This is a blog post about the digital divide from a member of the APF, Emilio Mordini. It was originally posted to his LinkedIn account. He also regularly updates his Blogger account which is more focused on medical topics. The views in the article belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the APF or its other members.
The expression “digital divide” dates back to mid-1990s and refers “to the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard both to their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities” (OECD, 2001, Understanding the Digital Divide, OECD Publications, Paris, p.5).
For more than two decades, scholars and policy makers have discussed the digital divide in terms of inequalities between people who could benefit from digital resources, and people who do not have these opportunities and skills. The concept of a digital divide has been used to describe the technology gap between rich and poor populations and individuals; to depict disparities in technology access between young and senior people; to capture inequalities in ICT usage between people living in cities and in rural areas; between the educated and the uneducated; and between low and high income countries. However, that type of digital divide is now finished, and a new digital divide is rapidly progressing.
According to the last OECD survey, young people all over the world have roughly equal access to the Internet, no matter whether they are rich or poor, educated or not. Yet, what changes it is how they are using the Internet. While richer teenagers, and teenagers living in richer countries, tend to use the Internet to search for information and to read news, poorer teenagers, and teenagers living in poorer countries, prefer to chat, play video games, or surf Facebook. Moreover, disadvantaged students spend more time on line than advantaged students, which contradicts the conventional wisdom about the old “digital divide”: the socio-economic disadvantaged are those who are more often online.
It is somehow obvious that patterns of Internet usage change according to a user’s socio-economic status, what is less obvious is the way in which inequalities impact on these patterns. Current digital divide does not concern access to technology but its usage. While advantaged people conceive the Internet as a tool for exploring the world, disadvantaged people think of the Internet chiefly as a game and an instrument to establish and develop social relations. What is the reason of this disparity?
The OECD Report provides a simple answer to this question, “the use of online media – they argue – depends on the student’s own level of skills, motivation, and support from family, friends and teachers, which vary across socio-economic groups…socio-economic differences in the use of the Internet and in the ability to use ICT tools for learning are strongly related to the differences observed in more traditional academic abilities”. In other words, according to the OECD, poor and uneducated people use the Internet in the way in which they conceptualize it, which is determined by their baseline knowledge. Yet, this is not an explanation, it is a truism. Of course, people use the Internet in the way in which they conceptualize it, but the question is exactly why disadvantaged people think of the Internet chiefly in terms of Facebook, social media, and video games. Is there any reason for this phenomenon?
Society has not yet realized the epochal change which occurred due to the digital revolution. Most of us are still thinking in terms of the industrial society. Who was the “poor” in the industrial society? The proletariat, those – in Marxist theory – whose only possession was their labor. The proletariat is the social class that sells the new merchandise “invented” by the industrial revolution, that is to say, “human labor”. The proletariat does not exist any longer, yet poor people still exist. Who is the “poor” in the digital society? Those people whose only possession is the new merchandise “invented” by the digital revolution, that is to say, “data”.
Discussing the digital divide, we are often victims of an illusion because we have difficulty in understanding that those who use the Internet only as a game and an instrument to establish social relations are not active users. Rather, they are passive data providers. They are the mines, not the miners.
Therefore the discrepancy between disadvantaged and advantaged people on the Internet is now defined as: advantaged people are mostly”purchasing” data, while disadvantaged people are mostly “selling” their own data. This is the new digital divide. Marx would probably have commented, "hic Rhodus, hic salta".