The digital divide is probably one of the first concepts considered when reflecting on the theme of the social impact caused by Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). From there on, one perceives that these technologies are going to produce differences in the development opportunities of peoples, and that a distance will be established between those with access to these technologies and those without.

Development and digital solidarity

In order to historically review the concept, it should be remembered that, in general, the relationship between technology and development has frequently been perceived as a lineal relationship. In fact, in the 60s and the 70s, at least in Latin America, there arose a large quantity of national programs supported by international and bilateral organizations that targeted “technological transfer” from the developed countries to the poor countries. However, at that time, it referred principally to technological transfer aimed at industrial production, since it assumed that the availability of technology would produce development.

When the peak of informatics development was reached in the rich countries around the year 1978, the impact of this technology on development was being discussed. It was with this objective that Unesco created an intergovernmental informatics organization (IBI) whose purpose is to create conditions so that the poor countries achieve informatics growth, and with this, the gap with the rich countries would be reduced. It is therefore since informatics, and not necessarily since the expansion of the Internet, that the discourse on the digital divide began to be built.

The adoption of informatics by the Third World countries and the application of a policy in this sphere allow them to access the same level of development as the industrialized countries.

The experience of the industrialized countries proves that informatics, born from progress, can in turn accelerate development. If the developing countries can dominate it, they can in fact, thanks to improved resource management, contribute to reducing the gap that separates them from the powerful countries. » [1]

This discourse is later generalized with the expansion of the Internet. In Okinawa, in the year 2000, G7 [2] defines the development of a global information society as one of its main goals and creates the Dot Force with the objective of integrating international efforts and finding effective ways to reduce the digital divide. Although this document does not offer a precise definition of the digital divide, one can infer that it is understood as the inclusion or exclusion of the benefits of the information society.

We renew our commitment to the principle of inclusion: everyone, everywhere should be enabled to participate in and no one should be excluded from the benefits of the global information society.” [3]

Another thread in the construction of the concept occurs at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva in 2003 [4], whose call for papers is precisely the reduction of the digital divide. It is understood that this divide will be reduced with access to ICTs and with the creation of digital opportunities. In this Summit, a strategy of digital solidarity between the rich and developing countries is proposed.

We recognize that the construction of an integrating Information Society requires new modalities of solidarity, association, and cooperation between governments and other interested parties, that is the private sector, civil society, and international organizations. Recognizing that the ambitious objective of the present Declaration -bridge the digital divide and guarantee harmonious development, just and fair for all- would demand a solid commitment on the part of all the interested parties, we make a call for digital solidarity at the national and international level.” [5]

After the 2003 Summit, a UN ICT Task Force is created, which substitutes the Dot Force to a certain degree, and whose main objective is to list ICT usage with the achievement of the millennium objectives also defined by the United Nations. With this approach, there is an intent to express how information and communication technologies can be used as a tool for development. Another important aspect to be recovered from this proposal is that today, there is not only discussion about the Internet, but rather other information and communication technologies such as mobile phones.

The UN ICT Task Force defines the digital divide in the following manner:

In recent years, as information and communication technologies have become the backbone of the global information economy and given rise to the information society, more attention has been focused on the gap in access to ICTs between developed and developing countries. This gap has come to be known as the “digital divide”. But how big is it? Is the divide widening or narrowing?

One relevant way of measuring the gap in access to ICTs is to look at the differences between developed and developing countries in the level of penetration of different ICT services (telephone, mobile phone, Internet) and of personal computers, over the course of the past decade. [...] The gap has narrowed markedly, with particularly rapid progress in the field of mobile phone and Internet use.

In 2004, the UIT convokes the event “Building digital bridges” [6] at which the concept of the digital divide is resumed based on differences in connectivity, now also including the difference in connection velocities between dial-up and wireless, for example.

The three aspects of the digital divide

Also positioned at this UIT event is that the digital divide is based on access aspects, and particularly on those aspects related to the use of ICTs. Three types of digital divides are proposed: access, based on the difference between individuals with access and those without access to ICTs; usage, based on individuals who know how to use these technologies and those who do not; and usage quality, based on the differences between those same users [7].

