Since the internet’s creation in 1983, there has been a rapid spread of usage across the globe. In the last decade alone, the number of people with access has reached an estimated 3.5 billion. (World Bank Group 2016). In 2006, the verb ‘Google’ was added to the Oxford Dictionary, providing one example of how within Western societies such as Britain, there is a common misconception that access to the internet is universal. However, with an ever-growing population of an estimated 7.6 billion people, the figure of 3.5 billion indicates that a harrowing 60% of the globe has no access to the vast amount of information the internet can provide. This is known as the ‘digital divide’ and the impact for the isolated can be detrimental to educational success. This divide, like others existing within society, can be explained using factors such as income and social class, age and gender. As we advance further into the age of the internet, transforming the way we work, communicate and spend our leisure time in positive ways, the inequalities created and their effects on minority groups are becoming an increasing issue within our society and help to uphold the already existing forms of social exclusion.
With advances in technology allowing for the internet to be accessed on various different devices, the simple cost of being connected contributes to the digital divide. Research conducted on the relationship between household income and internet connectivity has found that there is a direct correlation. A study by the NTIA states that “households earning $75,000 and higher were far more likely — by twenty percentage points — to own a PC, than households earning less than $5,000”. (1999). The price of a computer does not just lie within the purchase of the device and with various other costs, such as the price of broadband. The creation of smartphones provides a cheaper alternative to the traditional way of accessing a computer, however, this would still come as a large cost for those on a low income. This evidence can be explained using Marx’s (1848) ideas of ownership and control of the means of production. According to the political theorist, “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production” exemplified through the high levels of internet usage by those who earn a high salary. With the Internet at their dispose compared to those of a lower social class, high earners are able to access the information necessary to maintain their higher positon in society. For example, studies on the effects of the digital divide on U.S. college applications demonstrate that the success levels of students from a low-income background, can be influenced by the lack of technology incorporated within their everyday lives and be limiting to their “choices in colleges and careers”. (Mattei.) Bourdieu, takes this idea further referring to this information as cultural capital. The Oxford Dictionary of Media and Communication defines this concept as “the education, knowledge and know-how, and connections available to any individual or group that give them a ‘head start’, confer status and can assist in the pursuit of power”. (Chandler and Munday 2011) In Western society, the valued forms of cultural capital aiding with the gain of income and wealth are unavailable online to the proletariat. As a result, the sense of false class consciousness inhibits the masses from understanding their exploitation and in turn causes further social division. However, when addressing the digital age through the theory of Marxism, there are positive effects for the oppressed provided through use of the internet. Many critics discuss that “novel forms of alienation” are created through technology and ignore how technology can be used as a tool to revolutionize. For example, through access to social media sites such as Twitter, interactions between like-minded individuals who share similar life experiences are enabled. Social media can act as a place for those who were once marginalized to have a voice demonstrating that the rise of technology “may or may not be empowering or alienating depending on its nature, effects, and contexts.” (Kellner 2006)
Although alienation is mainly used in reference to class based issues, it can be argued that it the concept is a consequence of the “socio-digital divide” based on age additionally. A study on the “high wired” society of Singapore, found that there was evidence of social exclusion within the family unit due to older members being unfamiliar with new forms of technology. (Sun Lim and Ling Tan 2003) Similarly, it has been found that “while 57 per cent of all households across the European Union (EU) have an internet connection, only 17 per cent of one-person households aged over 60 are connected” (Berry 2011). It is already common knowledge that technology and the internet are incorporated into many aspects of the younger generation’s lives. For example, within the UK, computing studies are introduced to children from the age of 5 as part of the National Curriculum. Through ICT and the use of technology to teach more traditional subjects, children are provided with the skills deemed essential in our changing world. For the older generation who are less exposed to technology, this poses a variety of problems. Firstly, by lacking information on how to use the internet, the older generation are excluded from the chances for communication that technology gives access to. Email services and social media sites such as Facebook, provide places for new friends be obtained and for already existing relationships to be upheld. A study on the impact on of ICT on the family from the perspective of the older generation found that ICT was able to “support and increase social interactions within the family” and lead to an increase in engagement levels for those who had fewer in their social space. (Lindsay et al. 2010) However, due to the significantly low number of older people accessing the internet, the positive effect of reduced social isolation is not widespread and can be linked with late life depression. The blend of factors such as disabilities and a person’s decline in health, alongside social isolation, can be used as one of the explanations for the of high suicide rates among older people. In regard to this, there is various evidence indicating that the internet can aid and help those suffering, for example, usage was found to reduce the chances of an older person entering a depressed state by about 33%, (Cotton et al. 2014), With statistics such as these brought to light, it is made evident how important it is to bridge the age gap caused by the digital divide and potentially save the lives of vulnerable people within our society.
