ever has before. And ultimately, profound implications for how difficult bridging these divides continues to be.

One component of the digital divide is the geographic one: remote regions may lack the infrastructure that is a pre-condition for accessing high speed internet. The missing bridge might include a lack of high speed cable. Or, the price of connecting to the internet via satellite. A rural region may be too sparsely populated to make the infrastructure investment economically viable. The physical distances require a combination of innovation and investment, and neither can be overcome within a short time frame. A region may not have reliable enough electricity to run the servers, or to justify the investment. For these reasons, the digital divide has sometimes been depicted in spatial terms: as a problem that can be ‘mapped‘. Of course, no map is perfect, and all map makers must choose which information to include and which to omit.

So, even in this depiction of the digital divide, the geography has never been the whole story. There are political decisions being made in determining which threshold counts as an adequate speed, which regions are recognized as under served. For a small minority, living and working in a remote region may be a matter of choice and even a matter of privilege. And the existence of choice – even if only for a few – can be used to add credence to individual and consumer-focused solutions. These typically come at the expense of broader policy and regulatory changes.

But for many, geographically remote living is a barrier to digital access. That barrier might be overcome with time and money, or it might be overcome with significant policy changes, but it will not be overcome quickly in the current crisis.

The concept of the digital divide also references a social and economic inequality, and this aspect has also become more pronounced in the pandemic context. Libraries and schools serve as a portal to the internet for many, and coffee shops or public spaces serve as wifi portals for others. In the current pandemic, and as a result of social isolation and physical distancing practices, many have been cut off from digital access completely. In this sense, the digital divide has been made worse by social isolation policies in particular.  

Although smart phones had already replaced landlines for many, in the current context ‘access’ has moved very quickly beyond smart phone capabilities. Or, for that matter, beyond what a whole household could do with any single device (whether it be a smart phone, a tablet, a laptop, or a desktop). Of course, for those living with food or housing insecurities, reliable digital access remains elusive. Even a single smart phone is out of reach for many. Precarity is real, and individuals or families may have to choose between digital access and food or shelter. The difficult calculation that made sense a few weeks ago may be difficult to change at this point, and the implications may have changed. For many, internet access has become a prerequisite to food access in the context of a quarantine.

Finally, the digital divide can include an aspect of digital literacy. As many of us scramble to download new apps and access new platforms, several vulnerable populations are left out. The very old, the very young, or the recent migrant may not have either the physical hardware or the digital literacy (or, indeed, the relevant language literacy) to be able to access essential services and communities. Simultaneously, the emergency-augmented level of digital literacy that many users are now practicing on a daily basis leaves other communities behind. For example, when we fail to caption our videos, or fail to describe our images, or fail to use a reader-compatible font.

Whereas the digital divide has often been treated as a symptom of systemic inequality, in the current context it might better be understood as a midstream causal node: it has both upstream causes, and downstream implications. Upstream, the digital divide has come about because many social, cultural, and economic inequalities have implications for digital inequality, and many have been viewed as low-priority.

But downstream, the digital divide has implications in terms of educational and health access, and ultimately in terms of educational and health outcomes.

As each service moves online, as each new ‘digital equivalent’ gains popularity, we have to keep asking: who is being left behind?

There has been a push for access to education technology as an equity issue. And, of course, the digital divide in the current pandemic means that many of those with inadequate digital access may simply be unable to access health care.

There is an imperative to keep investigating the digital divide and its multiple dimensions. We can only narrow or eliminate the digital divide to the extent that we understand who is being left behind, and in what way.


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