During the mid-1990’s, personalized computers were widely popularized with the increased resources available online. Americans were quickly dialing in to the Information Age as more people began to go “on-line.” But at the same time, there was a growing realization that the Internet was not equally accessible by all.
In 1995, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) first investigated this growing divide in the report, Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the “Have Nots” in Rural and Urban America. As they found, “information ‘have nots’ are disproportionately found in this country’s rural areas and its central cities.” Survey data from the report showed that the poor, minorities, young children, elderly individuals, and those with less education were least likely to have access. In a follow-up study released three years later, the NTIA noted that new data showed an even greater “digital divide” between many of these groups.
These first efforts to understand the digital divide focused on computer ownership and usage—as technologies have rapidly advanced, so too have efforts to track adoption and use. In order to collect and organize these data, new terminology has been coined, and it too is constantly evolving. A look at the past two decades of research on the subject illustrate how the the meaning of the term has evolved. Whereas twenty years ago “multimedia computers” and CD-ROMs were tracked to better understand what devices users could access, today a whole ecosystem of networked devices—from personal computers and laptops to smartphones and tablets—are accounted for in research.
Likewise, usage is no longer simply about having access to the same “world of knowledge” stored online. Users today have access to an ever-expanding number of online applications and tools, but accessing them requires more than just a device. The availability of high-speed broadband service is critical for effectively using many of these resources. For many, the ability to find and take advantage of these resources relies upon access to the necessary social capital as well—teachers, parents, librarians, technologists, peers, and others with technical expertise.