Closing the Digital Divide (Or Not)

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    • #1983
      Rachel Kersley

      The digital divide is a gap between demographics regarding technology and technological access. Essentially, people on one side of the digital divide have access to technologies that people on the other (or ‘wrong’) side of the divide don’t. There are any number of causes for the digital divide, many of which intersect and overlap with each other, so that people lack access for multiple reasons. That multiplicity of causes adds to the difficulty of closing the digital divide – or even just figuring out what needs to be done to close it.

      The National Broadband Network (NBN) aims to “provide access to a minimum level of broadband services across the nation”. Even if it works exactly as planned – even if it works out even better – the NBN just isn’t a viable solution for basically any of the causes of the digital divide.

      To give a few examples:

      • Choice: some people are on the other side of the digital divide because they don’t see any reason they need internet in their lives. Regardless of the accuracy of that sentiment, they obviously aren’t using the internet of their own volition – improving internet speed and accessibility (and being very publically vocal about doing so) might change some people’s minds, but it’s not particularly likely, and even if it did happen it wouldn’t be very many people at all.
      • Finance: people who are low down on the socio-economic scale might not be able to afford an internet-capable device. Or if they have a device, they might not be able to afford internet. Homeless people have even more of a problem – libraries often don’t allow non-members to use their computers, while becoming a member requires proof of address. Obviously, no one on the wrong side of the digital divide because of financial issues is going to find their circumstances much changed by the NBN.
      • Disability and accessibility: there are two main parts to this aspect of the digital divide. The first is simple accessibility – or lack thereof. Some disabilities make it extremely difficult for people to use devices or the internet – especially when people avoid doing anything to make their content more accessible – putting them on the wrong side of the digital divide. The second part, which flows on from the first, is essentially the cost of accessibility. Assistive technology is available for people with accessibility issues, but it tends to be extremely expensive, which would be a problem even without taking into account the fact that disabled people tend to earn less than non-disabled people, even with all other factors being equal. At the risk of sounding like a broken record – I for one would be pretty astonished if the NBN somehow managed to help with the digital divide as caused by accessibility issues.

      The NBN aims to provide access to a minimum level of broadband services Australia wide. And that’s great, but it’s not going to make the digital divide close. Not by a long shot.

    • #2324
      Leena Riethmuller

      Hi Rae, thanks for drawing attention to the flaws in the current plans for the NBN. I have recently had a few chats with varying people about the personal experiences with accessing technology, and your post pretty much sums it up.
      The thing that concerns me about the idea of just improving the quality of technology, is that all it does is increase the divide and does nothing to fix it. It doesn’t make it more affordable, it doesn’t (necessarily) put it in more locations, it doesn’t make it easier to use or more versatile for specific user capabilities.
      I think it’s a case of decision makers looking no further than their back yard when they are making decisions that effects everybody – even those who choose not to use digital technologies are implicated in it.
      I think that providing access (in whatever way that is for the user) through public libraries can be really helpful for decreasing the divide. I am excited that you have taken an interest in this area and I look forward to chatting with you about your research next year.

      • #2462
        Rachel Kersley

        I definitely agree that it’s a case of limited vision on the part of the people in charge.

        If the government’s going to move everything online – which unfortunately seems to be what’s going to happen – then there needs to be a lot of work done to make it accessible to everyone. One of the big things that I really hope happens is easier (and cheaper!) access to assistive technology, either through libraries or through another route.

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