The most significant technological advances in the last century were made in the field of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). Due to these advances, ICT emerged as the most important tool for fostering growth and development for the global community. Through the ability of ICT to enhance information processing and connect people, it has increased the pace and efficiency of communication and turned the world into a global village. Governments have recognized that investment in ICT is crucial for the ultimate prosperity of their citizens. Many countries have therefore increased their investments in this sector in order to enable their citizens to reap the benefits of enhanced information processing. While growth in the ICT sector has been exponential and evident in all countries, it has not happened in a uniform manner.
Some nations have witnessed impressive investments in the ICT leading to adequate access to ICT resources for the majority of their citizens while others have not managed to provide adequate access to these resources for most of their citizens. This has led to a great discrepancy in access levels to ICT resources between nations and between various classes of citizens in individual countries. This has led to the phenomena known as the digital divide. The divide has mostly occurred along socioeconomic lines with the developed nations being the major beneficiaries of technology while the developing nations enjoy only minimal benefits. This paper will set out to define the digital divide and discuss the merits and demerits of improving it. The paper will demonstrate that reducing the digital divide is necessary to ensure that the entire global community enjoys the positive impacts of information technology.
Defining the Digital Divide
There is no universally accepted definition for the concept of the digital divide. However, all definitions aim to highlight a disparity in digital access between different parties. A credible definition is provided by Pick and Azari (2008) who document that “digital divide is rapidly growing disparities in the utilization, expenditure, and availability of technology between individuals, businesses, and geographic areas at different socioeconomic levels” (p. 1). In simpler terms, digital divide points to the fact that the world is divided into two groups: people who have and people who do not have access to modern information technology. Before the late 1990s, the term digital divide was unfamiliar in both professional and lay people circles. As more people have become exposed to IT over the past decade, the term has become one of the most frequently and commonly used terms by professionals and ordinary people.
The digital divide can be subdivided into two major categories. The first category is the disparity in the telecommunication infrastructure between different nations. In this divide, the developed nations possess extensive and modern infrastructure networks (Internet World, 2010). Their citizenry is therefore able to enjoy convenient and fast internet connectivity. On the other hand, developing nations have limited telecommunication infrastructure. In some cases, the infrastructure is old leading to poor connectivity. The second category is the inequality in access to ICT resources by individuals within a nation (Couldry 2007). The nation might have the good telecommunication infrastructure, but access to the resources might not be possible for some groups in the society.
The disparities broadly referred to at the “digital divide” have led to a number of significant negative consequences for the people who do not have access to the ICT technologies. Addressing the problem of the digital divide has therefore been a major ambition for policymakers and rights advocates (Naarmala & Makinen 2010). Many governments and organizations have bridged the digital divide as one of their key priorities. There are a number of significant advantages to the nation and the society when the digital divide is reduced.
Merits of Reducing the Digital Divide
Arguably, the greatest advantage of improving the digital divide is that it will lead to increased financial prosperity for the society. Greater access to ICT has the real potential of fuelling economic growth and development, especially among individuals who presently lack access. In the 21st century, technology has emerged as the force with a capability to change the face of economies. It provides a unique opportunity to positively influence individuals and countries in spite of their class in society. Couldry (2007) declares that in today’s knowledge based economy, access to information is the most efficient way of fostering economic prosperity. By improving the digital divide, individuals will be provided with the tools necessary to improve their economic well-being. Bridging the digital divide will ensure that more people are able to exploit the knowledge accessible though the internet to bring about prosperity and wealth creation.
Improving the digital divide will create new employment opportunities for people in the community. To begin with, reducing the digital divide will require the nation or community to invest in telecommunication infrastructure (Epstein & Nisbet 2011). Telecommunication satellites and repeater stations will have to be constructed. In addition to this, hard cables might have to be laid out to deliver fast speed connectivity to households and businesses. These labour intensive undertakings will require the use of the local labour force therefore creating employment. Future maintenance of the infrastructure will also lead to long-term gainful employment to a number of people. For the community to fully exploit the ICT resources available, people have to be adept at using the technology (Epstein & Nisbet 2011). This will necessitate training in the use of ICT. A new market for trainers will therefore arise as the digital divide is improved. Improving the digital divide therefore creates jobs and by doing this contributes directly to the improvement of living conditions for many people by providing them with income making opportunities.
A significant advantage of improving the digital divide is that it might lead to better political governance by promoting democracy. This would especially be true in developing nations where poor governance is rife. The poor governance is mostly attributed to a lack of accountability and transparency by the government. People also lack a forum through which they can air their grievances and demand better governance from their leaders. Improving the digital divide will provide members of the society with a platform from where they can engage their leaders.
Couldry (2007) states that increased access to ICT will promote public participation in government issues through platforms such as social media and public forums. Individuals who would otherwise not be able to make their demands heard by the government will be given a voice by ICT. This will ensure that they play a role in the decision making process in their community. In addition to this, bridging the digital divide will force the government to be accountable since people will have access to the progress being made by the government (Monroe 2004). By reviewing information on government progress through publicly available portals, the citizens will be able to access the efficiency of the leaders. If the leaders are deemed inefficient, the citizens will remove them from office through the electoral process.
An obvious merit of improving the digital divide is that it increases the education prospects of all individuals. Education has always been seen as the key to attaining better social and economic outcomes among citizens. Governments have therefore been keen to exploit measures that promote education. Barnett (2013) reports that ICT has emerged as one of the tools for promoting education. Through this technology, an innovative method of delivering educational products such as online learning is possible. Through such methods, the technology has promoted the reduction in cost of attaining education. This has made education accessible to the lower income group, which would previously have been secluded due to financial limitations. It has also increased the ease with which people can learn.
