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Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice

Exploring the human condition.

The Diminishing Digital Divide

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Concerns about the digital divide have started to take on a bit of hysterical edge—think along the lines of Reverend Lovejoy's wife: "But what about the children?! she would exclaim over every single slight change that threatened her sense of idyllacy. Make no mistake, however, there is more than ample reason to be concerned about the degree of access people have to technological resources, which includes equipment, information, and education. As technology becomes increasingly integrated with different—ahem, all—areas of our lives, not being connected can definitely present certain challenges with regard to information and services. These separations have been largely been aligned with age, education, and household income, but recent data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project report the digital divide is diminishing—thanks in part to the rise of mobile technologies.

While age, education, and household income are the strongest negative predictors for Internet use, access has become less of a limiting factor for non-Internet users. In the last decade, only 6% of this group have cited a lack of access as the main reason they don't go online. (Instead, a primary reason cited by non-users for why they don't log on is a belief the Internet isn't relevant to their information or communication needs.) Access is now almost ubiquitous since almost every electronic gadget that goes to market needs to be able to connect to the Internet to some degree. From cell phones to MP3 players to game consoles to e-Readers and tablets, access to online content has moved beyond the bulky, stationary confines of a desktop computer.

Of the 88% of American adults who own a cell phone, 46% own a smart phone (Android, BlackBerry, iPhone). Smart phone adoption is high among the financially-well off, the well-educated, and adults under the age of 50, which are groups that are typically early tech-adopters. Race appears to remain an insignificant factor: Overall access and adoption rates have been consistently comparable for African-American and Latinos to the national average for all Americans. What is significant is that for a growing number of of people, cell phones and other gadgets represent their primary source of Internet access. For one-third of adults who primarily use their smart phone to go online, their device is their sole access to online resources—they do not have a high speed broadband connection.

So what are smartphone users doing with their phones?

You'll note that making an actual old fashioned phone call doesn't seem to have made the list. Instead, activities tend to lean toward the more "social" sphere. Mobile users are going online, but they're also creating new content and sharing that content from the palm of their hands.

The digital divide may be diminishing but what the Pew Internet & American Life Project has termed "mobile differences" seems an extension of a second tier of the digital divide—an issue that extends beyond access, and relates more to digital literacy. If we're being programmed to use the Internet in pre-programmed "buckets" that take the shape of the apps we download to our smartphones, what do we lose in terms of critical thinking and understanding about the potential of the 'net?

I admit it: I have a bit of Mrs. Lovejoy in me. This has long been a topic of interest, and you can find extensive thoughts on the subject at www.anthropologyinpractice.com. Enter "digital divide" in the search box—I can't embed a link with the results here unfortunately.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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