July 25, 2007
Realities of the Digital Divide

I mentioned earlier today that the rate of technological change is often misunderstood. There are a group of people who want to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that everything is going to remain the same, to be sure, but there are likewise plenty of folks who want to believe that every change is revolutionary, will become widespread very quickly, and will completely overtake the outdated technologies and modes of the past and transform the world into a fundamentally democratic utopia.

However, the world can't be explained by such technological determinism, whether it be utopian or dystopian. And that includes remaining aware that, for all the discussions we have about the way the Internet is a primary driver in fundamentally changing the ways in which consumers interact with producers, fans interact with media properties and brands, readers interact with authors, and people simply interact with one another, we cannot pretend that there still does not exist a great digital divide among socioeconomic classes in individual countries and, even more sharply contrasted, between various peoples around the world.

Also, be sure to check out this post from last week, in which I point out Nolan Bowie's recent writing for The Boston Globe on new digital divides that might come about in the wake of the conversion from analog to digital televisions in the U.S.

News circulated yesterday, such as this MediaPost blurb from Karl Greenberg, that a new Jupiter Research study finds that, in that great distant year of 2011, which several media researcher seem to be looking toward these days, the international population online will have expanded to slightly over one fifth, 22 percent.

That is 1.5 billion people and a major accomplishment, but it's important to remember that we are talking about a projection four years from now that still leaves 78 percent of the world's population offline. So, while there is no doubt that quite interesting gains are being made in relation to worldwide communication, and that these numbers will rise sharply over time simply as generations of reasonably privileged kids are brought up with the Internet while an older generation for whom personal computers themselves seem like a new-fangled contraption are reaching their later years.

The prediction is the North American Internet penetration will remain the highest, with 76 percent of North American residents online, according to Jupiter's projections. That means that, while this continent remains the most connected in the world, the rate of change is going to slow at just crossing 3/4.

I think it would be good to return to this passage from one of my July 2006 posts entitled The State of High-Speed Internet and Convergence Culture. I said:

And, among us who study the media or work in the media industry, it's a common tendency to think that the tools essential to participate in the new media of convergence culture are commonly available to everyone. Sure, when I'm in Boston (where I'm visiting right now), I can pick up Internet signals at almost every corner. But, I'm staying in Kentucky this summer, and I feel like a druggie in need of a fix when I'm searching for a good Internet connection.

C3 advisor Grant McCracken, C3 analyst Ivan Askwith and I were all having a conversation while visitng New York City a few months back that wireless Internet for the nation might be available in five years, and that would really help to enable the convergence culture we talk about. But, there are plenty of places where people who have the disposable income to afford the Internet not only don't have great wireless options available but are even completely dependent on dial-up Internet service. My parents and my in-laws both have and use the Internet but cannot have high-speed at home. I'm forced to sneak outside the city building of the City of Beaver Dam, parked in the alleyway, to pick up a wireless connection, or else go into work after hours at the newspaper office where I'm working this summer.

These places aren't behind the times conceptually. There's income available. But rural areas just have not been a market that's been penetrated with high-speed service at this point. And, until the majority of the nation are wired (or wireless) and ready to go, convergence culture is going to remain primarily dependent on being pushed by old media forms and placing a priority on the types of technology that are universally accessible. Not being a proponent for elitist culture, I think we have to keep this social reality in mind when fantasizing about the current or near-future state of transmedia storytelling and online content.

Back in December, I wrote about Jupiter's projections for mobile use in 2011 as well.



Great points, Sam. Here in rural bits of western PA, just an hour north of Pittsburgh, friends of mine don't have broadband at home because they can't get it. Cable comes within a mile from their house but there's no way to get it to their building. I believe they also aren't able to get DSL. These are young, educated people who use the Internet daily at work, then barely touch it at home due to slow dialup speeds.

I'm also repeatedly reminded that many people in this area continue to use the web at a low resolution -- either they have an old computer and monitor, or they have "old eyes" and prefer low res (that is, 600 x 480 pixels) for its larger letters and pictures. Websites and applications designed to have 1000 pixels across are pretty much unusable for these folks.


A counter-argument to myself: Also here in this small town of 20,000 or so, there are several free wi-fi spots, including the local independent coffee shop, a Panera Bread location, and the McDonald's by the Clearview Mall.


Cynthia, I think your latter example will become increasingly the case, but the key is to keep in mind how slowly those wifi environments will increase. Of course, those who don't have anything but dial-up at home would be unlikely to have a computer to access the wireless Internet, unless they just like spending copious amounts of time at Panera.

But I think that the drive for high-resolution and superb aesthetics should keep in mind that utility is important for sites, too, as I've written about elsewhere, and that there are still scores of people like your friends.