“Digital Divide”: outline of a concept

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Translation by AB – March 4, 2022

Note. This text was written from a French perspective. In particular, the sociological references are French. It is likely, however, that everyone in their own cultural context will find an echo in this short essay.

A so-called “digital divide” has accompanied the rise of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) since the mid-1990s. This fluctuating concept has known, according to us, different times corresponding to the great phases of the digitalization of our societies: the rise of the Internet (1995-1999), the decade of the computer (2000-2009), the decade of the smartphone (2010-2019) and finally the crisis of the coronavirus (2020-2021) during which the digital “nail” was definitively driven in. But today, at the dawn of the algorithmic era, the concept of the “digital divide” may already have lived.

Political time: birth (1995–1999)

“Two years ago, President Clinton and I challenged America to connect every classroom — inner-city, rural, suburban — to the Information Superhighway by the year 2000. […] We challenged the nation to make sure that our children will never be separated by a digital divide”1
Vice-President Al Gore, October 10, 1996

“If we really believed that we all belong in the Information Age, then, at this sunlit moment of prosperity, we can’t leave anyone behind in the dark”2
President Bill Clinton, June 5, 1998

In the United States in the 1930s, nearly 90 percent of the urban population had access to electricity compared to only 10 percent in rural areas3, but no one ever used the term “electrical divide”. The word “divide” itself only appeared in the 1980s and 1990s, when it gradually became part of political rhetoric. In France, we remember that the “social divide” was one of the main themes of Jacques Chirac’s campaign in 1995, as if he were discerning a new phenomenon or one of unprecedented scope.

But social groups have always been crossed by differences, even split by divisions. So, what did the appearance of the word “divide” in the discourse echo? The intuition carried by the first meaning of the word – a bone lesion [ “fracture in French” ] – directs us towards the hypothesis of the rapid weakening of a body politic that would no longer determine economic and social phenomena but would undergo them with us (in the West at least) and that would consequently be on our side to heal our wounds caused by a modernizing environment.

In this case, our second hypothesis is that this divide seems to echo the “technological universalism” that has been spreading since the 19th century as a positive global doxa, regardless of political systems. The divide thus accompanies this doxa as a pilot concept, indicating, in a rather confusing Manicheism, what must always be done: to reduce this divide that separates the “winners” – that we could call the “techno-rich” – from the “losers” – the “techno-poor”. The usual word “inequality” is not so well suited because it refers to relationships of domination that politics must account for rather than to social divisions caused by an exogenous and suffered phenomenon. The word “divide” [ “fracture” ] would thus betray this admission of modern weakness: the diffusion of technology, in particular digital technology, escapes any control.

The scenario is always the same: a major technological innovation spreads rapidly by means of capitalist processes (or even ultracapitalist processes in the case of digital technology, see Elon Musk, vassal spécial (in French)) and its wave front progressively erases the “techno-poor”, leaving more and more “techno-rich” behind. The “electrical wave front” of the 1930s will thus take 25 years to cover the entire American population (note, however, that 10% of the world’s population still does not have access to electricity in 2022 and constitutes a residual pocket of electro-poor people ignored by the political arena4).

The years 1995-2000 were those of the “consent” of politicians to the implacable progression of this new digital front, a consent that was echoed by the digital divide in their speeches. They thus appointed themselves as healers of our digital concussions, without debates or programs. But did they have any other choice? Hasn’t it always been like this since the 19th century, when faced with the power of techno-capitalism?

Sociological time: criticism (2000–2009)

Only one thing is clear: the digital divide now seems an obligatory dimension of the rhetoric of institutions which, as Colby points out, have a strong propensity to choose the solution in order to determine the eventual problem.5

The “digital divide” thus accompanies an axiology of digital technology – digital is “good” – but struggles to describe the reality of a society that is adjusting to it as best it can. There are obviously genuine inequalities in relation to the digital world, but neither these inequalities nor these relationships lend themselves to a simple analysis because they evolve according to an unpredictable flow of innovations (Let us note in passing that the “life cycle” of these innovations obeys an immutable protocol: the technologist “innovates”, the economist-financier “disrupts”, the politician repairs the “divides”, the sociologist analyzes the “inequalities” and finally the NGOs and other foundations take care of the “residue”, the techno-poor who are ignored by the powers that be, whether political or intellectual).

