Monday, June 30, 2008

Digital Inequality as a Social Issue: Race and Digital Divide

By Mikyung Baek, Research and Technical Associate at Kirwan Institute

The benefits of information and communication technology (ICT) are unquestionable; all it takes is a brief reflection on what you do with ICT on any given day. E-mail is a very common way of communication for both personal and business purposes, for example, and the length of time we spend online involved in various activities is a barometer of how dependent we have become on technology. Now, let’s pause a moment and think about those who do not have such luxury as “access to ICT.” The divide or difference which lies in-between is the so-called “digital divide.”

Where do the dividing lines lie? Where you live could be one factor, as statistics show more (and better) broadband services are available in urban areas than in rural areas. Whether you can afford to own a computer or subscribe to a broadband connection is another question, which is related to your income level and wealth. Another question would be whether you have the technology skill level to effectively use ICT. All these questions bear racial implications on the unequal distribution of access to ICT in our society along housing, wealth and education lines.

Access to ICT means a lot more than issues of access as it opens up social, economic, political, and cultural opportunities. ICT’s potential of opening up various opportunities paints a very different picture for those who do not have access to it. The lack of access to ICT and its deleterious effects feeds into the vicious cycle of limited opportunity for marginalized populations. The connection between housing values and educational budget results in lower levels of technology resources in low-income schools, which leads to a lack of the computing skills and knowledge necessary in this connected age. The cycle continues to cause lower academic achievement, underrepresentation in higher education, and decreased access to employment opportunities later in life.

At the neighborhood level, people living in low income opportunity areas experience increased individual cost for access to ICT due to unequal distribution broadband availability and the high cost of home computers. Low income populations also experience a financial and social cost for accessing ICT in public libraries or community computing centers. As such, digital inequality results in an additional burden for marginalized population in the digital age by limiting the access necessary to develop computer skills as well as forclosing on the opportunities to gather information on employment opportunities, health care, housing, transportation, public safety, or civic participation.

As great as the benefits of technology have become in our lives, the issue of digital inequality calls for more focused investigation as to why it happens and how to work towards lessening it. The internet is today’s infrastructure and the existence of social, political, economical and cultural barriers for those who do not have access to this infrastructure and thus cannot enjoy its benefits imposes social responsibilities on all of us.

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