Leveraging the digital divide to rewrite the human story

LINK to blog post by Dr. Nathan Walworth, 2018 Global People’s Summit Fellow with the Global People’s Summit

The rapid advancement and adoption of information and communication technologies (ICT) play a decisive role in virtually all aspects of society affecting interactions among individuals, communities, organizations, and countries. Differential societal conditions significantly affect access to and utilization of ICT, yielding what has been classically termed ‘the digital divide’.

This concept first surfaced in the 1980s with the advent of information technology (IT) producing terms like “Technopeasant” (Techno-peasant Survival Manual, 1981): those disadvantaged in a modern technological society, particularly through the inability to use computer technology. Being formally conceived in the 1990s, the ‘digital divide’ was simply defined as the divide between those with access to new ICT and those without¹² — the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. However, it was soon realized that this binary framing grossly oversimplified the realities of social, material, and cultural conditions through which populations could transform mere ICT access into desired utilities. It in turn disproportionately emphasized resource provision instead of capacity strengthening. Hence, similar to root causes of climate change (Drawdown, 2017), the digital divide is a type of end product of upstream social, financial, economic, geographical, and educational asymmetries that draw a multidimensional digital continuum across individuals, households, communities, organizations, and countries {Riggins:2005fg}. One of the most widely accepted definitions attempting to capture these complexities was subsequently put forth in 2001 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD): “The gap between individuals, households, businesses, and geographic areas at different socioeconomic levels with regard both to their opportunities to access ICT and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities.” However, others believe the term “digital divide” should be refashioned altogether¹.

At an individual level, research has shown that digital inequalities are primarily driven by the socioeconomically and demographically disadvantaged through factors like lower incomes and education, disabilities, rural dwelling, being a woman, being elderly, and belonging to ethnic minorities groups². For example, a student in Kenya may not be able to complete an internationally recognized thesis due to inaccessibility to broadband internet for bandwidth-intensive applications and online libraries. Individuals in underprivileged areas only capable of affording older versions of hardware and software are disadvantaged in their tool usage (e.g. plugins) and file transfer limitations. Women, who fill approximately half of the USA’s workforce only hold 24% of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) jobs (STEM Jobs: 2017 Update, OCE) partially due to a deep-seated, woman-alienating technology and finance culture³. The manner in which this article is written comes from a certain western education narrative that may not be straightforward to follow for another with a vastly different language and culture. From these few examples, it can be seen that digital inequality at the individual level has deep roots in institutionalized geographical, class, social, and gender structures resulting in conditions where lack of access can lead to illiteracy and more access does not necessarily lead to more effective and equitable data use across societal hierarchies¹. Furthermore, those in historically optimal economic and sociodemographic conditions will continue to exponentially outpace those that are historically disadvantaged.

Individual discrepancies can scale up to the organizational level where it is typically accepted that larger firms with more resources have easier access to newer, costlier technological innovations. On average, individuals with greater access to networks and resources have lower barriers to found well-connected and resourced organizations (e.g. a graduate from a Swedish University vs a graduate from a Kenyan University). At the country level, economic wealth and education are also key factors in digital development, although even in digitally developed countries like the Holland, domestic divides can be widespread with younger highly educated and wealthier demographics having higher levels of ICT adoption². Additionally, psychological effects have been observed where more economically advantaged populations use ICT with more confidence and versatility than disadvantaged ones⁴, thereby contributing to first and second-order digital divides. ‘First-order’ refers to ICT access and ‘second-order’ refers to different use patterns and intensity among individuals/organizations with similar ICT access. This delineation highlights different fundamental layers of the digital divide where the former may be addressed through subsidization of ICT access by governments and the latter through educational infrastructure.

ICT gaps have also been influential in technological development of, for example, medical mobility devices (mhealth) in resource-poor areas (e.g. frugal design) that have vastly improved healthcare delivery in African countries as a substitute for a well-functioning health infrastructure¹. One can hope that technological development due to this divide may help the innovation of a leaner, more efficient infrastructure that eventually delivers comparable quality, but the obvious fear is that this type of development may do little to address the underlying social and fundamental determinants of societal functionality.

However, more and more research has vastly improved and evolved approaches to structuring these inequalities in order to create solutions to close these gaps. One such approach, Amartya Sen’s “Capabilities Approach” (CA), draws on theories from economic development and social justice recognizing that individuals differ in their abilities to convert existing resources (e.g. data access) to fruitful opportunities or outcomes¹. Hence, measuring resources only paints a partial picture and is fundamentally different than measuring functionality. One can see that even from simple frameshifting from “haves vs have nots” to a “CA” framework elucidates a sequential continuum of metrics that are necessary to measure in order to ascertain the capacity of human agency for data use. Importantly, conversion factors can be constructed that enable comparisons across societies so a more common framework can be referenced by entities creating solutions.

