First published 5 February 2007 with co-authors Eline Bauwens & Olmo Claessens for C-MD. Also see related blog post.
"The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished." Tim Berners-Lee
The vision of the Web is drenched with technological optimism. As such, it fits perfectly within the lessons of Communication- and Multimedia Design, in which we're taught about all the great possibilities of (online) communication and collaboration. The Digital Divide course is more critical of this technological optimism but it still stimulates us to think about a vision that, in essence, should present technological solutions to the gap that is signaled. But thinking from an optimistic point of view makes us blind to the problems that are at the core of our current use of technology in general, and information and communication technologies (ICT's) in specific. We should be very careful to not forget the pitfalls of optimism and to not forget the bad sides of the very things we're trying to push to the world. What if we adopted a critical attitude and focus on the negative aspects of the technology which we try to convince everyone to use? What can we learn from the issues we struggle with? Therefore, we want to critically reflect on the technological optimism which is at the core of the Digital Divide concept to obtain better insights in the problems that it pretends to present. In the first part of this paper we will examine some fundamental issues of the Internet and try to find out if they are indeed technological or social in nature.
To connect these questions to the Digital Divide, we will look critically at how this concept is viewed, discussed and criticized. The Digital Divide refers in its most superficial meaning to the gap between those with ICT's access (i.e. having a computer and Internet) those without access. This gap has serious repercussions not just on information access, but even for our social and economical chances and status. There is a clear dichotomy between those who are 'on the grid' and those who are 'off the grid'. The 'haves' (which includes most of the connected Western world) have much better chances at well-being than the 'have-nots'.
Manuel Castells, whose definition of the Digital Divide refers to much more than just computer access, refers to this last group as the Fourth World. His view on the world is based on the observation that our society's most important assets are the connections between us. The way we are related to our environment, the people we know, the technology we use, and all other connections, determine our chances, our future and our way of being. Ours is a network society. Because of globalization, people's lives increasingly depend on economical and technological relationships. And if you're not connected, you're even worse off then those who are oppressed or taken advantage of, like in the Third World. And those who live in the so-called 'black holes' of the Net have no way of getting out. The problem domain of the Digital Divide is thus much bigger than just making the Internet available to all people. Overcoming these problems requires not only technological solutions, but also (and much more so) social changes. Thus, the second part of our paper will look at some alternative concepts and frameworks, and how they try to reframe these issues.
Finally, in our conclusion, we will try to connect our observations about technological optimism and the critiques of the Digital Divide. What can we learn from the ways in which the Digital Divide is tackled? How can we use this to understand our own assumptions about the use of ICT's?
The Internet: a dream still waiting to happen
In this chapter we will discuss the negative aspects of Internet availability in the Western world. First, we'll take a closer look at information abuse and its consequences: from suicide instructions to planning terrorist attacks. Then, we'll examine the current state of the web and see how it's promises have turned out so far. We'll consider communication aspects (spam & distraction society) and social aspects (Web 2.0, user-generated content, freedom of speech).
A critical look at the Internet reveals some unpleasant facts. Email, still the most used application of the Internet, is heavily polluted with spam comprising more than 90% of all traffic. Blogs suffer a similar fate, with most of the comments being nasty messages about "V!a_xgra" and other kinds of products. Aliens visiting our world would do better to search in libraries then on the Web, at least they'd be fooled long enough to mistake us for an intelligent race before they obliterate us. Before we turn to the concept of the Digital Divide, we should take a critical look at the technology we want to impose and ask ourselves if it's really up to the task.
Ham and spam
The oldest form of computer-mediated communication, email, is also still the most successful form. It's a disruptive technology that has changed the way people communicate by its instant speed of message delivery and virtually cost-free delivery. Unfortunately, that has also made it the perfect target for marketeers who can easily target millions of people instantaneously, making it a very profitable business. A new variant is stock spamming, which is used to drive up the stocks so spammers can "pump and dump", making a huge profit.
While it is not so easy to determine how much spam is sent, the ratio of legitimate email and spam is widely suspected to be 80% spam (see for example http://www.postini.com/stats/).
As this graph clearly shows, spam is an issue which isn't limited to email only. The Akismet service, a freely available filtering service of comments on weblogs, provides real-time statistics on the spam-to-ham ratio (ham being legitimate comments). In little more then a year, it has caught more than half a billion (616.971.893) spam comments, which accounted for 94% of all comments it filtered. This staggering ratio is comparable to the spreading of email.
