Below I present to you the salad divide. On one side of the divide are those who have and eat salads; on the other, those who don’t.
“The salad divide?”, you ask incredulously. “Who cares about the salad divide? This is silly.” I agree. The salad divide is pretty silly. Still, there’s an important set of discrepancies between groups that’s marginally related to the consumption of salads: eating habits and health outcomes are generally correlated with socioeconomic status. For example, studies have found that “low SES individuals generally have diets higher in meat and processed foods with a low intake of fruits and vegetables” and at least among women, obesity is inversely proportional to both income and education. That socioeconomic status can be a harsh dividing line in health is indubitably an important concern; in the face of this important issue, just as indubitably is the narrow focus on the gap of the salad consumption.
In the same way that the salad divide misses the big, important issue of which it is a small, pertaining part, I feel that talks on the digital divide sometimes miss the point as well. The digital divide started out its life as reference to the fact that some individuals/households/neighborhoods/regions have much better access to technology in the form of better internet access/broadband speed/computer in the home/whatever else than others. From there, it has sprung into the policy realm and engendered such questions like “is the Internet a human right?”.
The discussion has also moved on from just the “stuff” that enables Internet access to the intangible (but real) skills needed to “understand and interact fully with the technology”. Although this new gap is still covered under the umbrella term of the “digital divide”, we see clearly here that the important issues touch on the double d’s only in an incidental, accidental sort of way. The problem is something much more fundamental. The problem is that some people have better opportunities in life than others. These people tend to be better educated, earn higher incomes, and use those high incomes to effect and perpetuate even higher incomes — for instance, by investing in more education for themselves and their children, and yes, by buying high-speed Internet access and wielding their acquired knowledge to take full advantage of what they’ve purchased.
Because the digital divide is the term we currently use to examine old, long-existing problems, examples that people give to illustrate the manifestations of the digital divide often actually point to matters that long precede anything digital. For example, this paper argues that because resource-rich university libraries buy expensive materials that they then make accessible only to their affiliates, “[t]he result is that the divisions between those who went to the top universities and the rest will widen significantly”. Insofar as this is a true, however, it is a problem that has its roots in the institutionalization of higher education and research and not something born of a recent phenomenon like electronic materials. After all, research universities have bought materials for their users for a long time, and those materials have always been expensive and out of reach of individual, unaffiliated users. Put differently, people try to attend big, resource-rich universities for a reason. One can talk about addressing this problem by expanding higher education or further subsidizing the raw materials for research, but focusing on “the digital divide” as if this is an entirely new problem, specific to our technologically advanced age is silly.
Finally, I would also mention that the reason university libraries make some of their materials available to only certain groups of people (faculty, staff, students . . . etc) is not because they wish to be exclusionary for exclusivity’s sake. Rather, libraries may restrict users’ access to protect themselves against claims of copyright infringement. The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries produced by the Association of Research Libraries, for instance, advises libraries wishing to be most certain of acting within the scope of the Fair use Principle to make sure that “[o]nly eligible students and other qualified persons (e.g., professors’ graduate assistants) should have access to materials [that supports the teaching of a course]” and that “[o]ff-premises access to preservation copies circulated as substitutes for original copies should be limited to authenticated members of a library’s patron community”. In brief, it’s not the case that libraries exclude users through either oversight or pure budgetary reasons (although the latter certainly plays a role); rather, they may be erecting a divide to avoid getting sued.