Jan 14, 2012Science and Technology
Bridging the digital divide

The Internet and social media are often touted as great equalizers. While it’s true that innovation in the digital age provides greater plurality and access to media and information than ever before, some are left behind. To become a truly democratic and democratizing method of communication, greater access is required for those who have fallen behind.


While the Internet provides access for people with some disabilities, it leaves behind people with others. For example, those with dyslexia and other learning disabilities have trouble using the Internet. I contacted Diane Gayeski, Ph.D., the Dean of the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College about this very problem. “Dyslexics will have trouble scanning several different sources at once. This can prevent them from being part of the conversation,” she says. While some argue that textspeak has somewhat done away with the formalities of grammar, this doesn’t completely solve the problem for those with dyslexia. “People with a strong social media presence are known as thought leaders. To become a thought leader you need to be able to scan a lot of information and respond quickly and in a way that catches people’s attention.”

Sometimes touted as the “TTY of the autism spectrum,” those with autism spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s Syndrome might also have trouble using the Internet in the same way as others. “People on the spectrum sometimes don’t understand verbal social cues. They can also be extremely literal.” As Internet communication is often built around wordplay, cultural references and a specific brand of tongue-in-cheek wry humor, it can do little to help those on the spectrum overcome their limitations.

The outlook for those with disabilities is not sunny. When asked if she thinks there is a way for the disabled to overcome this, Dr. Gayeski says “I’m not sure if there is,” pointing out that “Text-to-speech readers can be very helpful when it comes to helping dyslexics process large blocks of text.” However, such technologies do little to help the with the other side of the equation -- communicating back to the digital sphere.

Race and Class

Race and class are often cited as places where people are falling behind in the digital age. However, this inequality has more far-reaching consequences than a mere inability to check Facebook 20 times a day. I spoke with Dr. Marcella Wilson, a professor of information systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She points out that the poor and many people of color primarily access the Internet via smartphones. While is is great for engaging social media, it does little help with looking for or applying for jobs. “If you don’t have Internet access you will be left out,” she says.

The difficulties begin far before employment. Doing homework, looking for the right college and finding scholarships are often far easier with Internet access. While nearly anyone can use the Internet at a library, there are still challenges. Oftentimes, library Internet usage is restricted in terms of time. Further, people often have to sign onto a list and wait their turn. This is a far cry from the 24/7, constantly plugged-in world of the more affluent.

“Society is increasingly digital and paperless,” Dr. Wilson points out, adding that, “If you don’t have access you will be left out. We’re becoming a society of digital haves and have-nots. There really is this divide where there’s a class of people who are doing manual labor and service jobs and people who are in the intellectual class or the high-networked class.”

Still, Wilson sees some promise in things like the Federal Communication Commission’s attempts to provide Internet access to low-income Americans. Indeed, as the world of education and employment increasingly move online, the case for Internet access as a fundamental human right is made stronger.

The Supreme Court

When we think of those who have been left behind in the digital age, we don’t often think of groups as elite as the Supreme Court of the United States. However, in a conversation with Mark Grabowski of Adelphi University, he spoke about this very issue and it’s attendant problems.

“Even if you have just one Supreme Court Justice who isn’t computer literate, it’s a problem because of the close margins by which cases are decided.” Grabowski points to a recent Congressional subcommittee meeting where Antonin Scalia admitted that he doesn’t even know what Twitter is. “They seem to be content being ignorant about technology in a way they wouldn’t be about patent law or something,” Grabowski says. He notes that “If they heard a case on Toyota you wouldn’t expect them to have the expertise of a mechanical engineer, but you’d expect them to have a layman’s knowledge.” He sites a century-old case where the SCOTUS decided whether a tomato was a fruit or a vegetable. While this relied heavily upon expert testimony, “No one had to ask ‘what’s a tomato?’ They would have been a laughing stock.”

Grabowski blames, in part, the life-long tenure of Supreme Court justices. “In other careers people are forced to keep up or lose their jobs. Lifetime appointments make it easy for justices to get lazy.”

Bridging the Digital Divide

Several challenges face the Internet if it is to become a truly democratic medium. As increasing parts of our lives, from job searches to public discourse, take place on the Internet, it is crucial that we, as a society, address these challenges. Otherwise, some will be left behind, to the detriment of all of society. 

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