As one can deduce, the concept of the digital divide has changed over time. In the beginning, it basically referred to connectivity problems. Later, it began to introduce the concern for the development of capacities and skills required to use ICTs (capacity-building and education), and finally, there is also reference to the use of integrated resources in the technology. Thus, the concept of the digital divide basically incorporates the following focuses:

a) Focus on infrastructure: That is the possibility/difficulty of having computers available that are connected to the worldwide net. This also includes the problem of servers and backbones. In fact, the Southern countries continue to depend on equipment in the North.

b) Focus on capacity-building: That is to say, the capacity/difficulty to use these technologies. The difference related to the skills and capacities to adequately use the technology and not only the possibility of having a computer available began to be contemplated. In this sense, the concept of digital literacy related to the digital divide began to be developed.

c) Focus on resource usage: This refers to the limitation/possibility that people have to use the resources available on the Web. In recent times, the concept of the digital divide has incorporated the possibilities of using the technology not only to access information, knowledge, but also a new way of education to take advantage of the “new opportunities”, such as the development of business, online medical servicing, telework, and enjoyment of new forms of entertainment and leisure.

Based on these elements, many international organizations have defined development policies aimed to reduce the digital divide. However, in spite of the evolution in the concept, these principally emphasize development of a technological infrastructure. National investments and policies for the reduction of the digital divide continue to principally target connectivity development.

One of the best ways to pinpoint comprehension of a concept is the manner in which it is valued. In this sense, the most important measurements of the digital divide (e-readiness, UIT) are related to the degree of mass usage of ICTs among countries, regions, groups, or individuals, and measured by variables such as computer availability, phone density, and access speed by person [8].

The political illusions of the digital divide

It is important to examine these definitions because they are references for shaping national technology policies. First, one should take into consideration the fact that there are various illusions associated with the digital divide, to be reflected upon herein. The difference in access to technologies will increase the already existing social differences.

a) Illusion of the cause-effect relationship

One of the most delicate aspects for comprehension of the digital divide is the underlying causality relationship in proposals such as the WSIS site. “With the ever-widening gulf between knowledge and ignorance, the development gap between the rich and the poor among and within countries has also increased.” [10]

Definitions establish a direct relationship between access to technology and development opportunities (technological determinism), expressed in improved conditions of well-being, reduction of poverty, and improvement of living quality. The contrary is also established using the same rationale, which would be that less access to ICTs will imply greater difficulties in improving living conditions. However, this cause-effect relationship is not self-explanatory and the positive and negative consequences that are directly produced from access to technology appear as a magic solution.

This causal explanation that is implicit in the concept veils the complexity of the digital divide and the possible relationship between the incorporation of the technologies in social dynamics and the social transformation that it implies.

For social groups that position a new understanding of this concept, factors that may potentiate the use of technology as a development tool are diverse, complex, and have interrelations that depend on the context, culture, and history of the group in which they are incorporated.

And so, one can say that information and communication technologies can be an element that potentiates development, but in order to make this potential real depends on organizational aspects, development of skills and capacities, integration actions within the cultural and social identity of the group, modification of social processes, among others.

When a social group appropriates a technology, it is capable not only of using it to transform its own living conditions, but also transforms the technology itself by means of technological innovation processes with social identity.

b) Those “included” in the information society will be able to participate in building a “new society”

ICTs will be a fundamental activating element in ¬society. Consequently, whoever, individually or collectively, succeeds in developing the infrastructure and the capacities to use them will be privileged; they will have a greater decision-making capacity and will influence the building of this “new society” [10] .

c) The digital divide results from social gaps

This perception based on the cause-effect relationship veils the dynamic and dialectical relationship between the digital divide and other social gaps. It is often considered that the difference in access to technologies will increase existing social differences. That means that the digital divide will imply more development in the countries, regions, and persons with better access opportunities in detriment to those who have less. This difference will be evident not only between countries, but also inside each country, privileging populations with better economic, political, social, and cultural conditions.

Surely, the digital divide is a product of the social gaps produced by economic, political, social, gender, generational, geographic, etc. inequalities.

d) A single digital divide - a single solution

One of the most relevant aspects of the concept being analyzed is that it expresses uniqueness. One talks about the digital divide in the entire world, as if there only existed one and as if it had the same characteristics at any time or in any social space. This is one of the strongest aspects of the illusion behind this definition.

