What is the digital divide? | Credibility on the Internet
What is the digital divide?
In today’s society, as important and essential as the Internet is in the lives of many Americans, the Internet is by no means a universal good. According to author Robert Klotz, the growth of the Internet can be separated into three stages [Klotz 20]. The first is from 1983 to 1994, during which Internet usage rose from 0% to 10% (of Americans). The second is from 1995 to 2000, during which usage rose from 10% to 50%. Finally, the third period is from 2000 on, during which usage has climbed to about 70%. The digital divide is the gap between those people who can access and make effective use of the Internet (as well as other technologies) and those who cannot. This divide is marked primarily by socio-economic factors. In terms of political advocacy and awareness, this fact has important ramifications.
Source: Pew Surveys
Characteristics of the Divide
One of the strongest associations with Internet use is income level. As the figure below illustrates, as a person’s income increases, his likelihood of being an internet user also increases. This relationship is intuitive. Computers, which are perquisites for Internet access, are a significant investment. Internet access itself also incurs a monthly charge. Since wealthier people are more likely to afford these items, they naturally are more likely to be Internet users.
Source: US Census
The relationship between education level and Internet usage is similar. Highly educated people are generally more accustomed to computers and more likely to possess the necessary skills to successfully navigate the Internet.
Source: U.S. Census
Data shows that younger people are more likely to be Internet users than older people. An important reason is that internet access has become virtually universal in public schools. In fact, 98% of public schools in the US were connected to the Internet by 2000 . Teachers are increasingly incorporating the Internet into the curriculum, thereby exposing more young people to the Internet. Furthermore, older people grew up in a world where the Internet did not exist and thus are more inclined towards traditional forms of communication and media. However, following this line of reasoning, if the same data on Internet usage were collected in 50 years, this age gap should all but disappear.
Source: US Census
4. Other factors
There is also a racial gap in Internet use. Asian and white households have the highest rates of internet access, 57% and 46% respectively while Blacks and Hispanic households have the lowest rates of access, 23.5% and 23.6% respectively. However, when income and education levels are controlled, the differences become minimal.
The gender gap used to be very prominent but had all but disappeared by 2000. In 1994, men outnumbered women by 4 to 1. In 1995, the ratio had dropped to 2 to 1. By 2000, the gap was at a statistically insignificant .5% [Klotz 25].
Impact on Political Awareness and Involvement
The digital divide has serious implications for politics in the United States. Information about candidates, parties, and issues is being disseminated more and more via the Internet. For regular Internet users, the Internet can be a bottomless depository of political content, but for those who do not have access, this content might as well not exist. As of 2004, there is still a significant percentage (~30%) of the populace that do not have regular access. While these people are still legally empowered to vote and otherwise participate in politics, the ease and flexibility with which they can do so dramatically decrease compared to those people that are regular Internet users.
The Internet is above all a communication medium. However, the major difference between the Internet and older forms of media such as radio or television is that the Internet is a two-way street. Politically speaking, not only can candidates or interest groups easily share their ideas on a website, but they can also solicit feedback in the form of surveys or emails. People are more likely to respond to these solicitations because it is quick, easy, and often anonymous. Candidates are able to use this information to gauge the opinions of their constituencies and subsequently shape policy decisions. On the other hand, people who are not “plugged-in” can only obtain political information via traditional sources like newspapers and television. Furthermore, their opinions are not as easily heard by candidates because fewer people are willing to make telephone calls or write letters than to write email or fill out an online survey. One of the greatest concerns about the digital divide is that it is effectively amplifying the political voices of those with internet access while drowning out the voices of those who do not.
Another concern is that those people on the wrong side of the digital divide are less likely to practice good citizenship. Because the Internet is such a free forum of expression, Internet users are exposed to different viewpoints and are forced to reevaluate their current beliefs. A report by the Pew Internet Project commented that:
“While all people like to see arguments that support their beliefs, internet users are not limiting their information exposure to views that buttress their opinions. Instead, wired Americans are more aware than non-internet users of all kinds of arguments, even those that challenge their preferred candidates and issue positions [Horrigan].”
The same report concluded that the Internet “contributes to a wider awareness of political arguments” and that “wired Americans hear more points of view about candidates and key issues than other citizens”. In a democratic state such as the United States, it is desirable that every voter can understand candidates and issues as thoroughly as possible, but the digital divide is hindering this goal.
With the passage of time, the number of people who use the Internet should reach a saturation point. This process to universal access is facilitated by the trend in cheaper computers as well as cheaper and more widespread internet access. Furthermore, some municipal governments have spread Internet access by setting up free wireless access points throughout the city. For example, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom has proposed to cover the entirety of San Francisco (46.7 square miles) with free Internet access. If successful, these plans will have a positive effect in bridging the digital divide, since people who live in urban areas tend to be poorer than those who live in suburbs and are more likely to be the ones without Internet access.
However, the Internet is only one example in a long line of media/communication technologies. Like the television and radio, the Internet first diffused to those who could afford it. Only as the technology became cheaper and network externalities took hold, did usage dramatically increase. The Internet will not be the last technology that revolutionizes politics or any other aspect of life. It is likely that when the next one comes, the same pattern of diffusion will occur.