It has long been accepted that literacy is strongly connected to democratic and human rights. In the past, literacy was crucial for individuals to make educated decisions on current events, such as choosing which party was best suited to lead the nation going forward. In the modern day and age, digital media and the internet are allowing people to remain up to date on those same issues, but at a much lower cost to the environment, the producer, and the consumer.
It appears that digital media is the future of communication. Although it is likely that humanity will benefit from the great number of advantages it provides, many believe that the prevalence of digital media does not come without concern. According to Dobson and Willinsky (2009), the digital divide that currently exists is one of those concerns.
The term “digital divide” refers to the gap between those with effective access to digital information and technology, and those without such access. This gap could be due to a number of factors, such as the language, gender, or economic barriers found in computer and internet use (Dobson & Willinsky, 2009). While it is undeniable that this gap exists, the question of whether the divide is as worrisome as some believe is a more difficult one to answer.
Dobson and Willinsky (2009) state that “the pervasiveness of English on the Internet can form a… point of exclusion.” While this is true, and while by Canadian standards this might be problematic, that is not necessarily true for other cultures. In his 1998 essay “Cyberspace Is No Place for Tribalism,” Craig Howe argues that the attributes of the internet “are antithetical to the particular localities, societies, moralities, and experiences that constitute tribalism.”
Dobson and Willinsky (2009) also indicate that the ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) was gradually superseded by the Unicode standard, “which is capable of handling the full extent of the world’s writing systems.” This was an important step toward reducing the digital divide, the results of which can be seen in the fact that Wikipedia has entries in over two hundred languages (Dobson and Willinksy, 2009).
Gender issues are also discussed by Dobson and Willinsky. They mention that in the past, computer use was much higher in males than it was in females. They go on to say that in more recent times, “males and females report relatively similar levels of use,” which is obviously not the problem. However, what is concerning is the fact that “males tend to use computers in more diverse ways, such as programming… and desktop publishing,” and that “enrolments of males and females in secondary school courses requiring sophisticated use of computers is severely skewed, with males comprising between 79% and 90% of the student population.”
While this is also true, again this may not be hugely problematic. The number of females enrolled in higher level computer classes is not nearly as important as accessibility to those classes for females. In Canada, at the very least, high schools and universities do not turn students away from classes based on gender, and it is questionable at best whether there is a social stigma attached to a female engaged in computer and technology studies. It is possible that the divide in this case is due as much to gender interest as it is to gender inequality.
Dobson and Willinsky also touch on economic factors that contribute to the digital divide, mostly in the difference between richer, more developed nations, and in less developed nations. Although I did enjoy their work, I would have been interested in seeing a closer look at the digital divide that exists in Canada.
Being a country with a very low population to land area ratio, I expected that bringing broadband internet to the entire nation would be a challenge. Marlow and McNish (2010) confirmed my suspicion. They state that “building expensive wired connections to sparsely populated rural regions [is] a multibillion dollar challenge.” They also declare that “Ottawa’s $225-million contribution to building broadband networks… is a pittance compared with the tens of billions of dollars spent on national digital programs in… the US, Britain, Australia and even such small economies as Portugal.”
Geographic location in Canada is a major source of digital divide. With dependable, high capacity fibre optic cables being very expensive, they are only available in well populated urban areas. Rural communities, which contain about 20 percent of Canadians, are restricted to satellite or wireless connections (Marlow and McNish, 2010).
This creates two problems for people living in rural areas. First, the cost is much higher. Bates (2010) reports that the average cost for satellite is $70 per month for 1 Mbps, compared to the consumer cost for fibre optic cable of $47 per month for 10 Mbps. Secondly, satellite and wireless connections are highly unreliable (Marlow and McNish, 2010). I have had my own frustrating experience with this. I live near the edge, but well within city limits of a city with a population of 85 000. My internet drops out approximately four or five times per week, at times for more than an hour, and my ISP is unable to do anything about it due to how far I live from their building. It does appear that the digital divide due to geographic location is problematic, though it is probably more of an economic concern (ie. a lack of reliable broadband makes it difficult to attract large businesses that create jobs) rather than a human rights concern (Marlow and McNish, 2010).
The digital divide clearly exists from an international level, right down to a very local level. It is most certainly a concern for many, though in some respects it seems the problem is overstated, while in others it is understated. It is worth noting that many of the “current [digital divide] concerns parallel an earlier interest in the great literacy divide between oral and literate cultures” (Dobson and Willinksy, 2009), as we can possibly compare successes and failures in efforts to reduce the literacy and the digital divide. To conclude, I’d like to include a memorable quote from Dobson and Willlinsky (2009) who make the following statement:
“The growing global dimensions of people’s participation in digital literacy… suggest that efforts to increase opportunities for access remain a worthwhile human rights goal, much as access to literacy itself has always represented.”
Bates, T. (2010). Canada`s digital divide and its implications for other countries. Retrieved Nov. 14, 2010, from http://www.tonybates.ca/2010/04/04/canadas-digital-divide-and-its-implications-for-other-countries/
Dobson, T. & Willinsky, J. (2009). Digital Literacy. The Cambridge Handbook on Literacy. Retrieved Nov. 9, 2010, from http://pkp.sfu.ca/files/Digital%20Literacy.pdf
Howe, C. (1998). Cyberspace Is No Place for Tribalism. Wicazo SA Review.
Marlow, I. & McNish, J. (2010, April 2). Canada`s Digital Divide. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved Nov. 14, 2010, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/canadas-digital-divide/article1521631/
Sciadas, G. (2001). The Digital Divide In Canada. Science, Innovation, and Electronic Information Division; Statistics Canada. Retrieved Nov. 14, 2010, from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/56f0009x/56f0009x2002001-eng.pdf