At the core of the digital divide are social mechanisms of distribution. Access to hardware, software, and computer science varies across geography, income, ability, race, and gender. Instead of citing any one of these particular variables as the cause of the digital divide, we will examine the problem holistically–because unequal allocation of any resource is always part of a larger framework.
Research has found that social networks form in clusters, bringing a web-like structure to the dissemination of ideas. Some nodes are more centralized and connected than others (Krebs 2003, 2005). Furthermore, each node represents an entity with specific properties–geographic location, resources available, perceptions, etc.
When an innovation originates in one node, that node’s properties determine how soon the idea will be distributed through others nodes in the social network. An isolated hobbyist tinkering in his garage may have a breakthrough, but that does not mean others can automatically understand or use that breakthrough. That is impossible. First, a centralized node has to connect with the idea: an opinion leader such as a business, organization, politician, or celebrity. Then others nearby will follow. The idea begins to spread through the web of social connections in a phenomena dubbed the ideavirus.
However, the opinion leaders that spread ideas are deeply entrenched within their social framework. Unfortunately, this framework is not always fair, and that delegates access to new ideas to networks closest to the opinion leaders, leaving others behind.
To a huge degree, the digital divide can be largely explained by where individual nodes are in the web of social connections. Just as one cannot catch a cold virus without contact, one cannot catch an ideavirus without contact. Complicating matters are the objective and subjective properties of the entity in question. Different nodes have different levels of resistance to the ideavirus.
This unconscious resistance to technology by individuals exacerbates the digital divide. For example, several individual nodes are connected to one central node–such as many students connected to a central school. Each of the students has different perceptions and status. So if the school adopts new technology, some students may be more likely to adopt it, because they have had computers at home or have seen images of their kin using technology. While disadvantaged students may perceive technology as being for the “computer wiz” (a term that brings forth the image of a white male with thick glasses).
Often, these stereotypes are reinforced by the teacher: they expect more from the kids already familiar with technology and less from the kids who have had less experience. These images of where people belong remain deeply ingrained in our psyches.
The first personal computers were owned by a handful of isolated hobbyists. They were generally white, male, and upper middle class. This was the beginning of the ideavirus of personal computing. Because of their location in the social web, it was far more likely for other white males of similar socioeconomic status to be exposed to and intrigued by these early innovations.
Eventually, as more businesses caught the ideavirus of personal computing, distribution sped up. Corporations began selling computers and software. A new industry emerged, with the number of potential participants increasing with every new social connection.
It is important to resist simplifying the problem of the digital divide to a mere matter of race, class, or gender. Unequal distribution is inevitable with any idea. While the adoption of technology began in particular demographics, the number of people with computing devices is unprecedented. Perhaps, one day in the future, the digital divide will finally close. Of course, newer and better technologies will be leaving digital dust. Likely, creating an entirely new divide.Follow @wordpressdotcom