October 2006 - Simplistic measurements such as the number of Internet access points in a place tell us little about today's digital divide. according to Karine Barzilai-Nahon, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Information School in a paper published in this month's The Information Society journal.
"Ten years ago, when someone had a connection, it was enough," said Karine Barzilai-Nahon. "Today, in some places it's nothing. The idea is what do you do with the content? Do you know how to use it?"
Barzilai-Nahon argues that knowing how to harness the power of technology enhances daily life both at home and at work. "Think about those people that don't know how," she said. "Ten years from now, who will hire them?" She finds it distressing that student access to computers at home depends so much on socio-economic status. Last month, the U.S. Department of Education issued a report showing that just 37% of students from families with incomes below $20,000 a year used computers at home. This compared with 88% of those in homes with family incomes in excess of $75,000.
She argues that more accurate information about the digital divide requires socio-economic data of this kind. "Decision makers often fall into a trap of seeking data that exist, instead of putting in the effort to first systematically conceptualize the digital divide" and only then collect data, Barzilai-Nahon wrote in her paper.
"I think it's time to show more social responsibility," she added. In her opinion, people who are marginalized because they can't communicate with others, or have to accept menial jobs, form a digital underclass. They create a scenario for social unrest, Barzilai-Nahon said.
She advocates a different yardstick to measure the digital divide, including:
- Social and governmental support and constraining factors, including training, funding and emphasis on digital empowering.
- Affordability relative to other expenditures and average income.
- Use, including frequency, time online, purpose, skill level and autonomy of use.
- Socio-economic factors, including age, education, geography, race and language, among other factors.
Karine Barzilai-Nahon considers that a stronger conceptual model can be built from such elements, providing a deeper context to see what's happening in society.
"I'm not saying the digital divide has widened or narrowed," she said. "I don't know, but I'm saying nobody's addressing the right problem."
While the U.K. is spending £8 billion to close the digital divide, Barzilai-Nahon contends that U.S. politicians appear to be focused more on the next elections than on the long term. For example, funding for education-technology grants to the states, standing at $279 million this year, were slashed to zero for 2007. She argues that simplistic measurements are an issue for technologically advanced countries in general, but the problem seems particularly acute in the United States.
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