Definition: Digital Divide

The disparity in access to the Internet and other information and communication technologies is commonly referred to as the digital divide. Discussions of the digital divide often include talk of technological "haves" and "have-nots", where the have-nots are people who can't afford technology, don't have physical access to it, or don't have the knowledge necessary to take advantage of it.

Why should anyone care? The argument is that adequate access to and knowledge of information and communication technologies allow people to be active citizens in what are increasingly information-based societies. The ability to obtain, understand, and communicate information will be essential to participate in modern democracy, culture, health care, and the economy. Fractures in this ability result in fractured societies and perpetuate existing divides. Therefore, action is needed to close the gaps created by political, economic, and cultural forces.

The situation turns into a debate when the role of government (and tax dollars) comes into question.

Counterarguments contend that inequalities in access and use will balance out as technology becomes cheaper and easier to use. Market forces will help the problem correct itself, and therefore governments should limit the resources they expend in fixing it. Another argument is that efforts to fix the problem (i.e., interference with the market) may actually worsen the situation by investing in technologies that would have otherwise been made obsolete by new innovations.

Because of the numerous problems plaguing both governments and businesses, neither institution is likely to solve the problem alone. Solutions will likely have to emerge from their combined efforts, as well as advances from academia and non-profits.

The discussion extends far beyond what has been said here, and many books and articles have been written on the subject. To learn more, you could begin with the Falling Through the Net series of reports from the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, starting with the 1995 report A Survey of the "Have Nots" in Rural and Urban America.

Also have a look at some of the work by Manuel Castells, Mark Graham, Barney Warf, and Matthew Zook, or Benjamin Compaine for a different opinion.