Mar 29, 2010 1
Digital divides are divisions manifested in the differential access to Internet , frequency of use, and types of online activities among different groups of people. Pippa Norris puts digital divides into three categories: global divides, social divides, and democratic divides.
Although Internet use is growing rapidly worldwide and examples of Internet use in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa are often celebrated (consider the farmer in the documentary “The Virtual Revolution”), the reality is that in many countries lots of households do not have electricity and telephones, let alone computers and Internet service. The big question is, will the Internet help to reduce this disparity or will it amplify the existing inequality. ”Cyber-optimists” suggest that increasing access to ICTs in developing countries will promote economic growth, “strengthen democracy”, and “foster international peace and stability” (Norris, 275). Norris mentions China and Cuba as examples of non-democratic countries with governments that have felt threatened by the Internet. Last semester, my quad-mate from Beijing explained to me that Facebook was censored in China because of its potential use for political organizing.
Norris says that, “Attempts to move beyond speculative theorizing about these questions face major challenges”. Basically, it is too early to tell whether the cyber-optimists, the cyber-skeptics, or the cyber-pessimists are correct.
Norris mentions two laws that I find interesting. Moore’s Law says that “every eighteen months, you can get twice as much power for the same cost”. Basically, technology is progressing exponentially. I had heard of Moore’s Law before, and I always wonder what limits it will encounter. It also makes me think about all the electronic waste produced by developed countries that ends up in China or Ghana. (http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/toxics/electronics/where-does-e-waste-end-up).
The other law that Norris mentions is Metcalf’s law, which states that “the value of a network is proportional to the square number of people using it”. I am curious how value is calculated or defined. Do networks not reach a point where they become too big and cluttered to be useful? With search engines, it seems that this can be avoided. However, what about the law of diminishing returns?
Witte and Mannon focus on the social digital divides within the United States. The authors examined survey data and compared Internet access and use along lines of gender, age, race, education, employment status, and income level. A worthwhile point was that these categories do not exist in isolation; they come in combinations. The major digital divides in the US are associated with education and income. Individuals with more education and higher incomes are the most likely to use the Internet, to use it on a daily basis, and to use it for activities such as email, work, and online banking. The digital divide as determined by education and income is actually growing. Although relatively recently more men than women were using the Internet, Witte and Mannon claim that, “gender is not a major digital divide in terms of Internet use”. In terms of age, individuals older than sixty five are the least likely to use the Internet. Whites in the US use the Internet significantly more than blacks do, and this gap remained fairly constant between 2000 and 2007.
Witte and Mannon suggest that in addition to being problems by themselves, “digital divides” are symptoms of inequalities that exist independently of the Internet. These inequalities will not be fixed solely with technology, though Witte and Mannon do not propose any concrete solutions in this chapter.