The termdigital divide refers to the disparity between those who have the resources and capabilities to use telecommunications technologies and those who don’t. This gap exists within nations (varying by geography, social class, age, and other social dimensions) and between nations (essentially reflecting more fundamental differences in social and economic development). Blending telecommunications with computer technology, the advent of the Internet constitutes one of the latest revolutions in how the world conducts its business, thereby making the digitaldivideevermoresalient.Evolvingfrommodest beginnings as a U.S. Defense Department project in the 1960s to a mass communications technology linking the world’s cities, the Internet/World Wide Web has quickly outgrown its original role as a special tool of governmental and educational elites. As such, this newtechnology is simultaneously hailed as the fifth neo-Schumpeterian ‘‘longwave’’ of global economic expansion (Castellacci 2006) and cursed as a new, powerful tool of exploitation created by international capitalism(Parayil 2005). This debate, between those Norris (2001) labels as Internet ‘‘optimists’’ and ‘‘pessimists,’’ animates much of the scholarly literature, but the truth about digital diffusion is probably more complicated (and less economically crucial) than many analysts suggest.
There is no doubt that the debate is driven by a real phenomenon. Although the number of Internet users has expanded exponentially from approximately 40 million in 1995 to more than a billion people in 2007, theWesternworld’s share of the total number of usersworldwide is still around 50 percent, even though theWest makes up only about 17 percent of the world’s population. On the other hand, the combined share of users fromAfrica, theMiddle East, and Latin America (about a quarter of the globe’s population) constitutes only about 13 percent of all users, suggesting a considerable disparity. Evenmore telling, as of 2007 about 70 percent of the populations of the United States and Canada used the Internet, while only 11 percent and 3 percent of Asia’s and Africa’s populations, respectively, did the same (InternetWorld Stats 2007).
For all intents and purposes, then, the Internet/ World Wide Web is still very much a creature of well-developed markets. Although optimists hope that developing countries can use the Internet to ‘‘leapfrog’’ over the industrial phase of development and move directly into postindustrialism (Steinmueller 2001), the commodification of information is sufficiently different frommaterial goods and other services to cast doubt on this proposition. Many goods and services are produced for final consumption, whereas information is typically produced as an intermediate commodity, something used to improve the efficiency of production or the distribution of goods and services, much like transportation (Mowshowitz 1992;Crenshaw andRobison 2006a). This explains why the need for information grows as social and economic complexity increases, and thus why demand for information as a commodity is contingent on large and complex markets.
Since it is clear that the Internet is firmly rooted in developed economies and is likely to remain so, it is the diffusion of Internet technology to the developing world that dominates the current scientific literature on the digital divide. Rogers (1983) defines cultural diffusion as ‘‘an innovation that is communicated through certain channels over time to a receiving society.’’ Not surprisingly, the current literature focuses almost exclusively on these ‘‘receiving societies,’’ attempting to gauge their structural conduciveness as adopters of complex information and communications technologies (ICT). The most consistent structural attributes that have been found conducive to Internet diffusion fall into a modest number of categories: (1) economic complexity, infrastructure, and income; (2) mass education and literacy; (3)public policies relating to the provisionof telecommunication services; and (4) the relationship between government and civil society, with special emphasis on political rights and property rights. In general, higher incomes, a dominant services sector, more extensive telephone and electrical infrastructure, mass education and literacy, public policies related to telecommunications competition, reasonably priced telecommunications services, participatory democracy, and protection of property rights correlate positively with more rapid adoption of the Internet.
Diffusion theory stresses contact in addition to conduciveness, however. Indeed, the major reason Internet optimists think that ‘‘leapfrogging’’ is possible is that the Internet makes the world’s most complicated economies accessible to a wide range of less-developed communities, even those that are relatively isolated. The thinking suggests that the Internet provides conduits that allowthe populations of relatively undeveloped countries to access a complex global economy. In short, the optimistic view of Internet diffusion is predicated on a fairly benign view of globalization.
