The end justifies the definition

The manifold outlooks on the digital divide and their practical usefulness for policy-making

Telecommunications Policy


Based on the theory of the diffusion of innovations through social networks, the article discusses the main approaches researchers have taken to conceptualize the digital divide. The result is a common framework that addresses the questions of who (e.g. divide between individuals, countries, etc.), with which kinds of characteristics (e.g. income, geography, age, etc.), connects how (mere access or effective adoption), to what (e.g. phones, Internet, digital TV, etc.). Different constellations in these four variables lead to a combinatorial array of choices to define the digital divide. This vast collection of theoretically justifiable definitions is contrasted with the question of how the digital divide is defined in practice by policy makers. The cases of the United States, South Korea, and Chile are used to show that many diverse actors with dissimilar goals are involved in confronting the digital divide. Each of them takes a different outlook on the challenge. This leads to the question if this heterogeneity is harmful and if countries that count with a coherent national strategy and common outlook on digital development do better than others. It is shown that the effect of a coherent vision is secondary to tailor-made sector-specific efforts. On the contrary, a one-size-fits-all outlook on a multifaceted challenge might rather be harmful. This leads to the conclusion that it is neither theoretically feasible, nor empirically justifiable to aim for one single definition of the digital divide. The digital divide is best defined in terms of a desired impact. Since those are diverse, so are the definitions of the challenge. The best that can be done is to come up with a comprehensive theoretical framework that allows for the systematic classification of different definitions, such as the one presented in this article.