Oct 24, 2003

SciAm: "demystifying the Digital Divide"

Demystifying the Digital Divide
Scientific American (08/03) Vol. 289, No. 2, P. 42;
Warschauer, Mark

A widely-shared view of a "digital divide"--a gaping socioeconomic chasm between those who have access to computers and the Internet and those who do not--fosters technological determinism, which assumes technology's very presence will lead to social change. Mark Warschauer of the University of California, Irvine, writes that failed attempts to improve people's lives by merely distributing technology to needy areas are a testament to the flaws in this reasoning. He observes that many people access and use technology differently, and these contextual differences are not taken into account by the binary description of the digital divide. Warschauer cites several examples illustrating how a lack of context can hobble well-intentioned initiatives: In an India-based experiment that he describes as typical of educational technology projects worldwide, outdoor computer terminals were set up in a poor urban area to give children an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the technology with "minimally invasive education;" however, most children used the machines as a plaything rather than a learning device.

In academic circles, an alternative approach called social informatics is being proposed, in which consideration is given to the context of technology as it relates to hardware, software, support resources, and infrastructure, as well as people's relationships to one another and to the community at large. Studies show that computer use in educational institutions has the potential to either narrow or widen the digital divide because not all computers are used equally. Warschauer explains that high-income students in kindergarten through 12th grade employ computers more frequently for experimentation, research, and critical inquiry, while poorer students are limited to simple exercises. "From a policy standpoint, the goal of bringing technology to marginalized groups is not merely to overcome a technological divide but instead to further a process of social inclusion," Warschauer concludes.