In a recent editorial that appeared in the New York Times, Sunday, December 4, 2011 (appeared online December 3), the author, Susan Crawford, worries that the “new” digital divide increasingly results in a raft of folks who are disenfranchised from the benefits of the digital world in which we find ourselves. She correctly points out:
Increasingly we are a country in which only the urban and suburban well-off have truly high-speed Internet access, while the rest – the poor and the working class – either cannot afford access or use restricted wireless access as their only connection to the Internet. As our jobs, entertainment, politics, and even health care move online, millions are at risk of being left behind.
But, this is not a new problem; numerous studies from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), Falling through the Net series (beginning 1995), and the Pew Research Center, Pew Internet & American Life Project (among many others) have documented the digital divide in the United States since the mid-1990s.
So the digital divide really is not new at all. The same types of U.S. residents who were disenfranchised in the 1990s (low income, rural, and/or minorities) still are largely disenfranchised today. While the digital divide is not new, the implications of the current divide as we begin 2012 are significant, such as:
• Many social, commercial, health-related, recreational, and government services are available increasingly online, and in some cases, only online. Thus, the roughly 30% of U.S. homes without high-speed broadband will continue to be marginalized and find it increasingly difficult to be productive members of a digital society.
• Some states, such as Florida, have mandated significant K-12 digital use including administrative reporting and all books being e-texts. Students without home high-speed broadband will not be able to compete against those with home high-speed broadband – and only with after school on-site technology labs and/or public libraries would a partial safety net for these students exist.
• Many government agencies and other online services recommend that users ask their public librarians for assistance in using the agencies’ online services, exacerbating already high demand for public libraries’ free public Internet access, which is particularly challenging given reduced capacity of public libraries to provide such services in the current economic times.
• The huge increase in the use of smart phones with 3G and 4G broadband capacity will not compensate for having home high-speed broadband or using high-speed Internet at public libraries since many tasks – such as filling out job applications – cannot be done on a smart phone without much pain and effort.
Researchers and policymakers have known about these and other implications that marginalize those without high-speed broadband for some time. Yet little seems to be done to improve the situation except to note that the U.S. ranks very low indeed (17th depending on which source you reference) compared to other countries in terms of high-speed Internet access and average cost.
So, while the digital divide is not new, what is new is that public libraries increasingly are becoming the place of both first resort and last resort to address the digital divide and obtain Internet training/assistance. Public libraries will continue to struggle to keep up with this demand – as clearly described in the American Library Association Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study.
Other implications from the current digital divide on rural areas of the U.S. – especially in terms of quality of life, e-government, and economic development – are also significant and will be discussed in another blog post.