Under this flow of innovations, the concept of digital divide itself ends up… dividing into sub-concepts: “geographic divide”, “generational divide”, “first-level divide” (access to digital), “second-level divide” (use of digital), “third-level divide” (proper use of digital), “gender divide”, “disability divide” … So many sub-concepts that never grasp anything of the phenomena they seem to describe, but still and always assign our leaders to policies of care and solutions rather than futures (besides, if the digital has become so decisive that it “divides” society, how come it is never a subject of confrontation between political projects, all sides considered?).

Fortunately, in the years 2000-2010, sociologists began to have social facts about the impacts of digital technology, and thus to be able to structure a critique of the political discourse of the divide. We will only give you a small French overview, which is quite interesting because it is not without a certain exasperation. Thus the sociologist Fabien Granjon, analyzing in 2009 the “popular uses of connected computing”, begins by reminding us that6:

The theme of the “digital divide” is still too often presented as the obvious expression of this ideology, which makes the use of ICTs the guarantee of a positive social change benefiting as many people as possible. From a critical perspective, we wish to deconstruct this normative framing by recalling that the phenomena of the “digital divide” are first of all the consequence of social inequalities.

Granjon thus reintroduces a simple critical possibility by recalling the usual course of things: there are first of all social inequalities – i.e., relations of domination of some by others – prior to any phenomenon of fracturing by technological wavefronts. Granjon then develops an argument that is still valid today. The moral background is, he says, quite close to that of “equal opportunities”. In the information society, everyone must have a computer and Internet access in order to compete. However, as sociologists are well aware, equality of opportunity alone does not remedy inequalities but, on the contrary, often confirms them. Indeed, having a computer and an Internet connection only gives a possibility in principle, but that the existing inequalities repress de facto. Granjon relies on a survey carried out in working-class environments, which highlights, for example, the devaluing positions resulting from the possession of a computer that one does not know what to do with at the time:

Not to find a precise use for a technology of which we “know” that many people develop uses from which they seem to be able to benefit, is to experience a radical dissimilarity with those “who have”, “who know” and “who benefit”, here as in other fields.

“Equality of opportunity” highlights the inequalities already experienced. The arrival of the smartphone and ready-to-use applications will apparently improve actual equality of access to ICTs, but will only displace this essential problem which Fabien Granjon summarizes as follows:

We are in the presence of an integrative process aiming at letting believe that the users of the connected computer would have a real chance to improve their living conditions because of their new practices, whereas they are especially likely to contribute, in a new way, to the continuation of the world as it is going and which is the cause of their unfavorable social situation.

The “digital divide” thus remains an unidentified concept for sociology, and even qualified in 2011 as a “myth” by the French philosopher Éric Guichard in a virulent critique that deserves a rereading7. At the time, he accused the French official statisticians of practicing a “naïve sociology” and even of expressing a “non-sociological” discourse, i.e., “free of the analysis of relations of domination between groups or classes that characterizes the discipline”.

Here is how the sociology of the years 2000-2010 became suspicious of the institutional rhetoric of the digital divide, suspected of escorting the progression of a “Technological System” (Jacques Ellul and the Technological System) without resolving the inequalities that this progression only underlines, if not reinforces.

Technological time: eclipse (2010–2019)

“Forget what you may have heard about a digital divide or worries that the world is splintering into “info haves” and “info have-nots”. The fact is, technology fosters equality, and it’s often the relatively cheap and mundane devices that do the most good”8
Bill Clinton, October 1st, 2012

“Today, high-speed broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity”9
President Barack Obama, January 14, 2015

The decade 2010-2019 is characterized by a relative absence of the “digital divide” in political discourse. On the one hand, concerns were focused on economy – digesting the financial crisis of 2008 – and towards ecology – digesting the theses of global warming against the backdrop of increasing disasters. But above all, on the technological front, the fast and simultaneous expansion of smartphones, broadband and social networks seemed to naturally erase the “inequalities” of access to ICTs without the need for political intervention. Let’s add that here in Europe, digital policy has been delegated to community institutions that, while they have done a good job, keep the subject well away from national concerns. Finally, in France, some public policies have been put in place to accompany and fight against this other “disease”: “digital illiteracy”. This new pilot concept of technological universalism designates, on the model of “illiteracy”, the public and political bodies that will treat the disease: educational systems, major national and international agencies, etc.

