Essay 4: The U.S. Digital Divide Hysteria

Who can keep up with this new media?, March 14, 2008

The idea of the digital divide in the U.S., like everything technology-related, has already become outdated. There continues to be a misguided belief that in the U.S. there is a huge gap between techno-haves and techno-have-nots. While this may seem perfectly logical, the statistics just don’t bear it out.

The fact is that anyone who wants to get on the internet and use the powerful tools for e-commerce or social networking can. Those who are most unable to acquire technology on their own due to financial restraints still have tremendous access to it in our public institutions. Take a look at the second floor of the downtown Seattle library. There is an ocean of computers available to anyone—able bodied or not— who wants to use them for free. Multiply that out by the number of computers in the rest of the country’s libraries and you start to see a different picture. That’s just the libraries. As Andy Carvin reported in September of 2006, “Internet access is almost ubiquitous in schools now, allowing students of all backgrounds relatively equal opportunities to go online for educational purposes. Nationally, 83% of students access the Internet in school…” Statistically, these are kids of every possible ethnic background.1 In fact, as early as 2003, more than half of Americans were online.2 Five years later that number has jumped exponentially as the price of laptops continues to fall and the pipes into our homes bringing faster downloads via DSL, cable, or satellite continue to get bigger and run further and further away from urban centers.

What may appear to be a digital divide in the U.S. is more than likely a matter of a divide in choice. Sonia Arrison writes, “Not all individuals want to use computers or get online. Everyone knows someone, rich or poor, who chooses not to have voice mail, call waiting, or even a television. Many of the Internet’s so-called “have-nots” are really “want-nots.” This is not a sentiment to brush off casually. My mother is a great example of this. She has the resources to own whatever technology she wants, but she chooses not to. She seems to have some sort of natural phobia to society’s advances and purposefully rejects whatever is happening. She still has an ancient TV. No cable. She took nearly 12 years to get her first cell phone, but not surprisingly, refuses to turn it on unless “it’s an emergency.” She was given a computer and guess what, she still runs Windows 98 and has free dial up and uses AOL, that is if she ever goes online. Some people are just like that. She’s an educated woman with a PhD in education and has taught for over 30 years.

A paper published in 2008 in Information Economics and Policy magazine shows that statistically the poorer you are the more time you spend online. The less educated you are the numbers actually go up for online use.3 I realize that may seem counter to our beliefs. Those of us with shiny new expensive Macs somehow use them more often, right? We don’t. The short answer as to why is that the more educated and the more money you have, the more the opportunity cost of being online takes a bite out of your valuable life. Stated another way the digital divide has closed so much in the U.S. that being online is tantamount to wasting hours in front of the television. The sad fact is that poorer people do both. Statistics show that most people use the internet for “wasteful” entertainment value (e.g. Facebook, chatting, or watching television or movies)4.

This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how the internet is really used and that, as we all know, is for pornography. Some statistics from 2006: 12 percent of all Web sites are pornographic; 35 percent of all downloads are porn; 266 new porn site appear daily; in 2006, internet revenues from pornographic Web sites was a whopping $2.84 B.; 72 percent of online porn is watched by men (that leaves 28 percent as women!) And, this statistic alone should make you reconsider whether or not the digital divide is worth getting upset over: 70 percent of all porn is watched between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.5

The digital divide today may be more accurately a reference to who has a computer in their house. Just like television, eventually everyone will. The bottom line is this: anyone in the U.S. who wants to get online, can, with a minimal amount of effort. What they do once they get there is a whole different story.

End notes

Andy Carvin. New Government Report Exposes the School-Home Digital Divide. Published: September 8, 2006.

Sonia Arrison. Perspective: What digital divide? CNET. Published: March 13, 2002.

Avi Goldfarb, Jeff Prince. Internet adoption and usage patterns are different: Implications for the digital divide, Information Economics and Policy 20 (2008), 2-15

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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