Another approach follows guidelines taken from Everett Rogers’s Diffusion of Innovations (DOI) theory⁵ postulating that newer, more expensive technologies with greater perceived relative advantages and risks are more likely adopted by wealthier individuals and firms (and thus in aggregate, wealthier countries)². This approach aims to account for the fact that the digital revolution largely occurred in the developed western world⁶ leading to an advantage of accelerated adoption and use relative to developing nations. Education was thus constantly tailored towards developing data-intensive workforces, which coincided with increases in population density in the form of urbanization resulting in easier spread of innovations. Finally, those cultures with the enhanced ability to codify knowledge can almost perpetually dictate the dissemination of information and the selective forms of reality they choose to create. This concept is part of a much larger conversation of data-driven media creation that exacerbates the digital divide well-described in Ryan Holiday’s book “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator”. Nonetheless, the interaction of these economic and cultural considerations are paramount to trace back the roots that gave rise to the initial, oversimplified “haves and have nots” definition of the divide.

Indeed, the digital divide has been well-recognized for decades.This represents immense opportunity for those in the position to help close it, as alluded to in the words of former US President Bill Clinton where he acknowledged that it, “…is the greatest opportunity the U.S. has ever had to lift its people out of poverty and ignorance.” And yes, there are widespread local and global initiatives through international (e.g. UN Global Pulse), private (e.g. Intel Innovation for All), and nonprofit (e.g. Powerup.org) organizations working to remediate these gaps, which can be readily found through simple internet browsing. What I find most exciting about tackling the digital divide is that it begins to highlight and require solutions to address much deeper, institutionalized inequalities that naturally give rise to the divide itself. For example, the heavily skewed distribution of wealth not only automatically grants superior technological access to upper-middle classes but also perpetuates a generational class structure already heavily integrated into digital culture and innovation, thereby enabling a vast minority of the population to become (data) richer and more powerful. In an age where we are increasingly defined by our access and usage of digital platforms, new forms of digital (il)literacy are being born even in “developed” societies like the USA, where already 1 in 4 adults are illiterate or of limited literacy.

So, technological acceleration can do one of two things, which is highly dependent on whether we address deeper issues of inequality: Either technology can help compound inequality, or it can drastically reduce it. If access and use of information is a universal digital currency which can begin to solve a breadth of systemic issues, then giving this capacity to as many people as possible will hopefully spur innovations we can’t even see yet simply because we haven’t yet granted this capability to most of the global population. How ironic is it that we are only using a small percentage of the global population to tackle worldwide issues affecting all of us? The irony continues where the very portions of the populations that scaled ideas to create the systemic problems are the only ones able to exercise new ideas to fix them while also trying to hold onto their power and influence: the very two things that gave rise to what the “social impact” field is trying to fix.

Due to data becoming an increasingly universal language, hopefully broad agreements on access and flow of information can be a type of pseudo-universal conduit sparking creative solutions across diverse realms of inequality that cultures can support in solidarity because at its core, it will play a heavy hand in the well-being of our collective future. As we move closer to shrinking the rock (Earth) we all depend on in addition to broaching the horizon as an interplanetary species, novel concepts of global identity may aid in a global cultural movement to look through a lens of increasing cooperation. Similar to species in an ecosystem playing vital cooperative roles to contribute to its overall health and functionality, we too may begin to define our species as part of this ecosystem with a truly unique part to play in recognizing that our individual wellbeing is inextricably linked to each other and our other companion species. The most successful organisms on the planet, single-celled microbes, figured this cooperation out billions of years ago. And with half of cells in and on a human body being non-human microbes, it can be argued that we are merely hosts to their success! What a gift that we can even be conscious of that. While competition has benefits in certain times and spaces, it is cooperation that has enabled physically inferior homo sapiens to effectively spread and dictate the planet’s destiny. And in the words of the late R. Buckminster Fuller “We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody.” Ironically, maybe solving the digital divide, a conduit for the continuation of our stories, will be the language that reconnects us back to each other and our physical biosphere.


1. Bezuidenhout, L. M., Leonelli, S., Kelly, A. H. & Rappert, B. Beyond the digital divide: Towards a situated approach to open data. Science and Public Policy 44, 464–475 (2017).

2. Cruz-Jesus, F., Oliveira, T. & Bacao, F. The Global Digital Divide. Journal of Global Information Management 26, 1–26 (2018).

3. Wynn, A. T. & Correll, S. J. Puncturing the pipeline: Do technology companies alienate women in recruiting sessions?:. Social Studies of Science48, 149–164 (2018).

4. Hsieh, J. J. P.-A., Rai, A. & Keil, M. Addressing Digital Inequality for the Socioeconomically Disadvantaged Through Government Initiatives: Forms of Capital That Affect ICT Utilization. Information Systems Research 22, 233–253 (2010).

5. Rogers, E. M. Lessons for Guidelines from the Diffusion of Innovations. The Joint Commission Journal on Quality Improvement 21, 324–328 (1995).

6. James, J. Are Changes in the Digital Divide Consistent with Global Equality or Inequality? The Information Society 27, 121–128 (2011).

Karelaine Walworth