Spam is combated in several ways that focus on technological means of sending and receiving, and on the legal aspects of it. By adding authentication to mail servers, it will be more difficult for spammers to send large quantities of mails. And in some countries (though still not all) the sending of bulk mail is prohibited, with rather large penalties. Most effort is still on the receiving side of spam though. For example, a common way to combat spam is the use of 'smart' filters. So-called Bayesian filters are trained with large volumes of spam and ham to 'learn' the difference between the two and are deployed to combat spam. These filters can never be 100% accurate though and you still have the risk that legitimate mail is blocked.
Even the addition of artificial intelligence is not enough to combat spam. The real problem is not the technological measures (which will always have to play catch-up to spammers, who are now using techniques such as image spam or word salad), but the core of spam itself: the sending of spam is a lucrative business. Little can be done to fight this, since it's a basic economic fact: spammers try to sell something for which there is obviously a market, however a small percentage of the total population. The failure of the Internet is that the profit for spammers increases by sending their messages to larger groups of people. This is a very obvious negative side of the Internet for which no adequate solution has been found.
The Internet is a great medium for everything and like any other medium it has its downsides. The Internet is supposed to be a universally accessible information space. The Digital Divide is supposed to show how far away we are from realizing this dream. But lets take a critical look at the information that is available. What do people use the Internet for?
The greatest obvious downside of the Internet is the availability of information that can be abused. Whereas books and magazines require physical access and money, the Internet makes information (mostly) freely available from any location. This also makes it a lot easier to find things like instructions for committing suicide or creating bombs. An especially frightening aspect of information access is that terrorists can use it to plan attacks. A recent example claims that they use footage from Google Earth to plan assaults on British troops in Basra. The Korean government had already banned the images of the defense areas of the country on the Google Earth. Obviously, the availability of these maps are great for the majority of the people, but again, we see that a small group can seriously abuse it to cause harm for the rest of the world.
According to research done by Stanford (see http://www.stanford.edu/group/siqss/Press_Release/press_detail.html), increasing Internet use also means an increase in social isolation. This effect is noticeable even with just 2-5 Internet hours/week, and it rises substantially for those spending more that 10 hours/week, of whom up to 15 percent report a decrease in social activities. Even more striking is the fact that Internet users spend much less time talking on the phone to friends and family.
Another interesting fact is that Internet users will turn their back on traditional media. There is a substantial decrease in TV watching among Internet users and there is also a decrease in (traditional) newspaper reading. More and more people are working from their homes, using a laptop, which influences the way they work and also increases social isolation.
Also more and more people are alarmed by the ease of porn access nowadays (see http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,65772,00.html). According to clinicians and researchers testifying before a Senate committee in 2004, a porn addiction is worse than crack because the images will stay in the brain forever. They also noted the risks for psychological health like addiction and dangerous role models for their sexual behaviors. According to a study conducted in Beijing, Internet corrupts people's minds. The Internet influences and changes moral perspectives and ethical values. Driven by the profits in the numbers of hundreds of millions of dollars, the pornography merchants across the globe have opened adult websites, massively producing various kinds of sex information. This development has led the Commerce Committee of the U.S. Senate to propose the "1995 Communications Act for Good Behavior" to prohibit sex crimes committed on the Internet.
Freedom of speech
The Internet was initially percieved as a universal platform for free speech. Anyone from anywhere around the world should be able to access any information. But over the years, laws and regulations about the use of Internet have been adding up, and ISP's have become much more likely to take down websites after complaints, even if these complaints are totally unfounded. Organizations like the Scientology church have long sued various ISP's to take down secret information about their church, in the famous case of the Fishman Affidavit (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fishman_Affidavit). Preserving the Internet's open character is critical to maintaining free speech. Even more important is that censorship laws have often aimed at speech that could not be similarly restricted offline. And when old laws are not properly adapted to this medium, there is a risk of governments undermining the rights of freedom of speech.
The most censored content on the web is pornographic and pedophile related content, which is obviously an appropriate action taken by governments. Also political blogs and websites, Nazi websites (especially in France and Germany) and religious websites are subject to censorship. But in some countries the censorship goes a little further, endangering the freedom of speech and the open character of the Internet. Some countries in the Middle East censor MySpace and Wikipedia.
