Contemporary Concerns of Digital Divide in an Information Society

Contemporary Concerns of Digital Divide in an Information Society

Yasmin Ibrahim (University of Brighton, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch117
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Abstract

The social issue of the “digital divide” has courted much political and scholarly attention in the last decade. There is, however, less consensus over the origin of the term, even though it is generally associated with the advancement and diffusion of information technology. According to Jan Steyaert and Nick Gould (2004), the concept of the digital divide is believed to have gained media and academic currency in the mid-1990s. In 1998, the United Nations labelled the digital divide as a new type of poverty that was dividing the world (cf. Hubregtse, 2005). A UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) report in 1999 (cf. Norris, 2000) stated that “the network society is creating parallel communications systems” that increase the divisions between rich and poor nations (p.3). The term, in effect, captures the social inequality of access to technology, particularly the Internet, as well as the long-term consequences of this inequality for nations and societies. The significance of the term is embedded within the notion of an information society, where information is an important component of the global economy in terms of production, development, and social enrichment of societies and nations. The diffusion of technologies, such as the Internet, has meant the surfacing of various social issues including technology’s impact on society, its relationship with older media forms, and its immediate impact on people’s social and political lives (Robinson, 2003, p. i). New technologies, such as the Internet, are seen as transforming the globe into an information society with the ability to promote new forms of social identity and social networks while decentralizing power (Castells, 1996, p. 2001). Robin and Webster (1999, p. 91), nevertheless, are of the view that the contextualization of the digital divide debates within the issue of information revolution is misleading, for it “politicises the process of technological development by framing it as a matter of shift in the availability of and access of information.” The term digital divide conveys the broader context of international social and economic relations and in particular, the centre-periphery power configuration marked by American dominance over the rest of the world (Chen & Wellman, 2004, p. 41). In fact, rhetoric and literature on technology and information have always emphasized this divide (see Galtung & Ruge, 1965), not to mention the debates that were sparked in the 1980s by UNESCO’s proclamation of the New World Information Order (cf. Norris, 2000). The term has been analysed both at global and regional levels, and has involved the investigation of socioeconomic contexts, global governance, policy issues, as well as cultural elements. The analysis of the digital divide on a global level may entail comparisons of large regions, between developed and developing countries, and between rural and urban areas. In modern consciousness, the phrase captures the disadvantages and inequalities of those who lack access or refrain from using ICTs in their everyday lives (Cullen, 2003).
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Introduction

The social issue of the “digital divide” has courted much political and scholarly attention in the last decade. There is, however, less consensus over the origin of the term, even though it is generally associated with the advancement and diffusion of information technology. According to Jan Steyaert and Nick Gould (2004), the concept of the digital divide is believed to have gained media and academic currency in the mid-1990s. In 1998, the United Nations labelled the digital divide as a new type of poverty that was dividing the world (cf. Hubregtse, 2005). A UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) report in 1999 (cf. Norris, 2000) stated that “the network society is creating parallel communications systems” that increase the divisions between rich and poor nations (p.3). The term, in effect, captures the social inequality of access to technology, particularly the Internet, as well as the long-term consequences of this inequality for nations and societies.

The significance of the term is embedded within the notion of an information society, where information is an important component of the global economy in terms of production, development, and social enrichment of societies and nations. The diffusion of technologies, such as the Internet, has meant the surfacing of various social issues including technology’s impact on society, its relationship with older media forms, and its immediate impact on people’s social and political lives (Robinson, 2003, p. i). New technologies, such as the Internet, are seen as transforming the globe into an information society with the ability to promote new forms of social identity and social networks while decentralizing power (Castells, 1996, p. 2001). Robin and Webster (1999, p. 91), nevertheless, are of the view that the contextualization of the digital divide debates within the issue of information revolution is misleading, for it “politicises the process of technological development by framing it as a matter of shift in the availability of and access of information.”

The term digital divide conveys the broader context of international social and economic relations and in particular, the centre-periphery power configuration marked by American dominance over the rest of the world (Chen & Wellman, 2004, p. 41). In fact, rhetoric and literature on technology and information have always emphasized this divide (see Galtung & Ruge, 1965), not to mention the debates that were sparked in the 1980s by UNESCO’s proclamation of the New World Information Order (cf. Norris, 2000). The term has been analysed both at global and regional levels, and has involved the investigation of socioeconomic contexts, global governance, policy issues, as well as cultural elements. The analysis of the digital divide on a global level may entail comparisons of large regions, between developed and developing countries, and between rural and urban areas. In modern consciousness, the phrase captures the disadvantages and inequalities of those who lack access or refrain from using ICTs in their everyday lives (Cullen, 2003).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Digital Divide: The separation between the information rich, or haves, and information poor, or have-nots.

ICTs: Information and communication technologies, which are seen as the driving force of globalization and new forms of connectivity.

Network society: The rise of the information society will see the emergence of a network society in which information and technology will enable the formation of networks and strategic planning.

Information Society: The transition from the modern and industrial age in which modes of production, exchange, and social capital are increasingly defined through information

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