Exploring the Future of the Digital Divide through Ethnographic Futures Research by Matthew M. Mitchell
This study examines leaders who work for social change in an information society. Grounded in the notion that leadership and social change are necessarily future oriented, this study attempts to learn how those who lead the effort to ameliorate the digital divide in Washington State perceive the optimistic, pessimistic, and most probable futures. In this study, the digital divide is framed as a social problem that is caused, in part, by inequities in the ability to access and to use information communication technologies. Furthermore, this study is concerned that the digital divide impacts the opportunities for participation in social and economic arrangements, which may be a threat to social and economic justice.
Although the scope of the digital divide is global, this study narrows its focus in three ways. First, the digital divide is explored only within the context of Washington's sociocultural system. Second, only the perspectives of those who lead efforts to bridge the digital divide were sought. Third, only perceptions and cognitions of possible future sociocultural systems were explored.
The method used in this study is called Ethnographic Futures Research (EFR). EFR is a type of ethnography adapted for use in studying perceptions of a culture's future. Thirteen individuals who lead various efforts to bridge the digital divide in Washington State were interviewed using the EFR method. In each interview, three possible scenarios (optimistic, pessimistic, and most probable) of Washington State's sociocultural system set in the year 2016 were elicited. The interviewees then provided recommendations of what action is required to render the optimistic scenario more probable by the year 2016. The digital divide was discussed within the context of the future sociocultural systems described in the three scenarios and the recommendations.
The findings of this study include a) multiple definitions of the digital divide; b) descriptions of the forces perceived to be driving the digital divide; and, c) suggestions for future efforts to ameliorate the digital divide. A general discovery made by this study is that significant optimism exists that Washington State will build and maintain a more just and equitable sociocultural system in the future.
In recent years, there has been rapid growth in the integration of telephone and computer networks. This development has created a parallel society some call cyberspace: the global computing networks in which people electronically meet, interact, and perform numerous tasks (Gibson, 1984; Kiesler, 1997). Cyberspace is a virtual place, which is to say that it does not physically exist. All interaction in cyberspace consists of electronic pulses of digital signals, which, when arranged properly, convey information. "Pulses of electromagnetic energy embody and convey messages that up to now have been sent by sound, pictures, and text" .
The prominence of information in our society is reflected in the name suggested by many writers describing our contemporary era of human history: the information age . Information has occupied an important role in all societies since the dawn of civilization. However, in recent years the increase in the volume and accuracy of information, as well as greater access to it, have significantly elevated its value in many aspects of social life. "Not only is there ... more information ... than ever before, but [it also] plays a central and strategic role in pretty well everything we do, from business transactions and leisure pursuits to government activities" .
To enter and participate in the cyberspace sector of our information-age society, individuals must become digital (Negroponte, 1995) - a condition that requires access to, and knowledge of, the use of networked computing devices. In a society where one's ability to participate is predicated on one's ability to become digital, there is general consensus that certain segments of the population are being excluded. This study is concerned with the future of the phenomenon of the digital divide, a term frequently used to describe social exclusion caused, in part, by the inability to become digital.
Evidence is mounting that digital technologies designed and used to facilitate the communication of information are impacting the equality of opportunities for all individuals to participate fully in society. Extensive surveys and other data collected by the United States Census Bureau are being used as the basis for the development of policies to address the digital divide. Increasingly, non-governmental research is beginning to produce another source of data describing the digital gap. Combined, these bodies of research tend to portray the digital divide in terms of the demographics of those adversely affected by the digital divide. In contrast, this study describes the digital divide as a significant social problem from the perspective of those who are trying to close the divide. More specifically, this study explores the future of the digital divide as perceived by the men and women who lead the efforts to bridge the digital divide.
An examination of the literature reveals that the source of the digital divide appears to be unclear. In one report, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) notes that the actual cause of the digital divide is not well known and therefore difficult to mitigate with policy . Research by the Gartner Group (2000) suggests that not only is the digital divide an issue of extreme importance, but the complete nature of the digital divide is still largely unknown.
