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Various interpretations of the term ‘digital divide’ and the causes and consequences of such divides

In the following article I would like to make a case for how to best interpret the term “Digital Divide”. The term has been used widely since the late 1990’s and has grown to include a variety of meanings. While describing these various types of interpretations I will also point out the possible causes and consequences.

The term ‘digital divide’ can be understood in a variety of ways, the most common and initial meaning is ‘the differential access to and use of the Internet according to gender, income, race and location’ (Rice 2002). As the technological digital divide is quickly decreasing between those with access to the internet and those without, the meaning of the term digital divide is expanding.

This new expansion of the term gives us many angles in which to view the topic of digital media and our relationship to it. Although I will categorized these meanings into three different perspectives, there is a great deal of overlap and one meaning of digital divide may influence the degree of different type of digital divide. For example, if a person’s level of connectivity is fairly low this generally causes the person to have a lower level of fluency in digital media.


The divide can be categorized in three ways of understanding the access to, use of and knowledge of digital media:

  1. Connectivity:
    Who’s connecting, How are they connecting and what are the factors effecting their connectivity
  2. Media literacy – how sophisticated is their usage of digital media, are they consuming, producing or both
  3. Social acceptance – why are they connecting to digital media


Although diminishing, there has and, arguably may always be a gap between those that have access to the Internet and those that don’t.
There are a great deal of causes for the connectivity gap that usually stem from economic inequality or socio-economic factors such as income, education, age, and geographic location to name just a few. The divide is decreasing due to the growing ubiquity of networks around the world as well as the proliferation of affordable mobile devices and laptops. This year (2013) mobile usage of the internet will surpass laptops according to Pingdom.

Mobile share of web traffic

2010 2012 Increase 2010-2012
Africa 5.81% 14.85% 155.59%
Asia 6.1% 17.84% 192.46%
Europe 1.81% 5.13% 183.43%
North America 4.71% 7.96% 69.00%
Oceania 2.88% 7.55% 162.15%
South America 1.46% 2.86% 95.89%
Worldwide 3.81% 10.01% 162.73%

In Canada the connectivity divide is primarily between people within urban and rural settings. The digital disparity has become such a concern that the CRTC has called for a public hearing in the fall to consider whether a new “regulatory framework” is necessary to “ensure all Canadians have access to affordable broadband service.” Globe And Mail, 2010

Despite incentives and the CRTC ruling there still remains a great divide when it comes to rural Canadians connecting to the Internet. The consequence of this lack of connectivity will lead to businesses staying in urban centres and possibly issues in urban density in the future.

Media Literacy

While the connectivity divide has been steadily decreasing a more pronounced gap seems to be increasing between those that are literate, proficient and fluent in digital media and those that are not. The undeniable cause of this gap is that a large percentage of the interfaces for digital media are designed by people that are already fluent digitally and make assumptions about how their target users will learn using these new interfaces. Although, generally usability of interfaces has greatly improved over the past decade there is still an immense difference between designing interfaces for digital natives in comparison to baby-boomers.

A so-called ‘second-level’ digital divide, also referred to as the production gap, describes the gap that separates the consumers of content on the internet from the producers of content.
Last year a survey conducted using 80,000 Canadians by online statistics company, Vision Critical that shows that on Facebook 68% of users create only 25% of the user contributions. That seems to be a huge divide between those that are considered ‘sharers’ in comparison to those considered ‘lurkers’. – Invisible Audiences

Although the hardware and software tools seem to be more accessible and usable, there are people between 40-70 years old that find themselves baffled by using these devices and graphical user interfaces.

Social Acceptance

Over the past 5 years two distinct camps seemed to have formed, those that want to understand and want explore the potential of digital media and those that criticize digital media, fear its’ long-term consequences and perhaps feel left behind. The whole Cyberpunk movement seems to reflect the growing sentiment that technology and the Internet are creating more dysfunction, emotionless communication and general detachment from the world around us. The psychological divide can be seen from both a social and individual level and breaks down into the following areas:

Privacy Divide

These factors compounded with our increasing concern for the privacy of our loved ones will bring about even more of a divide. The consequence will be a poor unbalanced representation of our population as they many live there lives online and others avoid it.

Fear Factor

As computer viruses become more sophisticated and traditional media outlets present doom & gloom scenarios of the not-so-distant future many late adopters of the web are fearful and apprehensive to dive in and learn.
“32% of non-internet users cite reasons tied to their sense that the internet is not very easy to use. These non-users say it is difficult or frustrating to go online, they are physically unable, or they are worried about other issues such as spam, spyware, and hackers. This figure is considerably higher than in earlier surveys.” – Non-Internet Users

Data Divide

We are now entering the age of Big Data, an era when what ever can be measured and digitized, will be. There will become a new divide between those with access to and tools to understand digital data and those without. As Vision Critical describes “Assuming you have access to the data and an analytical process in place, you can collect digital data in real time, rather than waiting to draft a questionnaire, field a study, analyze and report on results. You can fail fast and often, innovating on the run” Vision Critical’s New Digital Divide


It is now becoming clear that the technological gap is rapidly decreasing mainly due to the spread of mobile phones around the world. IDATE, a consultancy, reckons that the number of people accessing the internet via mobile devices will overtake the number using fixed-line connections in mid-2014. – Economist 2013

As technology races forward, the crucial aspect of the divide is the human component not the technological one. The concept of a digital divide is extremely important to help us understand how our ever-evolving relationship with technology and digital media is ultimately shaped by societal, socio-economic and psychological factors as much as technology itself. The consequences of these divides can have far-reaching damage to our lives and how we interact with others, not to mention the haves having more and the have-nots having less.


Mobile share of web traffic in Asia has tripled since 2010, Pingdom. May, 2012

Sharers and lurkers, your invisible social media audience

New Digital Divide, Vision Critical blog

Live and Unplugged, Economist Magazine, Nov 2012

Who’s Not Online and Why, Pew Internet, 2013

All images created by Digital Glitch Generator by Pixelnoizz

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