A recent (3 December 2011) article in The New York Times by Susan P. Crawford has again emphasised the growing digital divide – and the importance of bridging it to promote full digital inclusion. In the article, Crawford (who is professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and a former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology and innovation policy), writes that:
Telecommunications, which in theory should bind us together, has often divided us in practice. Until the late 20th century, the divide split those with phone access and those without it. Then it was the Web: in 1995 the Commerce Department published its first look at the “digital divide,” finding stark racial, economic and geographic gaps between those who could get online and those who could not.
Yes, first it was simple access to the telephone, then to a computer, but now it is something much more complex – access to full broadband. She writes of the “two separate marketplaces” for the internet:
High-speed wired and second-class wireless. High-speed access is a superhighway for those who can afford it, while racial minorities and poorer and rural Americans must make do with a bike path.
Remember that image – “the bike path” – in contrast to the superhighway the economic elite are travelling on. She continues:
Just over 200 million Americans have high-speed, wired Internet access at home, and almost two-thirds of them get it through their local cable company. The connections are truly high-speed: based on a technological standard called Docsis 2.0 or 3.0, they can reach up to 105 megabits per second, fast enough to download a music album in three seconds.
It’s true. In my recent two month stay in New York City, we easily had that 100 mbs – all provided through the local cable TV company, a peculiarity of American television distribution that we have not seen replicated in Australia for a host of technical, economic and geographic reasons.
Another article (7 December 2011) highlights the desperate situation for the growing number of poor Americans: Christina Gagnier writes in The Huffington Post about a new digital literacy program in California called “Jobscout”, which hopes to create a model that can be expanded nationally.
As I write in my paper on digital inclusion in Australia, digital literacy is only one of many barriers to full digital participation, but it certainly is an important one.
And that’s what we need: models for digital inclusion that are “scalable” (to use an over-used word) and applicable to a number of places. Let’s hope that the new “digital hubs” program of the Australian Government Department of Broadband, Communications and Digital Economy can start to do this, but much more needs to be done – and quickly.