The worst offender however is China, it locked down access to the Internet on the level of IP addresses, which means that it's able to block specific sites from being accessible in China. A long-term project, which was first called The Great Firewall of China but since then has been renamed the Golden Shield Project, consists of a combination of filtering software to block content, and routing software to redirect blocked content. It's not just politically sensitive information, such as references to police brutalities or the Tianaman Squarre protests that is blocked though. Anything deemed as 'subversive' is blocked, which even includes respectable sites such as BBC Sports and Wikipedia. Multinational corporations are required to apply the same censorship rules or they risk being banned from access in China as well. This means that even search engines such as Yahoo!, MSN and Google filter their results (see http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=18015).
Web 2.0 and participation inequality
Web 2.0 refers to a number of trends in the development (perpetual beta's such as GMail and Flickr), use (AJAX) and business model (typically ad-supported) of web applications. Arguably the most important aspects are social. Web 2.0 sites make good use of user-generated content, which stimulates sharing and community building. By allowing people to discuss, comment, collaborate, rate, it attempts to bring more openness and allows for creative co-design and co-construction. Some common examples are Flickr, Digg and Wikipedia. However, a closer look at the use and user statistics of these social sites show that only a fraction of those communities are responsible for most of the content. This begs the question if the social aspects of Web 2.0 are nothing more then an illusion?
Research by Nielsen (2003) revealed that in most virtual communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little and 1% of users account for almost all the action (see http://www.useit.com/alertbox/participation_inequality.html). This in sheer contrast to the philosophies of these sites. A site like Wikipedia appears to be an open encyclopedia generated by the visitors of the site, but here the percentages are even more extreme. 0.003% of its users contribute to about two-thirds of the site's edits.
The idea of user-generated content has also allowed people to add false content to the Internet. In 2005, John Seigenthaler (a retired journalist) was extremely surprised to find a fake biography about himself on Wikipedia. The Wikipedia article stated that this man was involved with the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy. Similar articles were found on Reference.com and Answers.com, the authors were never traced… (see http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2005-11-29-wikipedia-edit_x.htm)
Web 2.0 is not without its problems. The increased possibilities of interaction and participation also gives spammers and prankers more possibilities to contaminate otherwise useful websites. The wisdom of the crowds isn't always equipped to this abuse, and it's a continuous struggle to clean up the mess left. Blogs are often filled with keyword-rich text to lure traffic for ad revenue. The very strength of equal participation is also its greatest weakness.
Instead of adopting a technological optimism, we should consider how many of the current problems signaled with and on the Internet are in fact problems in our values and ethics, and thus our own society. Technology is never a solution for these problems, and we should thus be aware of the negative impact that the Internet has.
Of course, this doesn't mean that the medium itself is therefore bad. Similar arguments have been made about television and computer games. However, the negative effects of the Internet are much larger than books and articles, television and computer games together. Instead of automatically looking at technological solutions, we should carefully consider the mutual relationship of technology and society. The Digital Divide concept has brought us new insights in this subject.
Deconstruction of the Digital Divide
As a concept, the Digital Divide is rather ambiguous. What is commonly meant with Digital Divide? How is it perceived and presented? Is this an accurate representation of the problem, or should we look at it in another way?
After discussing several cases that attempt to bridge the Digital Divide, Warschauer concludes that the classic mistake they make is that they "too often focus on providing hardware and software and pay insufficient attention to the human and social systems that must also change for technology to make a difference" (Warschauer, 2002). New attempts to close the digital access gap are made every year. A recent example is the one-laptop-per-child project (http://www.laptop.org), that tries to build a laptop that is so cheap it can be mass-produced for every child. It's main focus is on the innovative construction: the screen has an option to make it visible in bright sunlight and there are keyboard leds in case you want to work in the dark. The laptop is so power efficient it can be charged by human energy. Another example is the "Hole in the Wall" project, that offered computer and Internet access in the poorest slums of New Delhi. By making the interface self-evident, the equipment was optimized for self-teaching, a concept called "minimally invasive education". In practice however, besides technical problems such as failing Internet connection, the children had no access to educational content and spent most of their time drawing with paint programs or playing computer games. A large part of its failure was attributed to the lack of a social plan and community involvement.
These cases demonstrate the failure of the concept of the Digital Divide. Warschauer argues that the term should not only refer to access, but also to "a complex array of factors encompassing physical, digital, human, and social resources and relationships." (Warschauer, 2002) Meaningful access to the Internet must thus also take into account issues such as language, literacy, community and institutional structures.
Another argument against the concept of the Digital Divide is that it implicates a binary opposition between the "haves" and the "have-nots". Obviously, such a strict distinction is too narrow. Just like ISP's offer various degrees of bandwidth and access speed, so too is there a difference in the distribution and quality of infrastructure and ownership of hardware.
