The digital divide

Humans have always found ways and reasons to draw invisible boundaries (geographical, political…) and to create divisions (based on gender, race, class, etc) where divisions were inexistent. In fact, one could very simplistically say that the history of humanity is the history of the divisions we build and insist on perpetuating.

"The divided perception of self..."

Yet, interestingly, scientists have proven that, genetically, we are not that different after all – the average genetic difference among two randomly chosen individuals is only a 0.2% of their total genetic material. And yet, an infinitesimal figure such as that has been capable of generating exclusion on racial grounds and has been taken as a presumption in the service of which rules or rationalisations have been formulated or offered.

And although I believe great many efforts are being made to redress some of the errors, injustices and divisions of the past, we are continuously presented with new challenges.

What is the digital divide?

One such challenge is the recently emerged gap between individuals, businesses and geographic areas who have access to the Internet and the skills, knowledge and abilities to use it, and those which don’t.  A digital divide exists between those living in rural areas and those living in urban areas, between the educated and uneducated, between economic classes, and on a global scale between more and less industrially developed nations.

For us, using a computer is second nature and  it’s hard to imagine that some people can’t even afford to buy one. We  might complaint about the cost of a newly released model, but the truth is that for most of us, purchasing a computer, a lap top or a tablet in their various shapes and models, is not an issue. And yet, in developing countries, the cost of a computer is – and will continue to be for many years to come – outside the purchasing range of the average citizen.

Equally significant is the fact that most people in less privileged regions don’t have the skills needed to use a computer or to take advantage of the services it may provide. Although new data released by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics indicates that global literacy rates are rising, 775 million adults worldwide are still unable to read and write – and many countries are unlikely to meet the Education for All goal of halving adult illiteracy by 2015.  Further, there is still a very large number of persons with low literacy skills – even in the US, 43% of the population is considered to have low literacy – who will be unable to access and fully comprehend how to use Internet resources available to them.

As Jakob Nielsen explains,  the main difference between people with low and high literacy rates is that the first can’t understand a text by merely glancing at it. Instead, they need to spend a considerable amount of time reading word for word and trying to understand multisyllabic words.

Despite this fairly well known fact, only few websites follow the guidelines for writing for low-literacy users or for making websites easier for older users. And while there is a strong emphasis on understanding and improving usability for high-end users, hardly any effort is dedicated to ensuring seniors and persons in the low literacy bracket are given a chance to use the resources on the net.

The digital divide in Australia

In Australia, the debate about the digital divide tends to centre on physical availability of infrastructure (in particular broadband) and pricing that permits comprehensive consumer access to that infrastructure, rather than concerns regarding education, disability or other barriers.

The Digital Futures Report  – authored by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Creative Industries and Innovation’s –  found that while almost three quarters of Australians use the internet and almost 80% of these users have home broadband connection, one fifth of Australians have never used the net. Power users in Australia are still predominantly young employed males, with a yearly income above $75,000  living in metropolitan areas. On the other hand, much less likely to be online are people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, or those on low incomes, without tertiary education, living in rural/remote areas, with disabilities, with a language background other than English, and aged over 55. This gap is created by the difficulty of the second group in affording setting up and access costs, a lack of physical access, disinterest/confidence or perceptions of irrelevance, security concerns, lack of skills/training and illiteracy.

Recognising the gap in online affordability and usability, the Australian government  has proposed the “Digital Communities Initiative”, a program which is to establish “‘Digital Hubs’ in each of the 40 communities that will first benefit from the National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout in order “to improve their digital literacy skills”. A related program provides $10.4 million over four years to continue the “Broadband for Seniors” program.

Unfortunately, albeit a positive start, it’s hardly enough. The digital divide in this country is not merely a result of a lack of accessibility to information but a serious public health, social welfare and economic challenge. Without giving all Australians the chance to participate fully in the online world, these groups will be further marginalised and relegated to positions of disadvantage in health, education and employment.

There has been in Australia, very little ongoing lobbying regarding the Australian digital divide.    Australia is in need of a much more concerted action by local and state government, community and business to connect all Australians and create a bridge between the digital haves and have nots.

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