Despite the difficulty in defining the digital divide, this phenomenon is described by many sources as a pressing problem. Not knowing how to and being unable to access technologies designed to communicate digital information, such as the Internet, may, in the future, be equivalent to not knowing how to read and write today (Fleisher, 2000). From this perspective, the digital divide can be understood as a matter of social literacy. As digital interaction becomes the more preferred and dominant medium for participating in society, those who are digital have-nots are at risk of becoming socially illiterate. In a recent report released by the United States Department of Commerce, the social risk of allowing the digital divide to persist is "one of America's leading economic and civil rights issue[s]" . Under Secretary of Commerce Robert J. Shapiro offered this perspective on the digital divide:"We all find ourselves in the midst of a technological revolution propelled by digital processing. All around us, in ways and forms we cannot fully appreciate, new digitally-based economic arrangements are changing how people work together and alone, communicate and relate, consume and relax. These changes have been rapid and widespread, and often do not fit the established categories for understanding economic developments. As a result, early efforts to take the measure of these changes have often seemed to be inventories of what is not yet known" .
The Digital Divide Network, an online non-profit organization associated with the Benton Foundation and the National Urban League, among others, describes the digital divide as "the gap between those who can effectively use new information and communication tools, such as the Internet, and those who cannot" . The divisive effect of society's increasing dependence on information technologies is creating a class separation between those who are "connected" and those who are not (NTIA, 1998). As the United States enters the so-called "information age," access to the National Information Infrastructure (NII) will become increasingly important for finding employment, maintaining communication, obtaining education, and participating in consumer markets . Access to the NII may determine, in part or in whole, an individual's ability to participate in critical public areas of society. "Each year, being digitally connected becomes ever more critical to economic and educational advancement and community participation" . Those without access are, in a sense, shut out, silenced, ignored, and ultimately left behind. This study explores the digital divide through scenarios of possible futures in which the digital divide, as it pertains to equal and just social institutions, was the central theme.
This study, conducted in 2001, is an attempt to research perceptions about the future. While knowledge of the future cannot exist, anticipatory perceptions do exist and can be studied. Visions of the future were used in this study as a source of data. Visions are not, in themselves, factual; they are hypothetical propositions based on historical facts. The best information available about the future takes the form of "conscientious, open-minded, data-based anticipation" . As described by Schwartz (1996), visions of the future are stories or scenarios of what may become reality. Building scenarios of the future is "a method for articulating the different pathways that might exist for you tomorrow, and finding your appropriate movements down each of those possible paths" .
Efforts to provide equality of access for full participation in society lead social change through consciousness-raising. It is through an elevation of awareness that a problem can be clearly identified, its implications understood, and alternative solutions developed . By focusing on what the individual participants identify as the ideal approaches for resolving the digital divide, and by considering the implications of both attaining and failing to attain these approaches, this study attempts to understand visions of how everyone can become digital.
To effectively enact social change, such as the bridging of the digital divide, an agent of change needs not only to consider those forces that shape today's reality, but also create visions of how the future may be impacted by these influences (Schwartz, 1996). Textor et al. (1984) state it rather simply, "A community or society without a clear image of what it wants to get is hardly likely to end up wanting what it does get" .
A unique method, Ethnographic Futures Research (EFR) is used in this study to elicit projections of the future. With this method, this study explores optimistic, pessimistic, and most probable scenarios of the digital divide in Washington State as described by 13 individuals who lead various efforts to ameliorate Washington's digital rift. As part of this response, four questions form the purpose of this study:
- How do those who lead efforts to bridge the digital divide describe the digital divide?
- What do these leaders see as the forces driving the digital divide?
- How do these individuals envision the digital divide's future in Washington State?
- How do they describe their efforts to close the digital gap?
When developing a research design, Pitman and Maxwell (1992) recommend that the researcher consider two questions: "What is the empirical unknown in this situation?" and "What is the best procedure for generating that information?" . What is the empirical unknown in this study? Quite simply, how do those who lead the efforts to bridge the digital divide perceive the future?One method noted for its focus on studying the future is Futures Research, which is closely related to EFR. Bell (1997) describes the purpose of Futures Research as the discovery, examination, and evaluation of possible, probable, and preferable futures. Bell offers many reasons why researchers may consider Futures Research as a viable methodology. Perhaps the most compelling reason is this:"The overriding purpose of futures studies is to maintain or improve human well-being and the life sustaining capacities of the Earth ... . Futurists seek to know what causes change, the dynamic processes underlying technological developments on the one hand and changes in the political, economic, social, and cultural orders on the other. They seek theories to explain such changes and to help people to recognize and understand them ... . They also seek to determine what can be changed by human actions, what trends can be accelerated or prevented, or what phenomena are amenable to individual or collective human action" .
