Chapter 8: The Analog History of the ‘Digital Divide’

Dmitry Epstein

Throughout its relatively short history the concept of the ‘digital divide’ has fueled substantial research. The social citation index contains almost 500 items answering the search string “digital divide”, and Google Scholar returns over 30 thousand results to the same query. A thorough reading of the research, however, reveals that the meaning of the term has changed during the years, as it reacted to theoretical shifts, public attention to the issue, and changes in the information and communication technologies themselves. The conceptualization of the digital divide went from a dichotomist definition in terms of physical access to technology, to a series of inequalities along various social, cultural, and political dimensions, to its recharacterization in terms of digital inclusion. As a result, it is not surprising that in his review of a decade of digital divide research, van Dijk calls for more work towards “conceptual elaboration and definition.” This chapter situates the scholarly discourse about the digital divide in the context of communication theories and theories of development. It examines the debate on the digital divide as evolving in three distinctive, but interrelated, domains.

Focusing primarily on the theoretical domain, this chapter tracks its evolution in recent history. I start with a description of semi linear development of theoretical concepts addressing societal change and socioeconomic development. Particularly, it will focus on conceptualization of communication factors in these processes. The main goal of this part is presenting the “digital divide” in the context of macro question concerning the role of media and information technology in societal change. Next, I present the evolution of the concept of the “digital divide” itself. First, it is explained as a logical continuance of previous theoretical constructs. Then, following the introduction of the critique, I discuss the contemporary directions. At this point the linear, semi-chronological trajectory of concept evolution is split. In conclusion, I suggest theorizing efforts that could incorporate the classic contribution with contemporary knowledge on media, communication, and socioeconomic development.