In short, this humming decade keeps the digital divide at bay behind a set of agreed-upon programs (digital schooling, fiber in the countryside, all kinds of aid to the “illiterate”, startups and unicorns…), obscuring any authentically political discourse on the subject of much more worrying relationships of domination: domination of the private sector, especially in terms of infrastructure (GAFAM, ISPs…), unprecedented concentration of wealth in a few hands (digital billionaires, influencers…), domination of the “watched” by the “watchers” (authoritarian powers, data handed over to the private sector…), etc. So much so that public policies aimed at reducing the “digital divide” and “digital illiteracy” only consolidate these power relations and preserves, as the sociologist Fabien Granjon said, “the world as it is”.

Just one figure: today in France, 50% of Internet traffic comes from only four content providers, all American. In descending order: Netflix, Google, Facebook and Akamai (a company that specializes in caching servers for businesses and counts Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, Logitech, and Facebook/Meta among its main clients10). Amazon comes in 5th position. Broadband for all, which, of course, allows us to properly meet the new necessities of daily life, benefits above all the hegemony of these players at no cost to them. “Winner takes all” as the brutal “GAFA game” (in French) has shown us, and if there is a divide, we should rather look in this area.

Epidemic time: comeback (2020–2022)

The pandemic served as a wake-up call about the severity of the digital divide, and it may provide the momentum needed to address the problem with a robust and comprehensive solution. President Joe Biden says he has one. But is it good enough?11

“Yes, France will take the turn of 5G”. In front of digital companies on Monday, September 14, the President ironically referred to those who would prefer “the Amish model” and the “return to the oil lamp”.12

The epidemic crisis has both amplified and revealed this dependence on ICTs, which was set up without a hitch during the previous decade. For example, the domination of the private sector has become structural: Alphabet (Google), Apple, Meta (Facebook), Amazon and Microsoft have seen their already considerable turnover increase by 32%, 11%, 20%, 9% and 20% respectively in 202113.

This crisis has at the same time triggered the return of the divide and of its political and institutional caretakers because we “discover” that 20% of French people still have difficulties with the digital tools and services that have become, in the space of a decade, indispensable in daily life: jobs, education, administrative procedures, shopping, leisure, social life… The political world now evaluates the digital divide almost exclusively in terms of access to the broadband that allows many people to merely live. A recent report by the US Congress gives this new definition14:

The term “digital divide” is used to describe the gap between those who have adequate broadband internet access and those who do not.

However, a footnote states that:

The term “digital divide” can also refer to international disparities in access to communications and information technology. This report focuses on domestic issues only.

The concept of “digital divide” is thus a suit that is tailored (and often adjusted by the lobbyist) according to the innovations, adoption and penetration problems encountered by this “disruptive” economic and financial sector. In this case, in 2022, the main issue is to allow access to all and any connected objects to the great digital power centers that are the clouds. Throughput determines the “diameter” of the pipe that connects each of us to these algorithmic farms. We thus measure, in bits per second, not our digital well-being but the cursor of our dependence on algorithms.

Algorithmic time: resolution (2022-…)?

We can no longer take a step without being traced. There is a kind of Parliament of machines that decides behind our back. We are governed by algorithms. But we never decide on their criteria! We don’t discuss the program, nor the arbitrations they will make for us. They are black boxes. It makes us dependent. The system manages us.15
Alain Damasio – 2019 – Les Furtifs

This ultimate simplification of the digital divide, reduced to the broadband wavefront, is perhaps a sign that the digital revolution is on the way to a certain completion. It took about 25 years, as with the so-called “electrical divide”. Of course, there is still some way to go and an irreducible fringe of info-poor and illiterate who will be taken care of by public and private charity.

