Culture and the Digital Divide(s)

While much of the work addressing the digital divide between the "haves" and "have nots" in the online world has focused on the important task of providing access to hardware, software, and basic computer literacy, there is an additional issue, the cultural digital divide, that has received far too little attention.

Research increasingly shows that one of the essential ways to attack digital inequalities is by addressing the fact that technologies are always created with cultural biases built-in that limit their use.

This means that the divide will be lessened only when, in addition to providing basic access, we address seriously cultural differences and the differences in power that come with them.

Significant lack of representation or misrepresentation of particular racial, ethnic and cultural groups in the media has long been shown to have profound negative psychological effects on the groups. In turn, this misrepresentation has strongly adverse implications for social justice and equitable social policy because of the broad consumption of these media by the general public and policy makers.

Progress in closing various digital divides needs to include improving the quality and quantity of diverse cultural content in new media like the web and video games. In turn, this will make those vital new media resources more effective in dealing with issues of economic, social and political inequalities.

Most attempts to solve the problem of the digital divide have focused on a shallow interpretation of technical literacy as simply learning computer programs, unaware that technological forms are culturally shaped and need to be reshaped to fit a wider variety of cultural styles and forms.

One of the best ways to do this is encourage and provide technical training for people who have lived experience as members of underserved groups (in the US and globally). These culturally competent, technically savvy individuals can then work as facilitators for marginalized communities to empower them to represent themselves in digital media on their own cultural ground via their own cultural forms.

Community-generated, culturally richer representations can contribute positively to economic, social and cultural changes that bring us closer to justice and equality. It is to exploring these issues that the site is dedicated.

In general, the topic has been looked at in narrowly technical and economic turns to the neglect of a variety of crucial socio-cultural dimensions.

Below are resources for understanding various digital divides, and for exploring its specifically cultural dimensions.

US Government/Academic/Public Interest Reports

The term digital divide was popularized initially through a series of reports by the US government on gaps in access to computers and the Internet. Note that the titles of these reports reflect subtle shifts in how the problems were conceptualized.

Critiques and Expansion of the Digital Divide Concept

Selected Books and Articles on Digital Divides

Carvin, A. “More than Just Access: Fitting Literacy and Content into the Digital Divide Equation.” EDUCAUSE-Review (35(6) 2000: 38-47.

Jaeger, Paul T. Disability and the Internet: Confronting the Digital Divide. Boulder, CO: Lyne Rienner, 2010. Addresses the less well-known digital divide between persons with disabilities and the more able-bodied.

Kuttan, Appu. From Digital Divide to Digital Opportunity. Scarecrow Press, 2003.

Monroe, Barbara. Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing, and Technology in the Classroom. Teachers College Press, 2004. Breakthrough empirical study of how students from different racial backgrounds approach cyberspaces very differently.

Mossberger, Karen. Virtual Inequality: Beyond the Digital Divide. Georgetown University Press, 2003.

Norris, Pippa. Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty, and the Internet Worldwide. Cambridge University Press. 2001;2008. The best study of the uneven impact of the Internet on political cultures worldwide.

Pinkett, Randal. “Bridging the Digital Divide: Sociocultural Constructionism and an Asset-Based Approach to Community Technology and Community Building.”. Paper presented at the 81st Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA, April 24-28, 2000.

Schön, Donald A., Bish Sanyal and William J. Mitchell, eds. High Technology and Low-Income Communities. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1997. Groundbreaking, still useful set of conceptual and empirical essays.

Selfe, Cynthia L. Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1999.

Selfe, Cythnia, and Gail Hawisher, eds. Literate Lives in the Information Age: Narratives of Literacy from the US. New Jersey: Earlbaum: 2004.

Tsatsou, Panayiota. "Digital Divides Revisited: What is New About Divides and Their Research?" Media, Culture and Society 33:317 (2011). Reviews two decades of literature on the "digital divide," arguing for multiplying the concept to "divides," and demonstrating that by underutilizing socio-cultural approaches to the topic much important complexity has been overlooked.

Warschauer, Mark. Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide. MIT Press, 2003.
Excellent, comprehensive study of the various types and dimensions of digital divides.

Wresch. William C. Disconnected: Haves and Have-Nots in the Information Age. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

Zaremba, Alan. The Deepening Divide: Inequality in the Information Society. SAGE, 2006. 
Argues that contrary to common wisdom some aspects of digital divides are worsening, not improving, over time.

Some Organizations Working on the Digital Divide

See also the section of this site on Community Technology