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Cognitive aspect of digital divide often neglected

ZHANG SHUAI | 2018-05-31 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


China’s rural residents have limited internet access, resulting in a digital gap between urban and rural areas that is closely associated with poverty, income inequality and urban-rural divide. (669PIC)


The 19th National Congress report pointed out that the principal contradiction facing Chinese society is between unbalanced, inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing demand for a better life. These imbalances are manifested in all aspects of life, including the widening digital gap in the cyberspace.

As information technology advances, the internet is becoming an increasingly vital part of daily life. But in addition to convenience, it also brings social problems.

By the end of 2017, the number of Chinese internet users had reached 772 million, with the internet penetration rate of 55.8 percent, according to a report released by the China Internet Network Information Center in March. However, if we look at this the other way around, 44.2 percent of China’s population is still not wired. From a geographic perspective, only 27 percent of China’s rural residents have internet access while the proportion is 73 percent in cities.

It is clear that the gap between urban and rural areas is quite apparent. In addition, the report found that internet users vary in terms of gender, age, education, occupation and income, as well as usage of online shopping, car-hailing services, social media and information search. These are the real-life examples of the digital divide.


Various definitions
The term “digital divide” was first put forward in a report titled “Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide” published by the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration. It is defined as the divide between those with access to new technologies and those without.

The International Telecommunication Union defines digital gap as the inequality between rich and poor countries, between urban and rural areas and between the older and younger generation with regard to their opportunities to access information and communication technologies due to poverty, illiteracy and lack of modern technology in education facilities.

In the Chinese dictionary, the term refers to the difference between the mastery, ownership, control and use of information. In fact, there are many definitions for the term, but these are somewhat more representative.

As we can see, the concept of “digital divide” has different connotations and denotation. Different organizations have varied understanding of the phenomenon, so different definitions and explanations are made, which spills different measurement tools and parameters chosen in the research.

At the moment, the two commonly adopted parameters used to measure the digital divide can be roughly summarized: internet access and the capacity to use the internet, including the technological components of information acquisition and communication. However, there is another aspect that is often neglected by the existing research: the understanding and attitude of internet users. The differences of opinions and attitudes toward certain social phenomena are also part of the digital gap.


Three dimensions
When using the internet to analyze people’s opinions and attitudes toward certain phenomena on the web, research must go through a progressive process. 

To start with, significant and troubling digital gaps and vast discrepancies in access to the internet exist at various geographical scales, which coincide with the earliest definition of the concept as the divide separating “information haves” and “information have-nots.” Given this, several studies were conducted to measure the gap between those who have access to and can effectively use information technologies and those who cannot.

Generally speaking, data on the level of access to smartphones, computers, the internet and mobile internet is accessible because it often falls under the purview of objective measurement, making analysis convenient. However, this is the lowest level of the digital divide measurement, which determines its limitations in carrying out in-depth investigation.

Some scholars argue that digital divide is indeed an issue of information differentiation, whereas others consider it a spatial partition in the cyberspace, mainly manifested as the restriction of information communication.

In this regard, the measurement of digital divide centers on identifying internet users’ sophistication in the use of information. This has put forth further requirement on the technological tool in measurement, making research in this area more difficult to accomplish.

The third dimension of the digital divide can be measured through a survey of the cognition and attitude of internet users, including individuals and groups. Compared to traditional cognition, the cognition formed in the virtual space has peculiar characteristics. First, the cognition of different subjects on the same online topic is different, and internet users may have different perceptions and attitudes in cyberspace that may differ from their reaction to information from alternative channels. Second, cognition formed on the internet is quite dynamic, marking the biggest difference between internet and traditional cognition. In addition, the common cognition of internet users will easily translate into a group identity, which is often the starting point of the online community.

In recent years, with the rapid development of information technology, online community also skyrockets and takes on increasingly diverse forms, such as QQ group, WeChat group, live streaming and all kinds of online BBS platforms. On the micro level, this is the group identity of small social communities. On the macro level, though, internet users show their identification with certain cultures or lifestyles. Behind the scene, this is also a form of digital divide.

Therefore, the measurement and investigation of cognition should not be neglected in the measurement of digital divide. This is the highest level of measurement of digital divide, which has certain complexity and instability. Compared to the former two aspects, the variables and parameters designed in research of this matter should be the most profound.


Policy advice
The three dimensions of the digital divide are not independent or separate from one another. Rather, internal consistency and relevance are evident. Therefore, when we measure the digital divide in China, we must take these three aspects into consideration, not only to investigate the access and use of the internet, but also make the cognition and attitudes of internet users part of the research. Only by doing so can we avoid the tendency to oversimplify, thus understanding the digital divide more effectively and authentically.

It is worth noting that the digital divide is a multifaceted phenomenon, which is deeply rooted in the economic, social, cultural and political dimensions of society. Going forward, the importance of policy and regulatory reform needs to be underlined. The government needs to step up efforts to strengthen and extend the infrastructure as well as to diffuse access and information more widely and to improve the skills of individuals and workers. Particular attention should be paid to policies to improve access in public institutions such as internet use training centers so that individuals can learn to access the internet, build familiarity and develop skills. Measures should also be taken to improve access for underprivileged groups, the disabled and the elderly, and for rural, remote and low-income areas, to improve equity and  enhance overall economic efficiency via network effects.

Finally, it is necessary to strengthen the management and supervision of cyberspace to create a positive online environment, which is conducive to bridging the digital divide from the third level. Only through the joint efforts of various relevant parties can we better solve the problem of unbalanced and inadequate development of cyberspace, and effectively allow the internet to play a positive role in meeting people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.


Zhang Shuai is from the Center for Studies of Sociological Theory and Method at Renmin University of China.

(edited by YANG XUE)