The old and new digital divide​s​

Jessamyn West

Jessamyn West is a librarian and community technologist. She writes a column for Computers in Libraries magazine and is the author of the book Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide. A born outreach librarian, she teaches a course entitled “Tools for Community Advocacy” for the University of Hawaii’s Library School. She was a research fellow at Harvard University Library Innovation Lab for 2016-2017, and serves on the Advisory Board to the Wikimedia Foundation. She works with small libraries and businesses in Central Vermont to help them use technology to solve problems. Visit her website for more.


I’ve maintained in the past that the digital divide and the gap between the tech literate and non-tech literate is shifting but not really by that much. The big deal seems to be that people are looking for things that are quantifiable but many of the issues with internet access and usage are qualitative concerns. From a library perspective it’s looked like this, to me.

Here are things you can count:

  • Early divide: People don’t have expensive computers — In the US, libraries helped this with access to technology from the Gates Foundation and some maintenance and upkeep assistance from WebJunction and others.
  • Early-mid divide: People don’t have broadband — This gap has been closed by e-rate and consortium level pricing. Nearly every public library in the US offers some form of broadband to their patrons.

  • Current divide: People don’t have real broadband — This is still an open issue but it’s being worked on. In rural Vermont where I live, I’ve seen my maximum-possible internet speed increase gradually while the amount necessary to use the internet increases by leaps. The high-speed access I have at home was broadband, but now is no longer considered broadband. More libraries offer gigabit connections.

The qualitative gaps I am seeing are more troubling in a sort of internet myth-making way:

  • People say mobile broadband is the same as “terrestrial” broadband. This is a culture thing (because people who sell you mobile want you to believe this) and more than anything this is not true for things like doing homework. We should aggressively push back against this idea while still trying to increase people’s mobile access at the same time.
  • People say a phone is a computer. Again, mobile is great but having a phone gives you a much smaller range of creative options than a computer, and people need to be clear about that. (We can’t say we’re solving digital divide issues by giving kids phones or tablets. We’re helping, but ultimately we’re just shifting the goalposts.)
  • People are afraid/stubborn/traditional. They have a level of timidity with technology (this is often older people where I live but not always) that keeps them from using technology to solve their own problems. Sometimes this is called the empowerment or inclusion divide.

This last point, to me, is the real digital divide in 2017. Many people still have to pay someone for help, but they don’t have enough money or they don’t have options because their communities don’t have this level of free tech knowledge available. They are vulnerable to people trying to sell them things. They are vulnerable to relying on “closed” communities like Facebook to do everything online. Traditional print and broadcast media only heighten this anxiety and make them feel at risk. Phishing and other scams increasingly targeted towards them amplify this issue.

If you’re going to address the knowledge/empowerment/inclusion gap, you often get into less-quantifiable areas. Which means less money to study it and/or fewer vendors willing to foot the bill since the answers are rarely going to be “Just make a new website to help these people!” and more often “ISPs need to create better tools to help people resist threats and make their systems more secure, but not at the expense of alienating people.”

I look at Gmail and some of the basic things they built in (phishing alerts, hiding all the huge cc lines in email, and login screens and help files that are very user-friendly) and then the things they didn’t (large text and/or high-contrast versions, “low-fi” versions for older users with accessibility issues), and I feel like some pushes in the right direction can get better UX layered on top of decently functioning technology, which would help a lot with the empowerment divide we’re seeing. We can’t do it all at once, but we can advocate for our users who can’t advocate for themselves to help build a better and more engaging internet for everyone.

If you’d like to hear more from Jessamyn West about libraries bridging the digital divide, register for Tech Forum on March 23, 2018 in Toronto. You can find more details about the conference here, or sign up for the mailing list to get all of the conference updates.

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