ICT has helped traditional education institute overcome major problems such as resource limitation (Barnett 2013). Through online education, a school is able to serve a higher capacity of individuals than it would using traditional classrooms. Increased learning opportunities mean that more people are given the chance to study and join the country’s labour force.
The digital divide is likely to add to promote social equality especially among the socially and economically disadvantaged members of the society. The current disparity in access to ICT resources has contributed to the widening gap on a socio-economic basis among members of the society. While some groups have been empowered though the availability of ICT, others have been denied the opportunity to improve their livelihood through technology.
Epstein and Nisbet (2011) declare, “The opportunity for people to participate in economic and political life depends on their ability to access and use communication and information services” (p.6). Improving the digital divide will therefore increase the opportunity for many people to improve their lives by exploiting the opportunities availed by ICT. In addition to this, bridging the digital divide will prevent certain segments of the society from being segregated against. Naarmala and Makinen (2010) confirm that most governments and enterprises are increasingly migrating their services online. As a result of this activity, those without reliable internet access face the risk of being disenfranchised. By improving the digital divide, the at risk group that would be prevented from accessing services through the internet will be given the means with which to do this.
Finally, improving the digital divide will lead to the provision of important IT skills to a larger segment of the society. Digital divide does not refer solely to the physical access to technology but also whether individuals have the necessary ICT skills. Epstein and Nisbet (2011) note that “while the material access to computer and network infrastructure has long been the dominant discursive for policymakers addressing the issue” (p.94). However, digital divide can also be looked at in terms of disparity of skills since having access to computers and internet access does not mean that a person can use ICT productively. The difference in effective use of ICT in practice is influenced by factors including prior experience with technology and education level (Barnett 2013). Activity aimed at bridging the digital divide will therefore seek to instil the necessary skills to ensure that individuals are adequately prepared to use ICT for productive purposes.
Disadvantages of Improving the Digital Divide
Focus on closing the digital divide is based on the notion that people will enjoy better living once they have access to technology. Epstein and Nisbet (2011) declare that there has been a trend towards increasing technocratic optimism in the world where technology has been taken to be the ultimate development tool. There is an assumption that simply installing it will promote overall development to the country. While ICT has made significant contributions to the society, it is unlikely that the life of everyone will be better through technology. Monroe (2004) confirms that this is a myth that in fact distracts the society from working towards tackling the real causes of poverty and inequality in the society.
Improving the digital divide might be detrimental to other vital sectors of the economy. ICT is already being promoted as the ultimate tool for development and economic prosperity in many developing countries. This ignores the fact that other sectors such as agriculture play a crucial role in the prosperity of the country. Governments are investing heavily in the ICT sector while dedicating limited resources to the other equally important sectors (Epstein and Nisbet 2011).
For a country to prosper, it needs to have a diverse economic base. Sectors such as mining, the service industry, agriculture, and mining need to be exploited in order to ensure sustainable development. While ICT can play a supportive role in these sectors, its advocates often present it as a standalone sector that is mainly concerned with knowledge processing and transmission. This might be detrimental to the overall economy of the country since investments in important areas might be ignored with priority being given to ICT.
The expansion of IT has the potential for buttressing the power of the political and economical elite in society. As has been noted, the growth in ICT has changed the way information and knowledge is viewed. The technology has increased the efficiency of information delivery greatly empowering the individuals who can harness it (Internet World, 2010). When the digital divide exists, the powers of the elite might be restricted since they may not be able to influence as many people using technology. However, when the digital divide is improved, all groups in the society will have access to ICT. This will increase the sphere of influence for the elite who have control of the ICT. It will therefore enable them to increase their economic and political power often at a disadvantage to the rest of the community.
Another disadvantage of improving the digital divide is that it will increase the power and influence of the developed countries over the developing world. As has been noted, developed countries hold a monopoly in availability of modern ICT infrastructure (Crawford 2011). For developing nations to bridge the divide caused by material access to computers and network infrastructure, they need to procure these products from the developed nations. The countries also rely on developed nations for the provision of application programs needed to benefit from ICT. This great dependency is detrimental to the developing nations since it increases the influence of the developed nations in addition to costing them billions of dollars worth of foreign exchange.
The exponential growth in ICT over the last few decades has led to many benefits for the global community. However, these benefits have not been distributed in an equitable manner and some segments of society have benefited more from the technology while others have been left out. This paper set out to define the digital divide and highlight the merits and demerits of improving it. The paper began by acknowledging that ICT is one of the most potent tools for the economic development and empowerment of many people all over the world. It then defined the digital divide as the persistent gap between nations as well as gaps domestically in access to ICT resources.
It noted that due to the digital divide, the benefits derived from information and communication technologies continue to be inequitably distributed. From the arguments made in the paper, it is clear that improving the digital divide is the only way through which all people can be given an equal opportunity to benefit from the opportunities presented by ICT resources.
However, improving the digital divide has some significant challenges. Monroe (2004) admits that closing the digital divide is an elusive agenda since the divide itself is a moving target meaning that it will never be compellingly closed. The paper has demonstrated some important demerits of bridging the digital divide including ignorance of the root causes of poverty in society, disinvestment in important sectors of the economy and more empowerment for the elite. Improvement in the digital divide will increase this detrimental outcomes therefore making it undesirable. In spite of these disadvantages, the arguments made in this paper clearly demonstrate that improving the digital divide is crucial for the development of the society. It can therefore be asserted that attempts should be made to further improve the divide while taking care to ensure that the demerits of this action are avoided.
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