Why Digital Dividers are Out of Step

Published November 1, 2003

Despite a recent Department of Commerce (DOC) report showing that the time is right to dump digital-divide rhetoric, some activists still cling to the idea that there is a gap between technology “haves” and “have-nots” that requires government help.

A Benton Foundation policy brief last month argued, “The digital divide is wider than ever.” It said, “Targeted [government] funding for community technology is essential to maintain national digital divide leadership.”

This view is flawed for a number of reasons.

First, digital crusaders falsely assume that all people who do not use the Internet are helpless and cannot access technology. This is far from true. Many individuals choose not to use the Internet or even a computer because they have other priorities. Everyone knows someone, rich or poor, who chooses not to have voicemail, call waiting, or even a television.

Many of the Internet’s so-called “have-nots” are really “want-nots.” A hairdresser who spends her days clipping patrons’ hair does not necessarily want to rush home and sit in front of a computer reading an email box full of spam. More likely, she wants to have dinner and spend time with her family or friends–in person. But digital-divide hardliners refuse to acknowledge this choice.

Tellingly, many pushing the digital-divide agenda think it is the duty of society to force them online anyway. This is pure conceit and clashes with the principles of individual freedom upon which this country was founded. It is also at odds with the numbers.

More than half the population of the United States is now online, an increase of 26 million people in 13 months, and the number continues to grow. The DOC report also shows that Internet use is continuing to increase for everyone regardless of income, education, age, race, ethnicity, or gender. Rev. Jesse Jackson’s suggestion that the digital divide is a form of “classic apartheid” is clearly mistaken.

Some activists desperate to keep this issue alive have claimed that the digital divide has become “more acute” because the “gap” between rich and poor appears to have widened. But this claim is based on a snapshot in time and is a little disingenuous in light of the rate of online growth for the low-income population. In 1997, 44.5 percent of the wealthiest people were online compared to 9.2 percent of the poorest. In 2001, the number jumped to 78.9 percent for the wealthiest and 25 percent for the poorest.

Most people understand that these numbers are good news because the rate of growth is higher for low-income people (25 percent) than for high-income people (15 percent). If the rate of growth continues at this pace, it won’t be long before the “gap” between rich and poor is negligible. That would constitute a problem for digital-divide activists.

Sonia Arrison is director of technology studies at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute. Her email address is [email protected].