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Edward Slipszenko


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The Digital Divide

December 2nd, 2010

The "digital divide" is a term used to describe the gap between those who have access to ICT and those who do not. The term currently means different things to different people, some of whom consider the term to apply purely to internet or computer access and others who may consider the term to mean how accessible ICT is to the user, taking into account whether certain usages of ICT are less easily available to people with disabilities.

Different Types of Digital Divide



The most obvious disparity of the digital divide could be considered to be that between poor and rich countries. The population of richer countries tend to have both a much higher internet and computer access rate, leading to their citizens being much more likely to develop skills using ICT. The cause of the divide between rich and poor countries can be attributed to many factors, such as the poorer countries being unable to afford the initial start-up costs of creating the necessary network of cables or being unable to afford the computers themselves, certain groups (such as OLPC) are trying to address this issue by making hardware that is relatively cheaply available to poorer countries governments.

For a comparison between access in rich and poor countries we can look at the Digital Opportunity Index, which is an index based on internationally agreed ICT indicators. The data for 2005/2006 (PDF) is shown, along with each countries 2009 GDP per capita as according to the IMF, in the table below:

Rank Country DOI Score GDP per capita ($)
At the top of the scale, we have:
1 South Korea 0.80 17,074
2 Japan 0.77 39,740
3 Denmark 0.76 56,263
4 Iceland 0.74 37,991
5 Singapore 0.72 36,379
6 Netherlands 0.71 48,209
7 Taiwan 0.71 16,372
8 Hong Kong, China 0.70 29,803
9 Sweden 0.70 43,668
10 United Kingdom 0.69 35,257
11 Finland 0.69 44,581
12 Norway 0.69 78,178
13 Luxembourg 0.69 105,918
14 Israel 0.69 26,874
15 Macao, China 0.69  
And at the bottom of the scale, we have:
167 Madagascar 0.12 414
168 Mozambique 0.12 465
169 Mali 0.12 657
170 Timor-Leste 0.11 499
171 Sierra Leone 0.11 326
172 Ethiopia 0.10 390
173 Burundi 0.09 164
174 Central African Republic 0.09 447
175 Malawi 0.09 339
176 Democratic Republic of the Congo 0.08 171
177 Eritrea 0.07 363
178 Guinea-Bissau 0.04 521
179 Myanmar 0.04 571
180 Chad 0.04 687
181 Niger 0.03 372

A map of the geographical digital divide from Wikimedia Commons is shown below.

A map of the global digital divide

Another form of digital divide between countries is that of language, a significant percentage of software and code is written primarily in English due in part to both the origins of computing and the fact that a large amount of software is written within the Anglosphere. This means that even if a citizen of a poorer country acquires a computer, they may still require a working knowledge of English to use it effectively. As stated by Sascha Meinrath in a BBC article:

It is incredibly rare that broadband connectivity won't improve the lives of those who use it effectively, in much the same way that books improve the lives of the literate. However, providing books to everyone doesn't help those who cannot read in the first place.

The key to solving this side of the problem is to make sure that potential ICT users are taught how to use ICT effectively. As well as making sure that software applies localisation effectively, making sure that software is available in the potential user's language. However many software developers/businesses may not be convinced to do this purely on the ethical grounds of closing the digital divide, as they have to consider the costs of translating their software, in the case of commercial software, the potential users gained from translation may not be worth the terms in profit of translating the software, particularly in the case of poorer countries, who are unlikely to be able to afford the software anyway.

Cities versus Rural Communities

The cost versus benefit also applies in situations where potential users may be living in small rural communities, the cost of laying the cables just will not generate the profit required to make it feasible and therefore the rural communities are unable to benefit from the information age in the same way that residents of cities can. This is particularly concerning when you consider that people's lives may depend on the availability of the internet for online telemedicine services.


As the gap between poor and rich widens, so will the availability of modern ICT, due to low-income workers possibly being unable to afford a computer or a broadband connection. This means that only the residents of households which can afford to purchase a computer will be able to develop ICT skills, resulting in a widening in the digital divide. This disparity may continue on into the school life of students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, as they will only be able to practise their ICT skills on school computers.

Furthermore, they may start to struggle with meeting deadlines for some assignments as many consider it much easier to write an essay on a computer with word processing software, as opposed to by hand. Beyond essay writing, more and more resources are being moved online, for example within my university our timetables are stored online, we have the Victory learning portal and a lot of communication is carried out by email (such as today, when if I had not had my laptop to get access to my emails I wouldn't have known that my lecturer was stranded and unable to come in). If a student does not have access to a computer and the internet outside of school, it puts them at a very obvious disadvantage.