Globalization typically refers to a plethora of international networks composed of intergovernmental organizations, governments, multinational corporations, and many other actors. Although limited globalization has long been a part of human history, contemporary globalization is accomplished through unprecedented technological capacities, flows of material and information, and growth in international governance. Given this dynamism, it seems plausible to assume that globalization might ‘‘jump-start’’ Internet development in otherwise unlikely locations. The question is, therefore, whether globalization can ease the constraints placed on Internet diffusion by structural requisites (i.e., conduciveness).
Given that the Internet was created in the postindustrial West, contact with the West (and/or other advanced economies) may form postindustrial ‘‘bridges’’ or ‘‘beachheads’’ in developing countries (the choice of term depends on one’s view of global capitalism). One interesting analogy is Crosby’s (1986) notion that European colonialism was far more successful where local conditions allowed the formation of ‘‘neo-Europes’’ territories where climates and disease regimes were conducive to the importation of European flora and fauna, which in turn displaced many native species and invited European settlement. The bridges (or beachheads) provided by the conduits of globalization may be creating something similar for ICT growth islands of postindustrialism amid seas of the preindustrial. Essentially, globalization creates postindustrial microcosms that generate demand for ICT where it would not otherwise exist.
The possible conduits of globalization should be familiar to students of international development. For instance, megacities (i.e., cities populated by millions of people) have proven to be important gateways for ICT diffusion (Crenshaw and Robison 2006a, 2006b). Urban areas generate extremely diverse labor and consumer markets and, as major service nodes, tend to host Internet service providers (ISPs) even in very poor nations. For instance, Nigeria is one of the world’s poorer nations, and yet its capital of Lagos (a city of approximately 11 million people) had more than 90 ISPs in 2003. Thus such megacities can provide ‘‘islands’’ of postindustrial demand independent of a nation’s other structural characteristics.
International investment and trade also provide conduits that create favorable environments for ICT development.One of themajor reasons that a digital divide exists among developing nations is that trade and foreign investment are likewise unequally distributed. For instance, in the early 21st century, sub- Saharan Africa accounts for only 2 percent of the world’s merchandising exports, and receives only about 8 percent of the foreign investment going to developing economies. If ICT diffusion tends to follow pathways blazed by trade and investment (Crenshaw and Robison 2006a), inequalities in Internet capacity and growth are probably inevitable.
While large commercial cities and international investment and trade probably play dominant roles in the spread of Internet traffic in the developing world, noncommercial/nonstate actors and flows of immigrants, some permanent and some temporary (i.e., tourists), also contribute to the diffusion of ICT. For instance, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) are carving ever-expanding niches in theworld’s cross-cultural networks. Indeed, the Union of International Associations estimates that around 70,000NGOs and INGOs existed as of the mid-1990s (UIA 2008), and regardless of the myriad purposes of such organizations, the one thing they have in common is dependence on international telecommunications to spread their messages and coordinate their activities. As past research demonstrates, in all likelihood this growing web of nonstate organizations makes a substantial contribution to Internet connectivity in otherwise unlikely places (Drori and Jang 2003; Crenshaw and Robison 2006a).
Tourism also promotes Internet use in the developing world. Tourist destinations that cater to affluent visitors create nodes of strong demand for instant and up-to-date information and real-time communications, not only for the tourists themselves but also for the global travel industry. As with other global connections, however, global tourism is also unevenly distributed. For instance, American tourists disproportionately travel to the Caribbean and Europe, whereas Africa andmany other destinations languish in relative obscurity. Western tourism has been found to promote Internet usage (Crenshaw and Robison 2006a, 2006b), and there is very little reason to expect this dynamic to equalize Internet capacity in the future.