Warschauer also objects to the implied causality in the Digital Divide concept. The relationship between access and use of new information and communication technology and social and economical chances is not so simple. As the cases clearly show, just adding access is not enough.
The final stake in the heart for the Digital Divide concept is that it is a purely technological point of view on a problem which is actually a complex mix of social and economical factors. If we truly wish to bridge the Digital Divide, we should use a framework that focuses on the concepts of transformation through social inclusion.
To solve the problem of the Digital Divide, most solutions focus on providing access of physical devices or providing the required infrastructure. These models of access neglect the functional aspects of the Digital Divide, which means that they ignore the possibility of providing access to engage in "meaningful social practices".
Instead of looking at physical access or infrastructure, a better access model is provided by the concept of literacy. This concept is not only defined by the skills to read and write, but is also understood as a politically, historically and culturally determined set of values and practices. Warschauer provides an extensive comparison of both the "literacy divide" and the "digital divide" and argues that they are very similar. They are both communication technologies, that require a suitable society, physical artifacts, the production and reception of content and they require a set of skills to adopt them in a meaningful way. The literacy divide provides a larger research field to draw conclusions from. One of the most important lessons that have been learned from it is that a bottom-up approach is more effective than a top-down approach.
"Because of the politicized nature of literacy, campaigns that focus exclusively on individual skill while ignoring broader social systems that support or restrict extended literacy are not always the most effective. In many cases literacy is not so much granted from above, as seized from below through the social mobilization and collective action of the poor and dispossessed." (Warschauer, 2002)
This map is based on information from the CIA factbook. It shows literacy figures from around the world.
To enable ICT access, Warschauer suggests to provide access in at least the following four basic categories. It requires physical resources (computers, infrastructure), digital resources (relevant content in diverse languages), human resources (literacy and education) and social resources (community and institutional support). These resources are mutually constitutive, which means that they contribute to their effective use and are also the result of effective use.
Gurstein tackles the problems with the concept of Digital Divide from a similar point of view. He warns that the current approach is too much focused on market building and too little on enabling the effective and active use of ICT's for the development of communities, active citizens, and democratic participation. Like Warschauer, he argues for a bottom-up approach and warns for prioritizing access too much. His discussion of the Digital Divide concept shows that its meaning among various socially relevant groups is materialistic and solely centered around providing access. This approach, he argues, is mostly beneficial for infrastructure providers and telecommunication services. The meaning of access in this context is "about being able to consume and receive rather than produce and distribute." (Gurstein, 2003)
The discussion on access distracts from the potential applications of ICT's, such as:
"(…) to support local economic development, social justice and political empowerment; ensuring local access to education and health services; enabling local control of information production and distribution; and, ensuring the survival and continuing vitality of indigenous cultures are among the most significant possible applications and goals." (Gurstein, 2003)
So instead of viewing ICT's as a passive content provider, it should be regarded as an active technology which empowers people. Access is a precondition for what she calls effective use, which in turn requires an access rainbow composed of carriage facilities, input/output devices, tools and support, content services, service access, social facilitation and governance. This provides a much broader scope beyond merely access to ensure effective use of ICT's, both in a functional way and in a social way.
Zones of Silence
The concepts of social inclusion and effective use are better to understand the multi-dimensional nature of the Digital Divide. However, we must be careful in our quest to push ICT's forward to regions we don't understand enough from. It would be arrogant to even assume our understanding of 'effective use' is sufficient to help those regions, assuming they even want our help. And as we saw in the first chapter, the current state of the Internet leaves a lot to be desired. We therefore must be careful to present a technologically deterministic point of view in trying to help the Fourth World. The discourse on Digitial Divide is typically Western in trying to push its ideas of technology use: "Digital Divide work often assumes, one, that ICTs will be helpful, and two, that they will be used for educational, economic, and other “worthwhile” projects." (Potter, 2006). This puts it firmly in the camp of modernism, a progressive and optimistic view on the world which considers its use of technology as normative. The Digital Divide concept is a difficult framework to setup a constructive dialogue from within when the other party is considered as deficient.
An alternative way to think about this communication is through the concept of 'zones of silence' (Potter, 2006). This provides focus on three key ideas: on the voice of people on the 'wrong side' of the Digital Divide, on communication between the two, and on the context within connections are made. These 'zones of silence' are equal to Castells' Fourth World: the unconnected regions where people's voices aren't heard. But that doesn't imply that the Fourth World is a silent world: we must listen carefully to what 'they' say. A zone implies space where conversation takes place. We can learn from their stories and experiences to look further than our own notions of technology and information.
