It is approaching fifty years since the publication of “A Theory of Justice” in which John Rawls advocated a principle of fair distribution of the social and economic benefits derived from community-living. Yet, the so-called “digital divide” signifies that information and communication technologies (ICT) have added a new dimension to the difficulty of bringing about genuine equality of access to the advantages of Twenty-first Century society. Van den Hoven (1995) argued more than a decade ago that data, and access to it, are a type of Rawlsian primary good. In this paper, that position is accepted: information and the technologies used to obtain it are seen as basic necessities. From that starting point empirical evidence from some contemporary research is used to explore one particular cross-section of the digital divide – along racial lines. From the evidence, certain conclusions are drawn and recommendations are offered as to how the digital divide might be narrowed.
To hold information is to hold power. Van den Hoven (1995) has argued that access to information is so important that it should be classified as a basic necessity of life, without which citizens are severely hampered in their efforts to gain fulfillment, to participate in civic life, to make rational plans for their lives and to pursue whatever their own legitimate ends may be. To Rawls the basic necessities are known as primary goods, and, as he wrote: “to give them broad categories, [they] are rights, liberties, and opportunities, and income and wealth. (A very important primary good is a sense of one’s own worth, but for simplicity I leave this aside until much later)” (Rawls, 1971, p. 79). Van den Hoven claims that government is responsible for ensuring that these primary goods are equally available to all citizens. In complying with this duty, the government “is directly responsible for [ensuring that] …a just framework for information services and provisions to citizens is designed and implemented” (Van den Hoven, 1995, p. 16).
Accepting this line of reasoning, this paper now goes on to evaluate the current situation concerning the divisions in society which render some groups of citizens fully able to harness the power of information whilst other sectors of society remain largely cut off from this essential service. Contemporary research is referenced, to provide an up-to-date picture of the way things are, and then recommendations are developed from that portrayal of the current situation.
Information is a powerful commodity. Digitized information is processed in a different fashion than traditional sources of information, such as people, books, newspapers and letters. The physical components of the computer connect individuals and databases to the Internet, but the content of Internet is not material (Katz & Rice, 2002). Katz & Rice say: “Particular forms of information that have the potential to contribute to the greater public good—such as governmental information, public education, and innovative research and development…” (Katz & Rice, 2002, p. 345)
An empirical study indicated that those who utilize information and communications technologies gained more accurate information than their peers (Mason & Hacker, 2003). This accuracy contributes significantly to the practical utility of information, particularly as is demonstrated by data in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) 2006 report, entitled A Nation Online How Americans are expanding their use of the Internet. (http://www.ntia.doc.gov.). The report indicated that:
- Over 67% of those who accessed the Internet to find information about goods and services
- 62% of users found information about news, weather, and sports via the Internet
- 16% of users access the Internet to find job-related benefits
- Users are able to obtain financial benefits via the Internet
- Users are able to research medical information
Another key aspect of the power of ICT is experienced by ICT users in communicating and building relationships. This is evident in the increased numbers of online dating services and increased number of social online communities, such as Facebook, and MySpace. “…Internet users increase their level of communications with families and friends and make new contacts via IT” (Mason & Hacker, 2003, p. 43). The networks that are created by ICTs are dynamically restructuring the sense of community. Computer network technologies are used to connect people to each other in other social spaces. “At their best networks are said to renew community by strengthening the bonds that connect us to the wider social world while simultaneously increasing our power in that world” (Kollack & Smith, 2005, p. 1).
In addition, ICTs are being considered as tools for learning and instruction in educational institutions. “Many institutions of higher education are looking to ICTs, particularly computer conferencing, as a versatile medium for the delivery of educational programs that are inexpensive, widely available, accessible at all times, and allow for greater collaborative opportunities” (Luppicini, 2002, p. 88).
Implementing ICTs is seen as one way to break down existing restrictive racial and class boundaries, which exist in American culture, as discussed in Chisholm, et. al. (2002), who explain that information technology would support an effective pluralistic society because the medium is “color-blind”. However, it is their position that there are other factors in play, which lead to a lack of access to this technology and therefore, put people at a disadvantage (Chisholm, Carey & Hernandez, 2002, p. 58). In the next section, the factor of the digital divide and its affects are discussed.
This paper is subdivided into the following sections; leading up to the conclusion that more effort must be invested in the attempt to provide all citizens with the basic necessity of digitized information and the means and skills to make use of it:
- The Digital Divide
- Government Statistical Indicators
- Approaches to ‘Fix’ the Digital Divide
- Alleviating the Digital Divide through Education
- Providing Access through Libraries and Community Centers
- Race, Culture and ICT