The shifting conversation about the Digital Divide

SIMON: We, as you know, have tried to work the use of social media into our program. We do get some resentment from people who, some people, not everybody has access to the internet or think that they have no interest in social media sites.

Mr. SHIRKY: The conversation around the digital divide, this gap between who can participate and who can’t, has shifted. In the ’90s, it was mainly about access to hardware and network connections. Right? Not everybody has a computer. But as computers have gotten cheaper and spread, as they started showing up in specific places like libraries, and as phones increasingly have, even just through SMS, these kind of functions, the conversation’s really shifted from the question of access to a hardware to the sense of permission and to the sense of interest. And that’s a much squishier, more social question.

So part of the digital divide question, the new digital divide question is, how do we go to people who don’t sense they have permission to speak in public and offer them that permission? And then the other, as you say, is the interest. If there are people who are just uninterested in this stuff, how can you make an experience that’s still satisfying for them as, you know, traditional consumers of media, without making them feel bad for not being the people posting the Flickr pictures of potholes or, you know, adding a comment to an NPR story?

This is from an interview of US National Public Radio with Clay Shirky. The Digital Divide issue is often seen in simple terms – those that can access and those that can’t. However, I think Clay is right that the issue has shifted. While not discussed in this interview, another point is the gap between those that do want to engage online but in a particular domain are not given the chance (such as local government consultations that are only conducted face-to-face).


5 thoughts on “The shifting conversation about the Digital Divide

  1. Interesting stuff James. I’ve been arguing for a while that the new digital divide is about the individual’s willingness to be connected electronically. There’s a range of willingness to be connected, from the lifestreaming hyperconnectedearly adopters through to the those who want to receive snail mail & talk on a rotary dial phone.

  2. I have to agree with your thinking, James (and Kate). The access and connectivity divide unquestionably still exists, and it’s something that needs to be worked on. But public access to the technology and tools mitigates that to a large extent.You’re right that the divide is now largely about choice. I think of my sister – suburbanite, intelligent but she has never sent an email and would browse the web only rarely, guided by her children. She has none of these arguably critical 21st Century skills, and chooses not to.

  3. Having worked in the NGO sector with disadvantaged populations, I believe there’s still very much a divide there in addition to the one Kate and Stephen mention. It’s been lessened in regards to hardware access, but there’s still that mental barrier for a lot of people to overcome. One thing starting to occur is the use of online environments as a development exercise for those not used to them. Think of the traditional model of bringing together disaffected youth to undertake a graffiti art project: there’s enormous options for the same online that builds knowledge whilst destroying some of the negative perceptions by the wider public that cause the divide in the first place.

  4. While the debate of choice is a valid one and, I think, correct for many, I still think that economic, political and educational factors all play a larger role. Lower income earners in Western worlds may not have the finances or education to participate. Many have never even been inside a public library. Those with the technology don’t necessarily have the understanding or know where to learn about it. People fear change and live with a mentality of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Developing countries may not have adequate (or any) internet connection, particularly in smaller villages. Similarly repressed nations may have limited access and understanding. Reuters recently reported that South Africa’s primary IP is actually slower than a carrier pigeon to transfer data ( We all have choice to some extent. In the Western world, we have the choice to remain ignorant or to keep up with the times, but I never fail to be amazed by the number of people I meet who look at me blankly; not even knowing there was a choice to be made. And as one person so aptly put it, “call me an 80s hangover, but if there’s a choice to be made, I choose life – fresh air and actual human contact.”

  5. I agree that access to hardware has essentially been surpassed as an issue. I do think, however, that the skills to engage online are not yet ubiquitous. And it’s not just seniors who have been left behind. There are plenty of people I encounter on the low side of 50 that struggle with the social aspect of the web. If you’re 75+ now you can probably make it through without bothering to learn but those people have 30-50 years left in their life. They will need to acquire the skills as they won’t be able to get by without them. There’s an educational aspect to the digital divide that needs to be addressed.

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