The problem of talking about the divide as a single gap is that then single and generalized solutions are sought.

In reality, one should be talking about digital divides, given the gender, age, culture, geographic localization, or socioeconomic conditions, and the combinations of these factors. In this manner, the conceptual and methodological approach and the resources and actions to face them would be related to their specific conditions.

e) The digital divide does not appear on its own

Another of the aspects that stands out is the ahistoric character of the concept. In general, if one studies the traditional discourses related to the theme of the information society, one’s attention is called to the fact that the majority do not refer to the history that gave rise to it. In general, one gets the feeling that the information society appears without being a product of a social dynamic and a historical process.

It seems as if the information society is built from the incorporation of technologies and not from the existing structural realities and contradictions. In this sense, one understands the divide as being produced by technological aspects, and these appear in the discourse as neutral.

f) Individualization

Another illusion that encircles this concept is individuality. Upon measuring the digital divide based on the relationship between the population that is connected and the population that is not connected, one stimulates individual use of technology.

This in itself has stimulated individualized use of computers at school, work, the government, and other spaces where it has been integrated as part of daily resources. Actions that attempt to establish collective uses for ICTs are not usually generalized. But, in addition to this, the concept of the digital divide analyzes individualized availability, based on the premise that the benefit of a computer is for one person.

Since several efforts by civil society, such as telecenters or community access points, reduction of the digital divides and measurement of these divides have been based on collective use of computer teams and have stimulated and understood the group benefits of these teams. The digital divide should refer to the capacities/difficulties that a social group has to utilize ICTs as a common resource for the development of the collectivity and the transformation of living conditions of its members.

g) The new digital divides

Up to this moment, one talks about the digital divide as the difference that having access or not to technologies produces in development.

However, new digital divides are appearing as ICTs become incorporated in social life. It no longer only has to deal with the problem of having access or not, but rather with the differences that appear among those who are already connected.

Not all those who have connection available have the possibilities to develop their capacities and skills for telework, for example. And once again, not because of the technology itself, but because of conditions that are required to be a part of this new labor force, such as a bilingual education, high technological skills, multicultural interaction capacities, unstable conditions, plus the ability to work alone and take on greater responsibilities associated with telework, among others, which are costly and difficult to acquire, and therefore can not be assumed by the majority of the “connected population”.

Neither, for example, will all the local companies (in spite of being connected) be able to take advantage of the benefits of online commercialization or be able to be incorporated in multinational productive networks. Again, it is not the technological aspect that limits them, but rather the economic, social, and cultural conditions in which they are developing and the possibilities of developing capacities and transforming their productive processes.

Added to this reflection, one should also mention the large discussion on intellectual property, where knowledge in the future is staked as a private or collective right that has the potential of opening new gaps related to access, usage, and production of knowledge and information traveling over the network.

With the insertion of technologies in daily living, new digital divides will appear that refer to real usage possibilities, mainly in the middle-class, who although have better access conditions than the popular classes, do not always have the resources to develop capacities and skills that allow them to use them to transform their current conditions.

h) Investment focused on infrastructure

If one approaches the digital divide under the causality premise, it is possible that the government, international organizations, and some applications of civil society guide efforts and resources directly towards development of infrastructure, and in a few cases, a basic technical qualification process. Investing in these aspects also has an advantage for those who do so that the destination of resources is easy to identify (computers, laboratories, connections, lines, etc.). One supposes that once the infrastructure has been developed, the rest of the benefits will then follow; they will magically break loose.

i) The digital divide as business

The digital divide only understood as a technological gap and basing its main solution on development of infrastructure is highly convenient for large telecommunications companies, as well as producers and sellers of computer equipment.

The social investment that implies taking an integral approach to the digital divides, by means of processes that strengthen the organization and develop capacities, does not represent a very important business as compared to the mass sale of connectivity and computers.

j) The digital divide - a mirage

The discussion on the information society and the knowledge society has concentrated sufficiently on the theme of the digital divide and how to reduce it. This causes a mirage since it disguises or minimizes the discussion on the other aspects that the information society and the knowledge society imply, such as the creation of jobs and changing working conditions with regards to ICTs, transformation of economic models, and creation of value, legal aspects, new education, intellectual property, open knowledge, etc.

