Reconceptualising the digital divide

Mapping the Digital Divide in AfricaRagnedda, M. (2019). Reconceptualising the digital divide. In Mutsvairo, B., and Ragnedda, M., (2019) (eds)., Mapping the Digital Divide in Africa. A mediated Analysis. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, pp. 27-43.


The term “digital divide” emerged in the 1990s to define inequalities in access to the Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), framing it as a matter of having or not having access to ICTs (Compaine 2001). The firsts empirical researches have shown how some specific socio-demographic variables, such as employment status, income, education level, geographic location, ethnicity, age, gender and family structure, influenced the access to the ICTs, creating a digital gap or divide among citizens (domestic digital divide) or countries (global digital divide). Such inequalities have widened during the years, despite the fact that the World Summit on the Information Society, held in Geneva (2003) and then in Tunis (2005) has stressed the idea that no one should be left out from the benefits offered by the information society. The importance of the Internet as a pre-requisite for economic and social development, has been further stressed by the United Nations in 2015 when the Internet has been included among its goals for resolving the most persistent social and economic challenges of our time (UN, 2015: 15). Indeed, in a digital enabled society, part of the human activities depends on how we access, generate and process information. It is then worth asking how the phenomenon of digital divide and digital inequalities has been approached and analysed by both scholars and policy makers and how such approach has changed over the years. Hence, the aim of this chapter is to discuss the change of perspectives in analysing and attempting to bridge the digital divide, and reconceptualise this concept by offering a nuanced theoretical approach to analyses the rise and persistence of digital inequalities.

In order to shed light on this issue, I shall draw on some of the most important researches that have been carried out on this topic in the last two decades, exploring the rise of the digital divide as a matter of public concern. The chapter will start by attempting to define the digital divide, taking into account its multidimensionality and stressing how the apparently simple matter of “accessibility” is a sophisticated phenomenon. The chapter will underline the development of the digital divide by focusing on the shift from the first to the second level of digital divide, discussing how researchers have moved their focus from inequalities in access to inequalities in use, going beyond the black and white approach of “have” and “have not”. The chapter will then introduce and discuss the third level of digital divide, seen as the social and cultural benefits deriving from accessing and using the Internet, stressing how social and digital inequalities are intertwined. Finally, some conclusion will be drawn and some recommendations and further direction of future work will be also made.


The origin and the evolution of the digital divide


Although the digital divide is a relatively new phenomenon, research on the digital divide has “created its own literature and [has] gained the reputation as a legitimate academic field” (Wang, McLee and Kuo, 2011: 323). However, not only there is not a clear and commonly accepted definition (Epstein et al., 2011; Stevenson, 2009), but it is impossible to identify with any certainty the person (scholar or policy maker) who coined or used for the first time the term “digital divide”. The term has been used in different way with different meanings. In 1995 Moore used this term to distinguish attitudes of pessimism or euphoria in the use of technology, while in 1996, Gore used it to indicate the different chances for students to access and use personal computers at school. This concept started to be used in relation to the gap in accessing the ICTs by the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), in a series of “Current Population Surveys” in 1995, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2004. The issue of digital divide has, therefore, gained importance as a policy issue. These reports mainly referred to the socio-economic gap between communities with access to computers and the Internet and those without, tracing the most important intergroup differences related to the spread of access. These studies showed that low-income people, adults, women and racial minorities had the lowest rate of computer ownership and Internet access, thus creating a digital gap or divide across population. In order to bridge the gap in accessing the ICTs earlier researchers and policy makers have adopted what we can define as the “telephone approach”, which mainly focuses on the cost and diffusion of technologies, thus reflecting the influence of traditional public policies on the universal spread of the telephone. In such perspective, however, gaps and inequalities essentially referred to the difficulties encountered by certain social categories or entire countries to access and use technologies. The phenomenon of digital divide was reduced to a simple technological and economic issue, underestimating the social consequences associated with the rise of the digital divide (Compaine, 1988). In this vein, several researches and policy makers thought that the initial differences in access to ICTs gradually disappear as a result of socio-economic processes: the levelling of access will be possible thanks to the reduction of costs and simplification of interfaces. This approach, known also as standardization, stresses the idea that citizens have different time of technology’s adoption and the current gap will be gradually overcome as the technology will adapt itself to the market (Thierer, 2000). Lower price and a much simpler interfaces, will eradicate the problems surrounding the digital divide (Compaine, 1988, 2001).

However, framing the digital divide as a technological problem and as a matter of adoption, means to ignore other variables such the overall socio-cultural, educational and political background. Describing the digital divide as the simple difference between those who have a personal computer and a connection to the Internet, and those who, not having this technology, remain cut off from its possibilities, is what we can define as the first level of digital divide. Such approach has characterized the early stage of its development (Hoffman and Novak, 1998; Katz and Aspden, 1997). Presenting the digital divide as a form of inequality in access to ICTs (Besser, 2004) and as a matter of absolute inequality in black and white terms, sounds problematic (DiMaggio et al., 2001; Selwyn, 2004), and fails to understand its multidimensionality (Warschauer, 2002) and the necessity to include others factors and variables (Brandtzæg et al., 2011). Access to the Internet alone cannot determine neither how much value users gain from the Internet, nor what users do online (Devaraj and Kohli, 2003; Zhu and Kraemer, 2005). This dichotomous approach, obsolete in an era characterized by extensive use of the Internet (Tondeur et al., 2011), may be useful to describe the adoption and diffusion of ICTs, but it is useless to analyse the social, cultural, political and economic inequalities at the base of the differences in accessing and using the Internet. Above all, such binary approach fails in understanding how the unequal access and usage of ICTs not only is based on already existing social inequalities, but it may also exacerbate them.  Thus, what is missing in the earlier researches is not only a nuanced theoretical approach (Ragnedda and Muschert 2017), but also any attempt to analyse digital inequalities and their social implications.


Download the Accepted Manuscript. Conceptualizing Digital Divide


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