Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Has the Digital Divide Withered Away?

Since the Web's inception, scholars have raised concerns about how the Digital Divide - the disparity between those people with Internet access and skill-sets versus those without - was leaving behind millions of Americans from the educational and economic opportunities that the Web provides.

A new research study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, however, indicates that the Digital Divide may, in fact, be withering away - or may have even disappeared altogether.

Granted, there are still plenty of Americans with no Internet access, particularly in rural areas, and that's a problem.  However, if we focus on people's technical abilities to use the Web interactively, and one can reasonably argue that regular use of online social networking sites is a measure of that, then many of the early disparities are significantly narrowing.  Consider...
  • Race:  Blacks and Hispanics are now using online social networking sites at a greater clip than Whites (68% and 72%, respectively, to 65%).

  • Education:  High school graduates and non-graduates are using social networking sites at almost exactly the same clip as college graduates (66%-65%).

  • Income:  Those making less than $30,000/year use social networking sites more than those earning more than $75,000/year (72%-66%).

What does this mean?

Surely, there remain great inequalities of wealth in American society, but it's possible that Internet usage is no longer an accurate reflection of those inequalities.  It has become as pervasive as electricity and running water, used by rich and poor alike.

The one object of contention in this study is the finding that those on the lower income and education ends of the spectrum actually have higher rates of Internet access and social networking usage through mobile devices.  At first glance, this may seem to suggest another positive development - if one assumes that technical abilities on a mobile device stem from strong technical abilities on a PC or laptop.  But that's not necessarily the case.  It's possible that such high rates of mobile penetration really indicate an alternative track stemming from a lack of access to non-mobile computing devices.  And, unfortunately, PCs are still where most white-collar office skill-sets still call their home.

So, wither the Digital Divide?  Maybe we're moving in the right direction.  But we're not there yet.



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