The Cruel Depths of the Digital Divide

Talking about the digital divide is a bit passé. It was once a major issue. According to digital policy expert Sonia Arrison, in the late nineties “the Rev. Jesse Jackson called the digital divide ‘classic apartheid,’ the NAACP’s Kweisi Mfume dubbed it ‘technological segregation,’ and President Clinton urged a ‘national crusade’.” International institutions funded programs to study and go about closing the divide.

Yet as the number of people connected to the Internet soars year upon year – and the number of people with mobile phones increases even faster – it seems that the majority of the world’s citizens could easily be connected within a generation through market forces alone. In Digital Activism Decoded (PDF), the chapter on the digital divide, “Economic and Social Factors: The Digital (Activism) Divide,” is largely positive, noting the empowerment of existing elites, but also focusing on leapfrogging and the more subtle skills divide among people who are already connected. The Digital Divide Network, started in 1999 to build international collaboration to combat the problem went dormant in 2005 for lack of attention and was recently turned into a static archive because of the large amount of spam on its message boards. It is now a digital graveyard, a reminder of past interest in the problem, and the current lack of interest.

Yet an excellent photo essay from The New York Times Magazine reminds us of other graveyards of the digital divide. As the rich and highly -connected worry about the reception problems of the iPhone 4, children in Ghana burn donated computers in the hopes of extracting metals for resale (photo left). Not only is this another story of the terrible effects of e-waste on human and environmental health, it is also an irony of well-meaning attempts to close the digital divide: many of the computers that find their way to the Agbogbloshie dump are second-hand donations from the US and Europe. Rather than helping the children of Africa to bridge the digital divide, these machines are poisoning them with toxic levels of lead and PCBs.

There is no easy answer to this problem of the extremely poor not only being left out of the digital revolution but also being victimized by it. Much of the blame should be laid on the wasteful and insouciant consumption of the rich world, so well explained in the short film The Story of Stuff. The rich technology users of the world – myself included – should use this as a reminder of the ugly (and largely hidden) effects of the technology boom. Next time you are considering the purchase of a new gadget, remember that in a few years it will be poisoning the soil of Ghana (or India, or China…) and ask yourself if you really need it.

Image: Pieter Hugo

From Our Book: How Digital Activism Empowers Existing Elites

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt, by Kate Brodock, is from a chapter entitled “Economic and Social Factors: The Digital (Activism) Divide”. The chapter describes how contextual factors beyond digital infrastructure can affect digital activism outcomes. You can find Kate on Twitter and blogging here and here.

…Research indicates that economic differences limit not only access to technology but also the likelihood of an individual to take part in political activism. The 2009 Digital Activism Survey conducted by DigiActive, an organization dedicated to helping grassroots activists around the world use digital technology, found that digital activists, particularly in developing countries, are more likely than the population at large to be paying a monthly fee for home Internet access, to be able to afford a high-speed connection, and to work in a white-collar job with access to the Internet in the workplace.

In short, digital activists are likely to be prosperous, with their economic resources offering them a significant digital advantage. These initial findings indicate that the digital divide strongly influences digital activism because it tends to limit participation to the economic elite.

This research was corroborated by a report of the Internet and American Life Project of the Pew Research Center. A September 2009 Pew report—Civic Engagement Online: Politics as Usual, by Aaron Smith—stated that “whether they take place on the Internet or off, traditional political activities remain the domain of those with high levels of income and education.” Smith continues, “Contrary to the hopes of some advocates, the Internet is not changing the socio-economic character of civic engagement in the United States. Just as in offline civic life, the well-to-do and well-educated are more likely than those less well off to participate in online political activities.”

The digital divide is also made wider by the fact that not only do lower-income populations have less access to digital technologies, they sometimes must pay more for them. For example, the 2007 ITU-UNCTAD World Information Society report stated that the cost of broadband as a percentage of the average monthly per capita wage was around 2 percent in high-income countries, whereas broadband costs in low-income countries were more than 900 percent of the average monthly per capita wage. Higher income populations are not only likely to receive the higher-quality products of modern communications technology and in greater supply, they often are able to purchase them at significantly lower relative cost.

Combined with the research on digital activism participants from DigiActive and the Pew Research Center, these findings indicate that digital technology often mirrors rather than undermines preexisting divides in economic resources. Digital technology provides new communication capacities, but it is people of higher economic capabilities who are best able to take advantage of them….

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