The United States of America, since the early nineties, has been experiencing a Digital Divide. This Divide is classified by a gap between those individuals and communities who can make effective use of information technology and those who cannot. Patterns of unequal access to, and skill with, existing information technologies, such as the Internet, have been closely monitored by several government and private entities over the past six years. These entities have observed patterns of unequal access based on race and ethnicity, educational level, gender, income, and age. This raises concerns because of information technology’s emerging importance as a primary medium for communication, commerce, education, entertainment, and interaction with the government. Unequal adoption of information technologies excludes many individuals and communities from the numerous benefits those technologies provide. Once individuals and communities have access to new technology, what they do with that access also becomes an issue. Although recent trends indicate that the Digital Divide might be closing as computers and the Internet become more ubiquitous, the increased stratification imposed by the Digital Divide may linger well into the new millennium.
A Digital Divide in the United States was first observed in the mid-1990s, most notably in a 1995 report by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) called Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the “Haves” and “Have Nots” in Rural and Urban America. According to The Evolution of the Digital Divide: How Gaps in Internet Access May Impact Electronic Commerce, an article for the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, the term “Digital Divide” was created by Lloyd Morrisett, the former president of the Markle Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting information technology for health and public needs. Lloyd Morrisett coined the term to differentiate between technology “haves” and “have-nots” (Hoffman 55). According to Virtual Inequality, a study of information technology disparities written by three professors at Kent State University, the term “Digital Divide” didn’t become popular until after the NTIA used it to describe disparities in information technology access in its 1998 report called Falling Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide (Mossberger 3). This was the NTIA’s second report in the Falling Through the Net series. The U.S. Government continues to publish reports on the Digital Divide because of concerns that it may intensify existing social gaps and create new ones. For example, whereas it is already disadvantageous to belong to a minority group, evidence suggests that the Digital Divide makes this unfortunate disparity worse. The Digital Divide threatens equality by denying minorities the benefits of information technology, such as the ability to take part in online commerce, communicate effectively with peers, or access information on the web. Benefits are also being denied to other social groups based on level of education, gender, income, and age. The result of this is a nationwide division between people who have access to new information technologies and people who do not possess such access.
The Digital Divide is particularly telling when race and ethnicity are closely examined. According to NTIA’s August 2000 Falling Through the Net report, the latest report in the series, 50.3% of white and 49.4% of Asian American & Pacific Islander households continued to have Internet access at levels nearly more than double those of Black (29.3%) and Hispanic (23.7%) households. Since the information technology revolution, minority groups have had consistently lower access to technology than others, possibly because mainstream information technologies, such as the Internet, did not address the content needs of these groups. Other studies have consistently found similar disparities: After controlling for socioeconomic conditions (necessary for separating household income and geography from race and ethnicity), African Americans and Latinos were significantly less likely to have home computers, e-mail, and Internet access than whites. In the 2003 study of the Digital Divide presented in Virtual Inequality, it was found that Asian Americans have had the highest predicted probability of Internet access (72%), with whites falling significantly behind (54%). Latinos trailed whites at 41%, and the probability of having home Internet access was found to be lowest for African Americans, at a disturbing 37%. This study showed that even after controlling for socioeconomic status, African Americans and Latinos were still significantly less likely to have Internet access at home than whites or Asian Americans. This means that, for example, if an African American family makes the same income and lives in the same neighborhood as a white family, the chances of the African American family having Internet access is only 37% compared to the 54% chances for white families. Controlling for socioeconomic conditions exposes the significance of these statistics by eliminating factors such as household income or economic geography (living in an inner city ghetto or a trailer park vs. a wealthy suburb, for instance).
It is possible that racial and ethnic disparities in information technology access may be partly due to the fact that minorities have different information and content needs. Research suggests that minorities may not have those needs fulfilled by technologies such as the Internet (Mossberger 20). This would help to explain the wide gap in access. However, the consequences of this race and ethnicity gap to American society may be severe. Like the printing press, the Internet provides for equal economic opportunity and expression, but only for those with access. Additionally, the United States’s economy may be at risk if a significant segment of its society lacks equal access to technology. Technological skills are needed to keep American firms competitive, as has become increasingly apparent in the “new economy.” Minority groups that lag behind in technology adoption rates may suffer in the future as they become uncompetitive in job markets that are increasingly dominated by technology, further distancing these minority group’s abilities to advance and succeed in the workplace of the dominant majority.
