The “digital divide” isn’t showing any signs of going away – more than 8 million adults in the UK aren’t online. I’m no statistician, but it appears there is a link between earnings and internet use: “Of those adults in employment whose gross weekly pay was less than £200 per week, 8.1 per cent had not used the Internet. The proportion of Internet non-users declines with each successively higher weekly pay band up to those paid £800 to £899 where there were no Internet non-users.”
I’ve been thinking about the digital divide in my professional life for many years, as I’ve worked with international NGOs exploring how technology can be used for political activism. But one of the many joys of PhD study is the opportunity to ‘go up a level’: to critically examine the assumptions underlying my professional life.
One of these assumptions is that there is a link between new media and democracy – that people want to participate in civil society, and that research on digital engagement doesn’t need to probe this issue.
In the academic context, Nick Couldry suggests that debates on the digital divide have been ‘fudged’. In an article written in 2002, but still deeply relevant today, he argues that we need to design research which doesn’t take it for granted that people are able to “name their own powerlessness”. Quoting a 76 year old respondent who “doesn’t want to be a full and active member of this stinking society”, he asks of researchers that we “avoid building in the researcher’s assumptions about what forms of wider connection are rational or desirable”.
Couldry, N. 2002. The forgotten digital divide: researching social exclusion/inclusion in the age of personalised media. Media in Transition: Globalisation and Convergence. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.