Read more about the digital divide.
The idea of the digital divide was first suggested in the 1990s, when it became apparent that there were very clear differences between those who could afford the new technology, and those who could not—and that they tended to be drawn along economic and geographic lines.
As the world becomes increasingly reliant on digital technology, it’s more important than ever that people have both internet access and the ability to learn essential digital skills. However, this isn’t the case everywhere.
Now, the digital divide can refer to two different but related aspects of internet access. It’s not just about whether people have access to the internet itself, it’s also about the quality of the connection, and what can be achieved with it. The most advanced online services—streaming video subscriptions, online classrooms, video conferencing, and others—require a reliable high-speed connection that is still out of the price range of many. For those who can afford it, the internet is truly an information superhighway; for those without, it’s more akin to an overgrown canal path.
What’s Causing the Digital Divide?
Globally there are a number of different factors that contribute. These include gender, race, income level, and education; generally favouring, for instance, people with a higher level of income and education, and strongly favouring people in developed countries.
Both globally and within countries geography is another factor; for instance, in South Korea high-speed internet is widely available, while in Myanmar, few people have any kind of access to the web. In addition, people in rural areas are less likely to have access to high-speed internet, and may even lack access to any kind of connection at all. For instance, a 2016 study found that while 89% of people in south-east England have internet access, just 59 to 70% of people in the north-west have internet access.
The digital divide is a generational one, too, largely due to the simple matter of computer and internet literacy. Younger generations tend to be much more computer-literate, and therefore have more opportunities to take advantage of the benefits of digital technology.
In the UK, the digital divide tends to be about three primary factors: income (which itself is related to factors such as education, race, and gender), location, and computer and internet literacy.
What are the Implications of the Digital Divide?
The digital divide impacts on people in a number of different ways, and it impacts differently for each generation.
For school-age children, for instance, one significant impact is simply that children without access to a reliable internet connection suffer from a lack of information access that makes it harder for them to complete homework and school assignments. Although many schools provide internet access.
For people in the workplace, the impact is related more to their ability to perform digital tasks, their ability to learn to use new digital technology, and their ability to compete for jobs.
On a broader scale, access to the internet represents access to information, whether it be social, economic, or otherwise.
What does the Digital Divide Mean for Governments and Organisations?
Digital technology allows businesses and organisations to anticipate and meet consumer demand, and to deliver products and services more cost-effectively. For governments, it’s an opportunity to reach more people, to perform essential services more efficiently, and to help people take a more active role in citizenship. The UK’s Cabinet Office has long espoused a strategy of ‘Digital by Default’ meaning all services will be delivered online. At the same time this strategy recognises that not all citizens have internet access and offers alternative services. However, these have fewer advantages. For example, those paying tax using paper forms must submit their details by 31 December. If paying online, it’s 31 January.
For governments, the digital divide means that it’s more difficult to reach some people—and in particular that, as governments move towards a greater emphasis on digital services, there is a risk that those without internet access will have reduced access to government services.
The government does of course have a role to play in ensuring that everyone has internet access, and reducing the digital gap between generations and across other axes of division, but as with other cases of haves versus have-nots, it will take time for those who currently lack internet access to catch up with those who do.
For businesses, the digital divide doesn’t just represent an untapped section of the market, it also represents other kinds of shortages. In particular, a shortage of skilled workers who are computer-literate and internet savvy is leading to a potential crisis for UK businesses, according to the BCC.
Barclays leads the way moving older customers into a digital future
But for all organisations, whether public, private, or commercial, the digital divide remains a problem, in that there is still a percentage of the population that is largely unreachable via the internet. Companies like Barclays started a programme of digital eagles. Instead of trying to say to customers ‘ you need to use the internet to access online banking’ their approach was to say ‘would you like to talk to your grandchildren via Skype?’ An imaginative way of training older digital immigrants.
What’s your view? Do you know anyone without internet access? Why is this? Choice or no choice?