Race and ethnicity are not the only predictors of the Digital Divide. Socioeconomic factors, such as household income, are even more alarming. Race and ethnicity variables are often confused with income because blacks and Hispanics make up a larger proportion of low-income Americans than do whites. According to the 2002 U.S. Census, the median African American household income is only two-thirds of that of white households. Researchers have had to consistently control for income when examining race and ethnicity because income dominates over all other statistical evidence for the Digital Divide. The consensus that has been reached is that the gap in access to information technologies may be correlated more with economic factors, such as income, than with any other single factor. Only 18.9% of individuals who lived in households with annual incomes of less than $15,000 were Internet users, according to NTIA’s August 2000 Falling Through the Net report, the latest available. In contrast, 70.1% of people who lived in households where annual income was greater than $75,000 reported using the Internet. This is significant. In a survey presented in Virtual Inequality, Americans were asked three questions: “Who is least likely to have Internet access?”, “Who is least likely to have an email address?”, and “Who is least likely to own a computer?” The six answers available to survey-takers were the Poor, the Less-educated, the Old, Democrats, Latinos, or African Americans. The answers to all three of these questions were predominantly and consistently the Poor (Mossberger 30).
This survey suggests that the disparity in income is well-known by the general public. Many Americans see information technology as prohibitively expensive for low-income families. It makes sense that these families would have other funding priorities. For instance, there is no point in buying a computer when you can’t afford food. However, poor families may be caught in a trap. An increasing number of better-paying jobs require more technical computer use, and although poor individuals “have many of the same attitudes and aspirations as other Americans regarding economic opportunity” (Mossberger 80), limited access to information technology presents greater difficulties in landing technical jobs. A growing separation of the lower and middle classes does not bode well for the economic unity of the United States. Class issues such as this are often difficult to approach because of cultural taboos related to income. Some people might argue that there also exists a Lexus Divide, and that no one is trying to stop that. They might argue that some individuals have the money to buy a Lexus, and some people do not. However, it is not that simple because the consequences are not the same. Unlike a Lexus, computers are tools for participating in the economic, educational, and political arenas. Owning a computer in an increasingly knowledge-based economy is an invaluable necessity. Driving a Lexus is not. It is extremely important that people have access to, and knowledge of, computers and the Internet to prepare them for increasingly more technical careers. Denying low income families the upward mobility provided by emerging information technologies threatens only to widen the gap between the lower and middle classes in America.
A paradox presents itself here. Whereas low income families will be able to get better jobs by having access to computers and the Internet, they will also only be able to afford computers and the Internet if they get better jobs. In fact, one of the major reasons why the U.S. government has been monitoring the Digital Divide so closely is because it sees an opportunity to institute social programs that may help alleviate this problem. One policy response to the NTIA’s initial report on the Digital Divide was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which included a $2.25 billion dollar “E-Rate” program administered by the U.S. Department of Education to provide schools and libraries in poor communities with Internet access, high speed data connections, phone service, and wiring (Mossberger 3). Other initiatives include Clinton’s wildly successful “Computer in Every Classroom” initiative and federal programs such as the Technologies Opportunities Program (TOC) and the Community Technology Centers (CTC), which assist poor communities with software, hardware, content development, and training.
The government may be going in the right direction with these programs. In addition to targeting the problem of income, government programs are simultaneously targeting another major aspect of the Digital Divide: education. It was found that individuals with a college degree were “21 percentage points more likely to have Internet access than those with only a high school diploma” (Mossberger 35). This suggests that there is a strong correlation between people who pursue higher education and people who have access to information technology. In fact, school performance has been found to have a direct relationship to information technology access. In Gender and Computers: Understanding the Digital Divide, Joel Cooper and Kimberlee D. Weaver point out that there is a relationship between having access to a computer at home and having good scores on standardized tests. In a study done on eighth graders, data suggests that reading and math scores were directly related to owning a computer. Also, according to the August 2000 Falling Through the Net report, nearly 65% of college graduates had home Internet access while only 11.7% of households headed by persons with less than a high school education had Internet access. This divide in education is particularly dangerous because of its relation to the income divide. Male college graduates averaged 42% more earnings than a male high school graduate in 1999 (Mossberger 62). If education determines income, then perhaps a large part of the income divide can be explained by the divide in educational opportunity. Education is also extremely important to economic opportunity, as is evidenced by a survey in Virtual Inequality that suggests that “two-thirds of Americans are convinced that a connection exists between computer skills and various types of economic opportunity” (Mossberger 79). Without equal access to information technologies, individuals do not have equal access to education. Without equal access to education, those individuals suffer personally and economically. The nation also suffers as a whole. Inscribed outside the Boston Public Library is the famous quote, “The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty.” If education is any indication of order and liberty, the Digital Divide does not bode well. Also, as the U.S. economy becomes more service-oriented, knowledge becomes the new basis for wealth. A divide in education raises concerns for the economic well-being of America. In this way, it can also be seen that the education and income elements of the Digital Divide are closely related.