On balance, then, what can be said is that structural conduciveness in the form of affluence, democracy, and political and property rights does invite the spread of digital technology. Moreover, other forces, particularly economic, political, and social globalization, contribute to the digital revolution, even in places where social structural conditionsmay be unsuitable (e.g., poor nondemocratic countries). None of these forces, however, easily lend themselves to policies that might ‘‘jump-start’’ the Internet revolution, nor does the current literature suggest that Internet development is crucial for economic growth in the developing world. Rather, the global digital network is an epiphenomenon ofmore fundamental economic, political, and social forces, and policies focused on Internet development are likely putting the cart before the horse. New technologies in laptop computers and wireless connectivity will ease the supply problem constraining Internet development, but solutions to the bedrock problemunderlying the digital divide the lack of demand that results from national poverty and isolation from the world economy also depend on political reform, domestic production, economic trade, and tourism.
See also information and communications technology
- Castellacci, Fulvio. 2006. ‘‘Innovation, Diffusion, and Catching Up in the Fifth LongWave.’’ Futures 38: 841 63. A discussion of how technological ‘‘waves’’ and global institutions are likely to influence the ‘‘digital divide.’’
- Crenshaw, Edward M., and Kristopher K. Robison. 2006a. ‘‘Globalization and the Digital Divide: The Roles of Structural Conduciveness and Global Con nection in Internet Diffusion.’’ Social Science Quarterly 87: 190 207. An empirical, cross national analysis of macro social factors influencing the adoption of the Internet.
- . 2006b. ‘‘Jump Starting the Internet Revolution: How Structural Conduciveness and Global Connec tions Help Diffuse the Internet.’’ Journal of the Associa tion for Information Systems 7 (1): 4 18. A cross national pooled time series of the macro social factors shaping the spread of the Internet.
- Crosby, Alfred W. 1986. Ecological Imperialism: The Bio logical Expansion of Europe, 900 1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. A detailed treatise on how biological/climatic compatibilities aided European col onization of non European areas.
- Drori, Gili S., and Yong Suk Jang. 2003. ‘‘The Global Digital Divide: A Sociological Assessment of Trends and Causes.’’ Social Science Computer Review 21: 144 61. Research demonstrating that cultural commitment to science and education may be paramount in IT diffusion.
- Internet World Stats. 2007. http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm. A website that provides a variety of macrolevel statistics for most nations of the world.
- Kiiski, Sampsa, and Matti Pohjola. 2002. ‘‘Cross Country Diffusion of the Internet.’’ Information Economics and Policy 14: 297 310. An empirical, cross national anal ysis of internal factors that shape IT development.
- Mowshowitz, Abbe. 1992. ‘‘On the Market Value of In formation Commodities, I: The Nature of Information and InformationCommodities.’’ Journal of theAmerican Society for Information Science 43: 225 32. A discussion of howandwhy the production and use of information is uniquely unlike other forms of economic activity.
- Norris, Pippa. 2001. Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, In formation Poverty, and the Internet Worldwide. Cam bridge: Cambridge University Press. A treatise on the extent of the digital divide and how it may shape the economic and social future.
- Parayil, Govindan. 2005. ‘‘The Digital Divide and In creasing Returns: Contradictions of Informational Cap italism.’’ The Information Society 21: 41 51. An article emphasizing the ‘‘down side’’ of IT diffusion.
- Robison, Kristopher K., and Edward M. Crenshaw. 2002. ‘‘Post industrial Trans Formations and Cyber Space: A Cross National Analysis of Internet Development.’’ Social Science Research 31: 334 63. An empirical, cross national analysis of intranational forces that shape IT diffusion.
- Rogers, Everett. 1983. Diffusion of Innovations. New York: Free Press. The ‘‘Bible’’ of diffusion theory.
- Steinmueller,W.Edward. 2001. ‘‘ICTs and the Possibilities for Leapfrogging by Developing Countries.’’ Interna tional Labour Review 140: 193 210. A discussion of the possibilities for less developed countries to use ICTs to ‘‘skip’’ stages of economic development.
- UIA (Union of International Associations). 2008. http:// www.uia.be. A relatively comprehensive registry of nongovernmental associations around the world.