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The Digital Divide - an issue of ethics?

On: 4th May 2012

For today’s blog I thought I’d take a step back and consider some of the ethical imperative for studying the digital divide.

Meaningful Access

Sometimes, we take it as a given that such divides must be addressed, that we know what the divide is, and that we know how to address the divides – we just, close them.I’ve talked a bit about the fact that these divides often reflect more systemic divides.  Specifically, I’ve suggested that while directly addressing technological inequality in terms of access and simple exposure might work with some groups or some types of activity where awareness is a key issue, this isn’t always going to be the key factor.  However, this in itself is important given that not just access, but meaningful ‘successful’ access confers wider benefits, social, financial, perhaps cultural, increasingly in terms of learning.  The latter is particularly interesting given that while the ‘information’ may be out there, converting it into ‘knowledge’ is not a simple technological problem – free access to resources, globally, does not address inequality.

Digital exclusion, digital inclusion? 

Importantly, a discussion regarding the lack of ‘ethical’ discussion surrounding the statistics on the digital divide, Hacker and Mason (2003) emphasise that the statistics can only be considered in the context of the political positions from which they stem.  In particular, they note that although many articles agree there are differences in access, the way they conceptualise these often swings between a description of ‘inclusion’ – with allusions to institutions doing more to draw people in – versus ‘exclusion’ – with allusions to the individual skill deficit.

‘Internet user’ – a question of measurement?

They also note that the measures collected in large scale studies often reflect a political, or consumer-based, perspective.  For example, how ‘internet user’ is defined – daily use, ‘once in the past 30 days’ or by the number of salient tasks carried out online, and so on is likely to have an impact.  As is how access is defined – by some to mean ‘home access’, and others ‘access anywhere’ including public facilities.  Clearly understanding the context in which access occurs, and going beyond simple self-report measures is important in considering the differences which may reflect the ‘digital divide’.

Closing the digital divide – the tortoise and the hare, or the jet engine and the penny farthing?

In considering the importance of the digital divide, they highlight that although gaps may close, “the rapid advancement of technology may result in informacy gaps (gaps in digital equipment use and information-seeking skills) as those who are now acquiring the skills necessary to use technology in a basic fashion, such as checking e-mail, will lag far behind those who possess sophisticated digital skills – these ‘informacy’ gaps, gaps in the more advanced uses of technology – require a dynamic perspective on closing the digital divide. 

Types of Digital Divide

In particular, they highlight throughout their paper the issues of:

  1. Digital exclusion – which can broadly be described as a lack of participation by some groups in services or activities which are provided online
  2. Social marginalization – broadly understood to reflect the fact that non-users may not be able to interact with their social networks in the same way as web-using groups.
  3. Within nation digital divides – These are the divides that exist within any one country, in particular in the context of different types of access.  For example, the data can mask differences in home versus public access; a student using a home laptop may have a very different experience to one using a school desktop in an afterschool club.
  4. Differing speeds of adoption – this concern reflects the fact that, although data might suggest more people are coming online and successfully using tools, this may be at a slower rate than other people are adopting yet newer technologies.
  5. Employability and other ‘life chance’ issues
  6. Understanding the digital divide in a global context – in particular that some countries may be ‘digitally excluded’, or/and that acts of wealthier countries may serve to create larger digital divides within other countries, for example, via the legislation they pass.

“Have nots” – “want nots”?

Key to this research should be the consideration of a variety of areas of “ethical neglect” (Hacker & Mason, 2003, p. 106), three of which are identified by Hacker and Mason (2003), suggesting that studies should:

  1. Clearly define their methods and assumptions, without over generalisation of claims;
  2. Avoid simply claiming that “have nots” are “want nots” instead focussing on the “experiences, skills, and motivation” for use (Hacker & Mason, 2003, p. 106);
  3. Avoid assumptions about the ‘type’ of person who lags behind in technology use that will reinforce negative stereotypes of those groups (in particular here, they are considering ethnic stereotypes).

Key points

Fundamentally, when we consider the digital divide, we need to understand the wider context of the issues, and the limitations and benefits of the methods we use in our particular analysis, being particularly careful not to pass value judgements on the groups of people we’re engaging with.

I watched a talk earlier this week which I can’t recommend enough – “"Digital Divides - The Potential of the Internet for Development"” which, while exploring the issue of digital divides, pays fantastic attention to these wider issues in an international context. http://www.zerogeography.net/2012/04/video-of-my-dfid-talk-is-now-online.html

Key reference:

Hacker, K. L., & Mason, S. M. (2003). Ethical gaps in studies of the digital divide. Ethics and Information Technology, 5(2), 99–115. doi:10.1023/A:1024968602974