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The new digital divide

Thomas Russell Jan 31, 2018 15:15 PM
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In the early 1990s, at the height of the digital explosion, the term “digital divide” simply meant the social gap between those that had computers and internet access, and those that did not. The divide mostly mirrored the divisions between the upper and middle class and the opposite end of the economic spectrum, the poor. Today, the digital divide still exists, but it’s become more than the haves and the have nots.

Today’s divide is much more complicated. Internet access is available to all citizens for the most part — public libraries, schools, etc. — a huge improvement over the last few years. But given more equal access, it’s much more difficult to understand dividing factors in the modern digital world. We do know, though, that a divide is still there, across some of the same racial and socioeconomic lines, but others as well, and we konw there is still a lot of work to be done about it. One of the main divides is divide is between mobile and desktop users.

Today, with mobile internet access all but ubiquitous, who uses mobile devices, why and how often is another study in and of itself, and adds more layers to the scope today’s divide. Black and Hispanic users generally access the Internet using smartphones and other mobile devices (tablets), while white users are more likely to use a laptop or desktop computer. According to the Pew Research Center, 15 percent of blacks and 22 percent of latinos use their cell phones exclusively, meaning they don’t have broadband connections at home.

There’s no evidence to suggest the uptick in the use of smartphones closed the digital divide. One could actually argue the new technology introduced more divisions. The societal implications of the smartphone and desktop divide can be seen in the the fewer number minorities majoring in computer sciences compared to their white counterparts, and the low number of Silicon Valley companies that recruit minorities from those schools.

In general, there are two types of internet “users”: innovators and consumers. Innovators are those creating applications, writing code, and digital/tech leaders. Everyone else is a consumer; those who use the applications and services created by the innovators. While some users may be formulating beautiful algorithms or otherwise innovating on their mobile devices, the creative heavy lifting in the digital world is done on desktop and laptop computers. In other words, smartphone/mobile users — blacks and latinos — are not contributing as much new and innovative technology as their white, desktop/laptop computer user counterparts.

From my own professional experience, I see the difference between exclusive cellphone use and a balanced use of computers and cellphones. Exclusive mobile use (especially between ages four- and 10-years-old) creates a disparity of creative digital skills over time, and, even if they're interested in pursuing computer sciences, find themselves years behind the curve. Conversely, by the end of high school, those use to working on a computer have a more valuable industry skill-set, and a greater interest in pursuing, and better likelihood of succeeding in, computer sciences in college.

This may seem like a stretch — the Internet is the Internet, right? So why such a dramatic difference in computer versus mobile?

Take an inventory of the installed applications on your own mobile device. You’ll see communications applications such as Messenger, WhatsApp and probably various email applications. You probably have a ton of social media apps like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, and multimedia applications like YouTube, movie and photo programs. (And lest we forget the myriad of games designed simply to occupy the attention of users.) All of these mobile applications are convenient, fun, and more than a little addictive. But, by all accounts none of these apps create a space to inspire creativity and innovation.

There are, of course, tons of creative applications for mobile devices, but they're still pedestrian compared to the powerful and complex applications on desktop computers like large development apps, virtual machines, or network configuration software Visual Studio. Mobile applications are known for consuming content; computers for designing content. In other words, computers are specifically suited for innovation, mobile devices are not.

Today's digital divide is not just about access, it’s about how we get access and what we do with it, and we're now seeing the ramifications. Bridging today's divide means introducing would-be consumers to creative applications at an early age, in spaces they're familiar with. Since minority users are heavily linked to smartphones, promoting more creative space there is a good place to start.

Mobile creative spaces, earlier introduction to laptops and desktop computers in school, and challenging students with innovative internet applications will only increase the number of minorities majoring in computer science, and ultimately lead to more of them getting hired by technology companies — further "bridging the gap."


Thomas Russell is a high school information technology teacher and retired Army Signal Corps soldier. He is the founder of SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring in Technology) and an Advisory Board Member of Educating Children of Color. His hobbies include writing, photography and hiking. Contact Thomas via Russell’s Room on Facebook, or email at thruss09@gmail.com, and his photography at thomasholtrussell.zenfolio.com.