Participating in the processes of social appropriation of technology

Organized civil society, as well as diverse researchers and academicians, have proposed new understandings of this concept, making it more complex and placing it in context.

One of the clearest manifestations of these proposals occurs within the benchmark of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva in 2003, where civil society played a fundamental role positioning new understandings and concepts that were developed through participative processes during the months preceding this event. The theme of the digital divide was also redefined by civil society, as can be deduced from the civil society final declaration.

...we believe technologies can be engaged as fundamental means, rather than becoming ends in themselves, thus recognizing that bridging the digital divide is only one step on the road to achieving development for all...

The unequal distribution of ICTs and the lack of information access for a large majority of the world population, often referred to as the digital divide, is in fact a mapping of new asymmetries onto the existing grid of ¬social divides. These include the divide between North and South, rich and poor, men and women, urban and rural populations, those with access to information and those without. Such disparities are found not only between different cultures, but also within national borders. The international community must exercise its collective power to ensure action on the part of individual states in order to bridge domestic digital divides.” [11]

Since those groups, the digital divide has been understood as the conditions that have to be developed to appropriate technologies and to incorporate them as a tool that should be integrated in daily living to transform realities into a continuous process. A reflection on this is expressed by Jean-François Soupizet: [12]

The minimum capacity to appropriate information and communication technologies within a structural context of successive innovations is what makes the difference. In fact, in a world of globalization, this delay threatens to heighten all other disparities, the reason for which special attention is given to the digital divide.”

Another reference to this understanding of the concept can be found in the Mistica virtual community, which has the virtue of joining experiences and thoughts of researchers and actors in the Latin-American civil society. [13]

The digital divide is an expression of the social gaps. In order to understand it, it is necessary to analyze the access, usage, and social appropriation conditions of these gaps and not simply reduce comprehension to infrastructure and connectivity.”

Changing perspective so that technologies are at the service of societies

Based on the analysis of the concept and the options presented from civil society, a new meaning of the concept is being proposed, which goes in the following direction:

The digital divides are given by the possibilities or difficulties that social groups have to collectively use information and communication technologies to transform reality, where the living conditions of its members are developed and improved.

It is being proposed that to talk about the digital divide and the strategies to face it, one should start out from the society we dream to be and not from the technology. And once the utopia is defined, one should reflect on how technologies can contribute to achieve this society. For example, people talk about digital solidarity as a reduction strategy; however, reflection should be centered on how technologies can support the building of societies characterized by solidarity and which conditions the social groups require to utilize ICTs to reach this aspiration. Definitely, this change in focus will, in turn, transform comprehension of what the digital divide is.

15 May 2006

couverture du livre enjeux de mots This text is an extract from the book Word Matters: multicultural perspectives on information societies. This book, which has been coordinated by Alain Ambrosi, Valérie Peugeot and Daniel Pimienta was released on November 5, 2005 by C & F Éditions.

The text is under the Creative Commons licence, by, non commercial.

Knowledge should be shared in free access... But authors and editors need an economy to keep on creating and working. If you can afford it, please buy the book on line (39 €)

Digital Divide 30 April 2010, by John

Thanks, this information was very useful.

Naz: Local to Whom?

Digital Divide 8 January 2010, by Sam

I read an article on digital divide posted online with your photo. I highly appreciate the article.I read also your profile, unfortunately there is no e-mail of yours. I am searching a topic for phd thesis. I am passionated by Digital divide as a theme . Since you spent a lot of time on digital divide , would you give me your e-mail so that I can search advice from you? My email is:


Digital Divide 30 October 2009, by Stuart

I too am in 6th form and making an eBook, as part is it refers to the Digital Divide i found ur website ver useful. thanks for this info.

Digital Divide 11 March 2009

I Agree With You

Digital Divide 11 March 2007, by Naz

hi i am a student studying at 6th form,

i found this information very usefull for my ICT Coursework which was to design an e-book about the ’information age’ and the ’digital divide’.

However it would have been even better if more information on global and Local aspects of the Digital Divide were available?!

thankyou. :)