Point of View

Redefining the Digital Divide

by / April 3, 2001
"We have no problem of governance in cyberspace. We have a problem with governance. There isnt a special set of dilemmas that cyberspace will present; there are just the familiar dilemmas that modern governance confronts," wrote Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School, in an article on cyber governance.

Lessigs statement is especially true when it comes to the digital divide, an issue that is largely an old problem garbed in new circumstances.

The new circumstances are, of course, the rise of a global economy increasingly driven by innovation and new technology. And beyond that, the ever-expanding role that computers and the Internet play in the economic, political and social life of our nation.

So far, most efforts to bridge the digital divide have focused upon increasing access to computers and the Internet and the basic skills needed to use these.

The U.S. Commerce Departments report, "Falling Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion," notes that more than half of all households (51 percent) have computers, up from 42.1 percent in December 1998.

The report adds, "The rapid uptake of new technologies is occurring among most groups of Americans, regardless of income, education, race or ethnicity, location, age or gender, suggesting that digital inclusion is a realizable goal. Groups that have traditionally been digital have nots are now making dramatic gains."

Yet, the measure of success, as well as an accurate estimate of how far there is still to go, hinges largely upon how the digital divide is actually defined.

The U.S. Department of Educations National Literacy Survey suggests that nearly 25 percent of all adults in America are functionally illiterate. They may have basic literacy skills, but they cant apply them effectively in their day-to-day lives.

"Unless were able to overcome basic as well as functional illiteracy, the digital divide will have no prospects of ever being solved," said Andy Carvin, senior associate at the Benton Foundation.

He goes on to define the digital divide in terms of everything from basic reading skills to cyber fluency -- the ability to utilize all the tools available, accurately access and interpret the content and create meaningful and relevant content.

Carvin suggests that any strategic digital divide initiative must look beyond simply giving people Internet access for the sake of giving them access. Community initiatives must focus upon developing a technological infrastructure thats appropriate for the community and upon creating the skills to use it in order to raise the quality of life for the citizenry.

Thinking in such terms, one realizes that the digital divide is going to be with us for some time and that it is a situation with no easy answers. Access alone will never solve it. For, at its heart, it is not really a new problem, but one we have been trying to solve for more than a century.

How do you incubate effective learning and the acquisition of skills and abilities that allow everyone to participate and prosper in a vibrant society? What can we do, in terms of education in and outside of our schools, to ensure that people are not left behind?

The challenge before us is not simply the rise of the Internet, but the fact that we live in an information society -- a society where people require a new level of professional competence in accessing, acquiring and using information.

Basic and technological literacy is a minimum requirement, not for the few, but for all. Beyond that, quality of life and the health of the society depends largely upon what people can do and how well they do it. This involves acquiring and using information in sophisticated ways.

Until we start defining the digital divide in the correct perspective, all efforts to solve the problem are going to fall short of the goal -- the inclusion of all in this New Economy.
Blake Harris Contributing Editor