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Building bridges, closing gaps – ways of crossing the digital divide

Knowledge is power. And since the advent of the internet, its inexhaustible wealth of information has become one of the most important sources of knowledge – and power. The global population today is split by what is referred to as the digital divide into those who have access to the internet and those who are cut off from the world wide web.

Back in 1970, US scientists Phillip Tichenor, George Donohue and Clarice Olien were the first to mention a knowledge divide arising from the flow of information generated by mass media. Depending on their education and their social and economic status, people had different degrees of access to mass media and acquired knowledge in different ways.

From knowledge divide to digital divide

Because the internet and new media have now taken the place of old-fashioned mass media – newspapers, radio and television – the knowledge divide has transformed into a digital divide. It splits societies wherever people have no access to the internet for technical, social, economic or other reasons, or where they do not have the necessary skills to use computers and the internet.

The digital divide exists on many levels, with highly educated people benefiting more from digitisation than the less educated. Well-to-do population groups use new media more than poorer people, and younger people – or ‘digital natives’ – navigate their way through the digital world more intuitively than older people who, as ‘digital immigrants’, didn’t learn to use the internet and new media until adulthood. A digital divide can also be observed between people living in cities and those in rural regions.

Digital inclusion projects

In many countries over recent years, projects have been launched that are helping to narrow the digital divide and, it is hoped, ultimately close it altogether. At re:publica 2014 in Berlin, Europe's largest conference on the internet and society, many presentations and discussions dealt with the issues surrounding digital inclusion; for example, older people who have reservations about the internet. Web accessibility was another subject addressed at the conference, since the internet opens up entirely new opportunities for social participation for people with disabilities. Other initiatives, such as the British company DigiBridge, help disadvantaged people access the web and recycle old equipment.

Video: The Brazilian Center for Digital Inclusion

The digital divide between industrialised and developing countries

The digital divide is at its most extreme between industrialised countries and developing nations. In industrialised countries, even small children possess smartphones and tablets, whereas digital inclusion projects in developing countries and emerging economies are waging war on two fronts. They are working, as ever, to alleviate poverty and a lack of education; added to which they are, in many places, having to lay the technical foundations for digital training programmes.

Back in 1995, Rodrigo Baggio founded the Center for Digital Inclusion (CDI) in Rio de Janeiro. This now operates in 13 countries and runs numerous community centres where children and young people can learn how to use computers and the Internet.

At a global level, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the specialist United Nations agency for information and communications technology, is one of the key players in the drive towards digital inclusion in the UN's 193 member states. With regard to its goal – 'connecting all the world’s people, wherever they live and whatever their means ' – its Director Brahima Sanou says hopefully of its latest figures: 'The new figures show that, by the end of 2014, there will be almost 3 billion internet users, two-thirds of them coming from the developing world […]. Behind these numbers and statistics are real human stories. The stories of people whose lives have improved thanks to ICT (information and communication technology). '

Video: ITU – 'ICTs for a Better Future'

Discussion on the digital divide

How widespread is internet access where you live? Is there publicly available internet access in cafes, schools, etc? What digital inclusion projects and services are available in your area? Join the discussion in the comments below.

Author: Kristina Wydra

July 2014

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