There is another battleground (arguably related to education) that has been claimed by the Digital Divide: gender. However, this divide is a bit more controversial in that the access statistics are not immediately evident of such a divide. The 2000 U.S. Census found that women have surpassed men in Internet access and use, 51% to 49% respectively. These statistics hardly seem indicative of a Digital Divide along gender lines. Indeed, the U.S. Government, in the August 2000 Falling Through the Net report claimed that “the disparity in Internet usage between men and women has largely disappeared.” However, as Cooper and Weaver argue in Gender and Computers, looking at access alone is deceiving. Their book argues that girls and young women are being left behind on the road to information technology. Their research suggests that “girls are at a marked disadvantage in their ability to learn about and profit from information technology in our educational system.” To evidence this, data is referenced that suggests that women take fewer technology classes in high school and college. Women have been found to be far less likely to graduate college with degrees in information technology or computer science. Women are also less likely to enroll in postgraduate technology fields, and they are underrepresented in the higher end of technology jobs. Women are therefore being barred from the economic benefits of these types of jobs. Cooper and Weaver suggest that women and men are using computers as a “tool” at equal rates. That is, they both use computers to access the Internet, email friends, and word process. However, women are increasingly underrepresented in even the most basic computer science education courses. Cooper and Weaver cite statistics from a 1999 U.S. Department of Education study which indicates that only 31% of the students majoring in computer science in the United States were women. Research has also shown that, on average, girls and women experience more anxiety when working with computers than do boys and men. This trend is troublesome because it has been shown that women are just as competent as men when performing computing tasks.
Although the aggregate rates of Internet use by gender have equalized, there are still gender related differences in Internet use within various age groups, according to A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet, published in 2002 by the NTIA. Women from approximately age 20 to 50 were more likely to be Internet users than men. However, from age 60 and older, men have higher rates of Internet use than women. This is a surprising fact when compared to the age groups that commonly have access to information technology. The 2000 U.S. Census found that 63% of homes with residents aged 18-49 used the Internet compared to 37% of households with residents aged 50 or older. This means that women became even more disadvantaged with information technology as they got older.
These statistics indicate that age is another important consideration to take into account when examining the Digital Divide. However, no single demographic aspect is truly independent of another. The Digital Divide consists of numerous conjoined inequalities, and separating each into disjointed categories is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Race and ethnicity divides are closely correlated with income, which is related to educational opportunity and which is, in turn, separated by a gender divide that depends, in a large part, upon age and even the number of children in a household. Geography also plays a large part in the Digital Divide, whether you are from a rural, urban, or suburban area. Again, separating these statistics from income is difficult.
The Digital Divide is thus a multifaceted entity with very serious consequences. Access to information technology is vitally important, both economically and socially. Individuals who are skilled with information technology have huge advantages in the emerging and current economic and social environments. The importance of information technology at the beginning of the new millennium is nearly equivalent to the importance of electricity at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Without access to computers and the Internet, and without the appropriate training in those technologies, individuals are put in a precarious situation. Those with access to the Internet are offered information on news, weather, stock quotes, health, jobs, parenting, encyclopedias, research, political issues and campaigns, homework topics, home remodeling, cooking, money management, and anything else one can think of. Those without access to this information are left in the dark, forced to make use of public libraries which can be cumbersome, complicated, and crowded. Putting knowledge in physical books creates a limited resource that only one person can check out at any one time. Computers do not have this limitation. The other alternative is a book store, which can be an expensive means of seeking simple information. Information on the Internet is largely available for no cost other than a subscription fee. A few keystrokes can bring up anything that one wishes. This, by far, has become the most convenient way to acquire information in the history of mankind.