Warschauers states that we must attack the problem of the Digital Divide by implementing social change. Gurstein suggests to mobilize the term 'effective use' to measure the success of ICT's. And Potter argues to not merely impose our Western visions on the so-called "Zones of silence", or what Castells refers to as the Fourth World, but to look at what we can learn from each other.
However, these alternative views on the Digital Divide concept still show a clear distinction between subject (us) and object (them). Despite their claims to the contrary, their reasoning is still founded within the assumption that 'we' are different from 'the other' through our use of ICT's. But despite our different mindset, culture, values and assumptions, the problems we have are still the same. The participation inequality shows us that even 'we' still have great issues with some of the core ideas of ICT's: communication, collaboration and education. Rather than look either this or that side, we propose a combined approach.
As stated in the introduction, a large part of the discourse on the Digital Divide is based on technological optimism. As we've shown with a short (and definitely incomplete) list of some of the problems with the Internet, we should be very critical to push it to those which have less or no access to it.
Warschauer attacks the concept of the Digital Divide as an access divide. By using the concept of literacy as an example, he illustrates the many facets that underlie the Digital Divide. Focusing on merely access is not enough, as numerous failed projects have demonstrated. Besides hardware access, some serious change management is necessary, and this requires careful planning and involvement from stakeholders.
The Digital Divide presents us with real problems about the current state of the Internet and begs the question: are we there yet? Is it as good as we thought it would be? Furthermore, for those who don't have access to it, we should ask ourselves: what do we want them to do with it? The Digital Divide refers not only to an access gap between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots', but also to what we believe about the Internet, its possibilities and its intended usage. Understanding these aspects will help us to better think about social change.
As we've mentioned in the first chapter, the Internet itself isn't anywhere near its supposed 'potential', despite the efforts of many optimists. Besides structural problems such as spam, there lurks a larger problem: participation inequality. With the current trend of Web 2.0, which attempts to breathe a second life in the 'virtual community', we see that participation is actually very unevenly divided. The Digital Divide discourse started out naively as an access gap. Current thinking focuses more on social inclusion, effective use, and establishing a two-way communication.
We propose to go one step further, and truly step out of the Digital Divide dichotomy. We believe that any attempt to 'solve' the Digital Divide automatically implies a redefinition of technology's role in society which focuses too much on it's deterministic role. Any solution is a co-construction of both social and technological changes. But this co-construction shouldn't be confined to the 'have-nots', rather, we should also (and perhaps even more so) focus our attention on 'our' side of the gap. In what meaningful ways do we establish communities and how do we exclude or include certain members? How are inclusion and exclusion 'designed' in the software and communities that we build? How can we listen and learn from 'non-users' and allow them to meaningfully participate? Which assumptions and hopes are grounded in our concepts of participation and community, and what can we learn from the unconnected zones of silence? While answering these questions, we should adopt a critical attitude towards ICT's to not fall into the trap of technological optimism. Even though many problems may seem to be solved with technological solutions, we should look deeper than surface-level and try to unearth the social aspects, by focusing on social inclusion and effective use, while learning from the zones of silence in 'both' sides of the 'gap'.
- Digital Divide (2007)
- Visualisation of the Digital (access) Divide
- Perspective: what digital divide? by Sonia Arrison (2002)
- Britse soldaten overwogen aanklacht Google Earth by Mick De Neeve (2007)
- Spam is back and worse than ever by Bob Sullivan (2007)
- 3 van de 5 gratis video downloads in de VS is porno (2007)
- Zones of Silence: a framework beyond the digital divide by Amelia Bryne Potter (2006)
- Exploring the Future of the Digital Divide through Ethnographic Futures Research by Matthew M. Mitchell (2002)
- Reconceptualizing the Digital Divide by Mark Warschauer (2002)
- Effective use: A community informatics strategy beyond the Digital Divide by Michael Gurstein (2003)
- Cons in the panopticon: Anti–globalization and cyber–piracy by Indhu Rajagopal & Nis Bojin (2004)
- Test of filtering by Sohu and Sina search engines following upgrade by Reporters without Borders (2996)
- Terrorists 'use Google maps to hit UK troops by Thomas Harding (2007)
- Digital divide: the three stages. By Jakob Nielsen (2006)
- Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute. by Jakob Nielsen (2006)