One of the many parental lectures I give my kids has to do with defining terms.
(I often think of just giving each of my lectures a number so when the kids are doing something out of line, I can just yell, “Lecture # 59 A!”, but that’s for another post). In this lecture, I tell them communication is a two way street. And I’m not talking just since the advent of fancy, interactive social media. I’m talking since the dawn of time. Communication is two way because it requires a sender and a receiver. And since the sender can’t open his or her head to let the receiver peer in, they have to use the next best thing to get their point across: symbols. Those symbols might be cave drawings or Morse code or smoke signals – or language. The thing is, the symbols aren’t the thing – whether the thing is an idea or a cat. The symbols are a representation of the thing – and everyone can have very different ideas of what the symbols mean. Now, if everyone understood this, things would be better. But the problem is that too many people think everyone has the same idea of what symbols mean and it doesn’t occur to them to question this assumption. This is a particular problem with complex terms like “the digital divide”. If you ask 10 people what it means, you’ll probably get 10 different answers.
So who’s right?
Googling the term yields this definition first:
The Digital Divide is the gulf between those who have ready access to the internet and computers and those who don’t.
Seems simple enough – until you start asking some basic questions:
* What is “ready access”? Does that mean having a smart phone or having access to a computer at your local library?
* What kind of “computers”? Desktops or laptops? PC’s or smart phones? Are video game consoles computers?
* What is “ready access to the internet“? Is that access to private WiFi you or someone else pays for or public access? Is that high speed? Does it mean not having external barriers to access, like not being able to afford internet access or living somewhere where it’s not available, or internal barriers like lack of education?

When you start considering the complexity it becomes clear that the term “digital divide” may be too black and white. It’s more like a digital spectrum – or spectrums – with different groups,  or members, falling somewhere along them. For example, ask most North Americans which side of the digital divide Africa is on and 99% will say “the wrong side”. Yet Africa has one of the highest rates of mobile penetration in the world – and growing.
Or ask kids from the West Bank, brought up on images of the wired West, what side the US is on and they’re bound to say “the right side”. Yet kids in inner city schools struggle along with 10-year old desktops while kids in rich ones are downloading the latest iPad app.

We need to talk about digital spectrums and get more people closer to the good end of more of them. Our future on this planet depends on it.