One cause of the digital divide between genders is the income gap between them, acting as a continuation from the income caused digital divide, with males generally being paid more than females and therefore being able to afford better/more ICT.

Another form of digital divide between genders is that the computer industry is generally male dominated, for example:

  • On my Computer Science course the gender ratio is 87:13 (male : female),
  • During 2005 - 2006 in Australia 295,000 of 348,200 (85%) ICT workers were male.

This gap is also widening:

  • In the US in 1984, 37% of computer science BSc graduates were female, by 1996 this number had fallen to 28%,
  • In the US in 1986, 40% of the IT workforce was female, by 1999 this number had fallen to 29%.

The causes for this widening aren't definitely known, but it could be due to Computer Science developing in some ways as a branch of engineering which has always been a male dominated discipline. Another suggested possibility is that it is due to the emphasis on immersing yourself in your work, compulsively working, as Joan Acker notes:

The culture of computer science and technology heavily emphasizes total commitment to the work to the exclusion of the rest of life. Many news stories about Silicon Valley dramatize the round-the-clock work lives there. Henry Nicholas, an electrical engineering Ph.D. and co-founder of Broadcom is quoted as explaining the 18-hour days he often works, “You have to take yourself to the absolute limits of human behaviour. The whole concept is you leave nothing in reserve” (International Herald Tribune, June 27, 2000).

Suggesting that she feels women prefer to put family life before work, putting them at a disadvantage in ICT. I don't think I agree with this opinion as I think men and women both have varied opinions on what should come first, and just because a man is working in the IT sector, it doesn't mean he will be immersing himself in his work. Women and men can become equally obsessive once they find a subject they are thoroughly interested in and many men may still prefer to put family life before work themselves.


An obvious form of digital divide is that between generations, despite the many benefits that ICT can bring to the lives of the elderly (such as getting their groceries delivered), many of the older generation choose to shun ICT and the benefits it could bring them. Much of this is due to the technology not existing when they were growing up, meaning that they were never taught how to use ICT. Technology tends to move very quickly, unfortunately leaving many elderly users behind. The key to solving this problem would be to get older users more engaged with computing activities and to offer adult education courses. However, the problem with this is that many elderly people will not want these lessons.


There is a serious digital divide between those who have disabilities and those who do not; most of us use computers with ease, not giving a second thought to the difficulties our input devices (i.e. keyboard or mouse) could pose to someone who is not as fortunate as we are. A person with motor impairments may not be able to use a mouse or keyboard, so they must use a specially designed joystick (or a similar device). A screen is quite useless to someone who is blind, so they must use a screen reader.

This divide is at its worst when technology hasn't been designed with accessibility in mind, such as during the browser wars when HTML stared to have features added to it ad hoc by the browsers with presentational logic and table-based layouts often taking precedent over semantic markup, to the detriment of screen readers. As screen readers can get easily confused by table-based layouts which are meant to be used only for displaying tabular data. However, progress is being made recently on this front with the development of HTML5, which places more emphasis on semantic markup and moving presentation logic over to CSS files, allowing a screen reader to interpret the content correctly.

Accessibility is a very broad subject and here is not the place to go into it in great detail, the important thought to take away from this section is that a divide does genuinely exist even for those who may speak the same language as the software developer, be highly educated, be from a generation that grew up with ICT and live in a country with a high DOI, often just because of poor decision in the design phase of systems development.


The immediate implication of the digital divide is that lack of access to information for those unable to connect to the internet and a lack of ICT skills for those who don't have access to a computer. This may seem not to be all too important on face value, but it is a vicious circle, with the lack of computer skills reducing a employability and not having an internet connection meaning that an offline person will not be able to access as many job adverts as an online person (7 million job openings were advertised online in 2009 alone). This lowering in employability is likely to lead to a lower paid job, which will lead further into a downwards spiral, as the user is separated by the income digital divide, leading to even fewer ICT skills, making them even more unemployable and so the cycle continues, getting deeper and deeper.

However, many people simply choose not to be online, does that mean that it is wrong for us to continue migrating services online? So long as there is an offline alternative that is accessible to everyone I believe it is acceptable. However, many online companies will probably stay that way, due to the cost saving it brings.

The Future of the Digital Divide

Is the gap set to close or widen?

Internet Users Per 100 Inhabitants from 1997 until 2007

As the graph above (from Wikimedia Commons) shows, internet usage in the developing world is increasing. However, it is increasing at such a slow rate it will take a very long time to catch up with the developed world, by which time technology may have moved on even further with the developing world playing a game of cat and mouse with the developed world. However new cables are being laid in low DOI which will hopefully open up new possibilities and help to speed up the closing of the digital divide, which is a necessity for speeding up the development of the developing world itself.