What is ending here is the beginning of the century of the algorithm (if the earth’s resources allow it). Algorithms are becoming more and more “powerful”, consuming resources and can no longer be designed or executed freely on our computers, smartphones… or even on computer networks of our companies and communities. Clouds have thus become the only possible locations for cognitive power (Hubert L. Dreyfus, Martin Heidegger and the Others). If there is a divide, it is between those who have this distributed algorithmic power, the algo-rich such as Amazon, Meta, Tesla, etc. and their engineers, and the algo-poor whose digital well-being is measured in bits/second, i.e., in terms of the intensity of their link with these algo-rich.

Of course, new cracks are already looming in the distance and thus the predictable interventions of our political healers: 5G, NFT, cryptocurrencies, metavers (Welcome in the Metaverse) … But for the most part, the digital project is already achieved and technological universalism completed. Paradoxically, it is perhaps in this moment of clarity that the collective and citizen awareness of the genuine inequalities related to the digital world can take shape politically to invent a fairer Mundus Numericus.

Has the “digital divide” finally come to an end?

1. Al Gore and Bill Clinton / White House – Octobre 10, 1996 – Excerpts from transcribed remarks by the President and the Vice President to the people of Knoxville on internet for schools
2. Bill Clinton / Tech Law Journal – June 5, 1998 – Remarks by the President at Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1998 Commencement
3. Carl Kitchens / Vox EU – January 29, 2014 – US electrification in the 1930s
4. The World Bank – Access to electricity
5. (in French) Alain Rallet, Fabrice Rochelandet / Réseaux 2004/5-6 (n° 127-128), pages 19-54 – 2004 – La fracture numérique : une faille sans fondement ? – “Une seule chose est claire : la fracture numérique semble aujourd’hui une dimension obligée de la rhétorique des institutions qui, comme Colby le souligne, ont une forte propension à choisir la solution afin de déterminer le problème éventuel”.
6. (in French) Fabien Granjon / Lavoisier – 2009 – Inégalités numériques et reconnaissance sociale – “Le thème de la « fracture numérique » se présente encore trop souvent comme l’évidente déclinaison de cette idéologie qui fait des usages des TIC le garant d’un changement social positif bénéficiant au plus grand nombre. Dans une perspective critique, nous souhaitons déconstruire ce cadrage normatif en rappelant que les phénomènes de « fracture numérique » sont d’abord la conséquence d’inégalités sociales”.
7. (in French) Éric Guichard / in « Regards croisés sur l’internet », Presses de l’ENSSIB – 2011 – Le mythe de la fracture numérique
8. Bill Clinton / Time Magazine – October 1st, 2012 – The Case for Optimism
9. Barack Obama / White House – January 14, 2015 – Remarks by the President on Promoting Community Broadband/em>
10. (in French) GNT – July 7, 2021 – Le trafic vers les FAI a augmenté de 50 % en un an
11. Aaron Mak / Slate – April 22, 2021 – It Will Take a Lot More Than Money to Fix the Digital Divide
12. (in French) France Info – September 15, 2020 – “La France va prendre le tournant de la 5G”, répond Macron aux maires de Grenoble et Lyon qui demandent un moratoire
13. (in French) Patrick Barriere / Blog Calipia – FIN DE LA PLUIE DES RÉSULTATS Q4 2021 POUR LES GAFAMS
14. Congressional Research Service – March 9, 2021 – The Digital Divide: What Is It, Where Is It, and Federal Assistance Programs
15. On ne peut plus faire un pas sans être tracé. Il y a comme un Parlement des machines qui décide dans notre dos. Nous sommes gouvernés par des algorithmes. Mais on ne décide jamais de leurs critères ! On ne discute pas du programme, ni des arbitrages qu’ils vont faire pour nous. Ce sont des boites noires. Ça nous rend dépendants. Le système nous gère.

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