The Internet is also becoming a required tool for communication. Email, instant messaging, bulletin board systems, and online forums are becoming more and more ubiquitous. Their use is outpacing and replacing traditional communication mediums such as the telephone and the postal service. Without access to these new communications technologies, individuals are being “cut out of the loop.” They are no longer able to share ideas as openly and as efficiently, or to collaborate on projects at work or in school as easily. Communication on the Internet makes a great deal of social wealth available to the public, whether through debate, discussion, or commentary. The right to freely express oneself and generate discourse over the Internet is as important as any other. The Internet also enables access to larger, more diverse audiences than are available at any other place on earth. Having access to other cultures and their opinions is an invaluable tool in forming educated societal viewpoints. Another advantage of online communication is the everyday social benefits of meeting new people. Not only do individuals learn more from others on the Internet, many are also making lifelong friendships and business connections. Many others are even finding their future spouses, boyfriends, and girlfriends over the Internet. Additionally, open communication is enabling the democratic process. Debate and campaign websites are becoming more and more important to the election process. Many states are even testing online voting in the hopes of moving the ballot box online. The goal is for future democratic participation to take place over the Internet.
There are also education and career benefits to using the Internet, exacerbating the dangers of the educational divide. It is becoming increasingly common for people to take college courses online. Many people even go so far as to earn degrees and professional certifications over the Internet, without ever stepping foot in a classroom. Most institutions of higher education in the United States assume or require that Internet access is freely available to students, and many professors rely on this access to run their classes efficiently. Many employers also require technical skills for even the most basic jobs. McDonalds, for example, is completely run by computer. Additionally, jobs that offer higher salaries often require more technical skills as well. Office jobs have been revolutionized by computers, and nearly all office work can be done more efficiently with software. Many agencies and companies also use online job search engines to fill their staffing needs, and some, such as the CIA, only accept applications through the Internet. Homes with Internet access also benefit in other ways, whether it is through online banking, online shopping, online bill paying, lower airfares, buying and selling through auctions, price comparison engines, financial news, financial literature, or lending and mortgage calculators.
The Digital Divide is denying all these benefits to millions of Americans. By selectively enabling who can take advantage of the information revolution, the Digital Divide conflicts with the fair distribution of social and economic resources. The United States cannot remain a just and equitable society as long as it is plagued by an unequal adoption of technology. The greatest tragedy is that the people who would benefit most from new information technologies are the same people who are suffering from the Digital Divide. The irony is that being able to use the Internet for education, communication, and economic pursuits would greatly benefit minorities, the poor, women, the less education, and the old. However, the demographic that is benefiting most from the information age is merely the status quo, the young, rich, and educated white males. What this means is that solving the Digital Divide is only the first step. Correcting for the social stratification already inherent in American society is another leap entirely. However, the Digital Divide, as a social movement, is acting as a counterbalance to any efforts meant to generate equality in the United States. It needs to be addressed.
There is hope, however. Recent studies indicate that the Digital Divide in the United States may be closing. Few technologies have spread as quickly as computers and the Internet, and it only seems reasonable that it takes time for widespread adoption to take hold. According to the NTIA, “Internet use is increasing for people regardless of income, education, age, races, ethnicity, or gender” (A Nation Online 1). As of September 2001, access to the Internet has become available to more than half of the United States. Information technology use is even increasing faster for blacks (33%) and Hispanics (30%) than for White, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders whose use has only increased by 20% (A Nation Online 2). This indicates that the Digital Divide is getting smaller as the “Have Nots” start catching up. A Nation Online summarized this movement with a general claim that that the Digital Divide was closing. In 2003, President Bush used this report to justify cutting the federal budgets of the Technology Opportunities Program and the Community Technology Center initiative. The Bush administration appears to be betting on sunny skies ahead.
However, there is a great deal of criticism revolving around the Bush administration’s tactics. Over 100 groups, including the National Urban League, the National Congress of American Indians, and the American Council of the Blind still vehemently oppose the notion that the Digital Divide is closing. “The reasoning for ending these programs, like the justification for creating them, is based on access” (Mossberger 15). The argument of these opposing groups is that access is only part of the problem, a piece of the puzzle. Measuring who has access to technology, as reported in government studies, only tells part of the picture. Evidence suggests that skill with information technologies makes the Digital Divide even worse. Most research has been predominated by counting who does and does not have access to the Internet, but this research doesn’t actually take into account who is really taking advantage of information technologies to better their own lives. As suggested in Virtual Inequality, the Digital Divide when measured against skill with technology is much greater than the Digital Divide when measuring access to technology. Also, despite the government’s argument that Americans are getting connected in increasing numbers, there are still gaps in online use based on race, ethnicity, and income (Mossberger 16). Many people believe that the Bush administration is shrugging off obvious statistically significant disparities caused by the Digital Divide with the argument that they will go away on their own. Many groups continue to hold the belief that addressing the Digital Divide is still vital to public policy.
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