The divide that new technology has created based on class and age are unarguably detrimental to marginalized groups within society. However, it can also be disputed that the most pernicious aspect of the global digital divide is based on gender. With the class and age statistics improving on a yearly basis due to technology becoming more affordable and easier to use, there is evidence to support the idea that the digital divide based on gender is increasing. In specific, the ICT Facts and Figures data produced by the ITU states that “The global Internet user gender gap grew from 11% in 2013 to 12% in 2016.” with women in the least developed countries of the world being the most affected. (2016) These statistics can be explained by some by claiming that “women are rather technophobic and that men are much better users of digital tools” (Hilbert 2011) linking to the concept of gender socialization. Through socialization, where an individual learns the norms and values of the culture in which they live, girls are restricted from perusing interests which stray away from the biologically determined role of a housewife and mother. Whereas boys may be encouraged to participate in computer related activities such as camps and the playing of computer games, girls will be excluded from these. (Wajacman, 1991) Within society, roles and interests linked to fields such as technology and engineering are seen as masculine and therefore not for women. As a result of this, women are only seen in “25% of all computing occupations. And the numbers are even lower when considering women of color; for example, Latinas and Black women hold only 1% and 3% of these jobs, respectively.” (Ashcraft et al 2016) Limiting the access women have the Internet is not the only way the digital divide is maintained. The actual content that exists on the Internet defers women from connecting with the online world. Gorski, states that many of the “gender equities in society and other media are replicated online.” (2001) This means that, the pressures and dangers that are presented to women in a patriarchal society are also presented to women online and lead to the decision of not using the Internet. For example, through the online porn industry and online advertising, women are subject to further objectification and are subject to unrealistic comparisons which can have serious effects on body image. Whether it be the lack in knowledge on how to use the technology, or through the dangers that the Internet puts women at risk of, either can be argued to maintain the position of women within patriarchy. This however, can be criticized due to the Internet being seen as the starting point for the 4th Wave of feminism. Through social media, communication is enabled between women who have shared similar experiences within patriarchy. For example, the creation of accounts such as ‘@EverydaySexism’ provide a place for women to talk about the misogyny and the sexist situations they have been involved in. The ideas of Keller are made relevant here (2011) who sees blogs as are an important online space for women to create their own political identity. By doing so, the internet allows marginalized groups to challenge their oppressors “using styles of communication that will appeal to their peers”
In conclusion, it has been made evident that the Internet holds endless opportunities for new skills to be obtained and provides new ways for human interaction. What cannot be ignored is how marginalized groups within society such as the elderly, women and the working class can be negatively affected by the digital divide that differing access levels cause. More emphasis should be placed on bridging the digital divide across the world, making the basic digital skills and the ability to connect to the internet universal. Within the UK, the culture secretary has launched a “Digital Strategy” with “Skills, infrastructure and innovation at the heart of new strategy to support Britain’s world-leading digital economy” (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport 2017) Although, improvements such as these should be valued in the Western world, a further push is needed for developing countries where the divide is more detrimental. The promotion of organizations already attempting to doing so should have greater publicity and government intervention around the globe is necessary to ensure nobody is left behind in the rapidly adapting era of technology that we live in.
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