Manuel Castells (2001, The Internet Galaxy), an early scholar on the question of Internet and a digital networked society, argues that we have moved from an industrial society to an information society. He’s gained a great importance regarding how to look at the politics of urban and global economy in a network society. Castells talks about how the internet came about and the cultures that exist online, and what impact the internet has on our society.
An important issue he raises is question of the Digital Divide. The Internet can be a great tool from a social and democratic perspective, but as the internet has such a central position in many areas of social, economic, political life in our society, what happens to those who do not have access? Those who have no or only limited access to the internet or those who do not have the ability to use it effectively. Talking about the digital divide, where the Internet reinforces existing inequalities and social exclusion, it will be a marginalization of those not having access. In a society whose dominant functions and social groups are organized more around the internet this may have devastating effects. Castells means that although Internet access does not solve the basic problem it is still a prerequisite for overcoming inequality.
The map above shows the current Internet access worldwide. Perhaps a reality check? In Sweden eight out of ten have access to the internet, and we sometimes even get panicked when it is gone for an hour and we can’t send e-mails, check wikipedia, skype or whatever we have to do. But two thirds of the world have no internet access at all! On the African continent, only 13.5% have access (statistics from 2011), compare this to North America, where 78.6% have access. Access to information flow equals power!
What happens to people without access or knowledge on how to use it, in societies where social functions such as banking, IRS, insurance, utilities, government contacts are increasingly going through the internet? What is missed on their behalf? It is a fact that certain groups will be democratically strengthened by interacting against agencies etc while others then become weaker. And poorly represented.
One would think, however, that the increasingly popular smartphones can play a big role in changing access for many, getting a telephone and Internet access in one advice. However, there is currently a debate about this in the U.S., where critics argue that the connection in mobile devices is poor, and users still can not use them for several important services.
The divide is also based on a technological divide in the world. The bandwidth is of importance as well as speed to be able to take advantage of all network services for work and personal life,
e.g. being able to take online distance courses or an area now being developed in the U.S.; online medicine which involves talking to one’s doctor via the Internet thus getting cheaper yet quality care. About 78% of Swedes have access to broadband at home but one can also see a gap in that those who live in rural areas have less access to broadband and also use the internet less. However in many countries it has mainly been a problem around the technology aspect, it is of course costly. But if key institutions such as financial institutions, the media, international business, transport as well as individuals should be able to have access to good infrastructure, governments need to modernize their systems. Castells argues that relying solely on a market takes too long and only some elements of society will gain access. But surely this is a political question and one could imagine that if the governance of a country already is questioned, do they really have a lot of interest in the citizens gaining broadband? Or maybe they will censor the content so that the access is still skewed?
Castells himself wonders what effects it may have since the Internet emerged in a social inequality of access. Within Europe as well there was a big difference between northern Europe and southern Europe. Internet is shaped in great part by its users, thus it is largely shaped by the early users even for the later arrivals, both content-wise and technically. Thus the Western world has largely shaped the Internet after its ideals, commercialism, social organization with roots in the most affluent groups.
We should of course not forget that there are those who have had the opportunity to choose for themselves to abstain. Of Sweden’s approximately 1.7 million non-users, it is estimated that about half a million dropped out or are boycotting by choice. Some feel that the technology is complicated or expensive, but also for ideological reasons some argue that the Internet infringes their freedom and takes up too much of their time. Not everyone will see themselves as marginalized!
Some scholars will argue that the main question today is not the Internet access, but the Internet illiteracy, meaning that having access is no longer the issue but not knowing how to use the Internet ”properly” is the key question. Surely this is also a key question, however we still need to answer if society should be built around the net and if everyone then should be entitled to access.