describing the digital divide
September 5, 2009

The digital divide [wiki] is a term used to describe the gap between the rich and poor, in terms of information; that is, it suggests that the information-rich are separated, in some ways, from the information-poor. My question is simply, what is in the gap? From where does the divide arise, and what are the actual differences in behaviours between the information-rich and the information-poor?

The digital divide seems to be the nothingness over which one leaps, when one "goes digital". "Going digital" means, I think, consciously re-engineering your life so as to take advantage of, and depend on, your computer, and the internet, in day-to-day life.

The nothingness comes about because in doing this, you're making changes to yourself, which may be difficult to undo. For example, if you "go digital" with your music collection, and later, you want to play some music, you'll first need to power up your computer. You won't be able to take CDs to your friend's house, because you won't have any - sure, you can take a USB stick with MP3s on it, except your friend has an actual stereo which plays CDs and has never heard of USB or MP3.

Once you go digital with a certain thing, you put a lot of the old world behind you, and instead face a new set of challenges, such as obtaining secure mobile remote access to your digital self, and synchronising various copies of it.

Lots of things can go digital, however a few off the top of my head. These are best noticed when, for some reason your digital self is unavailable (hardware fault? power/battery issue? phoneline/ISP dead? on a beach?):

taskold world tooldigital world tool
listening to musictape/CD, stereomedia player software, streaming
watch a movieTV, VHS/DVD player, cinemamedia player software, streaming
send moneycheque, pen, envelope, stamp, mailboxonline banking
receive moneycheque, postman, bankonline banking
check bank balancestatement/postman, ATMonline banking
diarypen, paperword processing software
to-do listpen, paperword processing software
calendar/event trackingpen, calendarcalendar software
find a phone numberphonebookonline person search
chat with friendsphoneinstant messaging, SMS software
talk with colleaguesphone, meetingemail, VOIP, video-conferencing software
conference callphone, PABXVOIP
send a letterpaper, pen, envelope, stamp, mailboxemail software
receive a letterpostmanemail software
employmenttrain, bus, car, workplaceVPN software
shoppinghigh streetonline shopping
locate an addressstreet directoryonline mapping
locate a placeatlasonline mapping
check the timewatchmobile phone
set an alarmalarm clockmobile phone
check the datecalendarmobile phone
take a picturecameramobile phone, camera
magnify an itemmagnifying glassmobile phone
shoot a movievideo cameramobile phone, video camera
make/see a photo albumphoto albumphoto album software, online photo albums
check the newsnewspaper, TVonline news
check the weathernewspaper, TVonline weather
check stock pricesbrokeronline trading
find a reciperecipe bookonline recipes
find a factencyclopaediaonline encyclopaedia
research a topiclibraryonline search
write a reportpaper, pen, typewriterword processing software
analyse numberspaper, pen, calculatorspreadsheet software
keep a listpaper, pendatabase software
make a presentationoverheads/slides, projectorpresentation software, projector
solve a problemfriendsonline forums
letter to the editorpaper, pen, envelope, stamp, mailboxonline comments page
letter to my MPpaper, pen, envelope, stamp, mailboxonline comments page
sign a petitionpetition, penonline petition
make an applicationform, pen, envelope, stamp, mailboxonline forms
convert a unitbook/file of conversion tablesmobile phone, online converters
duplicate a pagephotocopier or faxmobile phone, scanner + email, online document
publish a bookpublisherpersonal website, online books
publish an essayscholarly journalpersonal website, online forums, online journals
get on a soapboxsoapbox, busy city streetpersonal website, blogs, online forums
release a songrecord companypersonal website, streaming websites
release a moviestudio companypersonal website, streaming websites

In general, it seems the old world has a special tool for each task, while the digital world uses just a few multi-purpose tools, these primarily being a PC, software, an internet connection, and an array of websites. Mobile phones are also used, these are really handheld PCs, and are increasingly taking functionality from desktop PCs. However desktop PCs will always have a place - you don't want to carry your entire digital self wherever you go - if you lose it, not only is that data unavailable to you, but it may become available to someone else instead. The desktop PC is the "mothership", so to speak, while the mobile PC/phone is the "lander".

The digital divide is most striking when someone who has gone digital meets someone who hardly ever turns on their PC. How do they live? With that massive list of old-world tools, is the simple answer. They rely heavily on paper, pen, a collection of books, a variety of special-purpose mechanical devices, and various public infrastructures (such as TV and the Post Office). It probably works the other way as well - when an "old worlder" walks into the residence of a new worlder, there's not much to see - no bookcases, no piles of CDs, no newspapers or photo albums, and hardly any pens! And they must wonder, how do these people live...

I guess for some, the prospect of learning all that new technology is daunting, and they prefer to ignore it, and stay in the old world. Problem: due to under-utilisation (excess capacity) caused by a drop in customers who have migrated to the new world, the quality and availability of old-world services is declining, in many ways, some with frightening speed (eg. Post Office).

What the old-worlders don't realise, is the fun that can be had, when all these tasks are concentrated onto a few devices, especially when data can be transferred between them. For example, a diatribe such as this, which might once have been written in a journal, never to see the light of day again, can now be broadcast worldwide in less than a second. This is simply impossible using old-world tools. The new powers that are created by combining and integrating these discrete old-world tasks, using new-world tools, are the real fruit of the digital world. This is distinct from doing an old job in a new, more efficient manner - this is about doing new things, and about merging those discrete old-world jobs into a single, cohesive system.

See also: Cult of less: Living out of a hard drive (BBC, 2010)