07/01/2010 05:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Looking Deep Into the Digital Divide

Originally published on, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.

By Youth Radio

Youth Radio's New Options desk has been looking at the barriers to employment for out-of-school young adults, and we heard a statistic, cited casually, that the digital divide had remained widest for one population - people without high school diplomas. So we decided to investigate that by talking to Christo Sims. A doctoral candidate at the University of California-Berkeley School of Information, Sims researches "the relations between young people and new media."

What is your definition of the digital divide?

The digital divide is a concept that got a lot of attention in the 1990s. It remains relevant although the concept has changed a lot over the years. Originally, it described a split between those with access to personal computing and the internet and those without access. It suggested there were two camps of people, the "haves" and the "have nots." The term was applied to a perceived split within our national population as well as to splits between different regions of the world, especially between the global north and the global south. Since it was assumed that the internet and computing would play an increasingly important role in a person's life opportunities the digital divide was seen as an equality issue.

How has the digital divide changed over time?

As time has gone on, scholars and some policy makers have come to see the term "digital divide" as problematic. The discussion has moved quite a bit over the years. One of the first things people started doing was pointing out that "access" to the internet and personal computing could mean a lot of different things and that these variations could have a big impact on the quality of the experience. Was the access at home or did the person have to rely on a computer at school, work, or a library? Was the internet connection dial-up or broadband? How up-to-date was the machinery and software? And so on. Since newer technologies keep coming out these potential divides keep expanding. Now researchers want to know who has access to smart phones and the like.

In addition to widening our concerns about differences in access, scholars have also began to pay attention to the different ways people use the same technology, as well as what sorts of skills are required to make use of the technologies effectively. There has been a lot of attention to differences in "skill" or technical "literacies." And there is a lot more attention on who makes media and who primarily watches or consumes media. There's this hope that new media allows us all to become media producers but when you look at who is actively creating and distributing their own media over the internet to people other than their friends, it's still a relatively small proportion of people, and it's a proportion that tends to be more wealthy and male.

I think all of this is an improvement on the old digital divide discussion but there are still some issues that trouble me. One, is that there can be a tendency to replace the concern with equitable opportunities in life with a concern over equitable technology use. It's often just assumed that being proficient with various technologies increases your opportunities in life. I'm not so sure about that, and you actually see only vague ideas about what sorts of technical skills and uses are most important to a person's life opportunities. This focus on equitable technology use isn't a bad thing unless it displaces our concern with other factors that might be causing unequal opportunities. When it comes to issues like inequality there is a tendency to shift our concern rather than to increase our overall concern, and if that's the case then we better understand the consequences of ignoring other factors.

What proportion of the digital divide's "have nots" are people who lack a high school diplomas?

It depends on what measure of the "digital divide" you're using. I'd focus less on an overall "digital divide" and instead focus on what sorts of access and skills a person needs in order to do something that we think is valuable. So, for example, we'll see different patterns between blogging and circulating video remixes. If you want statistics, look at the Pew Internet and American Life Project website. They have lots of statistics about technological access available for free online. There digital divide section is here:

Has that changed over time? Why?

If we're talking about access to personal computing, mobile phones, and the Internet then there has absolutely been a change over time. In general, there is a trend towards more and more people having some form of basic access. But importantly there are big differences in the quality of access, and there are still some without access at all, especially amongst the poor, the less educated, the elderly, and those in rural areas. The main reason I've heard for the increases in access is that technological diffusion becomes more widespread as the technologies get cheaper. As noted above, though, these statistics hide a lot of important differences. It's not like everyone has their own MacBook Pro at home running iMovie.

Finally, can you recommend any groups that have made progress in bringing digitally marginalized populations up to speed?

I'd say Youth Radio is a great example. You could also look at what Nichole Pinkard is doing in Chicago. She's involved in several projects that provide young people with much more than just basic access and skills.

Also from Youth Radio-Youth Media International:

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