There have been many methods developed by researchers to conduct futures studies and Bell (1997) acknowledges that some are better than others. Some methods "show extraordinary promise, such as Robert B. Textor's Ethnographic Futures Research" . Bell goes on to cite Textor as being among the pioneers of futurist-anthropology.
EFR as Method
Ethnographic Futures Research (EFR) is a method of qualitative inquiry that derives theoretical meaning from, and is firmly grounded in, data. Essentially, the EFR approach "is a form of ethnography adapted to the needs and constraints of Futures Research" , which "bears a similarity to the 'grounded theory' approach" . Although EFR is formally distinct, it can be thought of as a hybrid method of inquiry. Responding to the necessary condition of an unknowable future, EFR is a modified research method specifically capable of producing possible and meaningful anticipatory propositions of the future that are grounded in a specific sociocultural context.
As mentioned, Futures Research and the EFR approaches are notably similar. They both rely on an interviewee constructing scenarios that concentrate on the following:
- Alternative futures that are possible or probable for a particular population.
- The state of our knowledge (or uncertainty) about this or that possible future.
- Implications and possible consequences of this or that possible future.
- Early warning signs of undesirable possible futures.
- Our understanding of the underlying processes of change.
An apparent limitation of the general Futures Research approach is that it does not seek to situate anticipations about the future into the context of the subject's culture. Addressing this limitation, Textor (1980, 1995; Textor et al., 1985) describes an alteration to Futures Research that specifically takes into consideration the aspect of culture: Cultural Futures Research, a branch of Futures Research in which "central use is made of the concept of culture" . The method available for practicing this type of research is Ethnographic Futures Research (EFR). "EFR is one method by which the cultural futures researcher can go about her or his task" . The relationship between EFR and CFR is similar to the relationship between the ethnography and cultural anthropology. Textor (1990a) elucidates this relationship:"Just as the cultural anthropologist conventionally uses ethnography to study an extant culture, so he or she can use EFR to elicit from members of an extant social group their images and preferences (cognitions and values) with respect to possible or probable future cultures for their group" .
EFR frames the content of an anticipated future in the context of a scenario. Distinct from projections and forecasts, a scenario is "a story, an imagined future, and deals essentially with what a particular situation could, might, or is most likely to be, at a specified approximate horizon date" . A projection is "a conditional statement of what is likely to occur in the future" , whereas a "forecast is simply that projection which, in the judgment of the researcher, is most plausible or probable - as compared with alternative projections" . Both projections and forecasts are used in the formation of the different types of EFR scenarios as basic building blocks. However, an EFR scenario is more than a collection of projections and forecasts. An EFR scenario is concerned with the process of change within a specific sociocultural system.
Given its epistemological foundation, any EFR scenario is inherently impossible to validate definitively with data because the future is, by definition, unknowable. In the EFR method, the only criterion for a scenario's being possible is the interviewee's judgment that the projected events and trends upon which her or his scenario is based have a probability greater than zero .
EFR scenarios are elicited within a specific methodological framework. The first scenario elicited is the optimistic, which is followed by the pessimistic scenario, and finally the most probable scenario is explored. In advance of the first scenario's elicitation, the interviewee should be asked to imagine a continuum along which are arranged 100 possible scenarios (see Box 1). Moving from the continuum's left to right, the 100 possible scenarios are arranged from the least desirable possible scenario to the most desirable possible scenario. At the extreme left end of the continuum is the scenario at position number one, which is the worst possible future imagined by the interviewee for his or her sociocultural group. At the extreme right end is the scenario at position number 100, which is the best possible future. Scenarios that fall to the left of position one are defined as dystopian, that is, very undesirable but also impossible. Scenarios that fall to the right of position 100 are defined as utopian, that is, very desirable but impossible. Again, it is up to the interviewee to decide whether his or her scenario falls within the realm of possibility. The figure on Box 1 was introduced at the beginning of each interview as a way to help the interviewees envision the different scenarios.
Textor (1990a) describes the overall strategy of the EFR interview as being intended "to 'stretch' the interviewee first in an optimistic direction, and then in a pessimistic direction - where 'optimistic' and 'pessimistic' are defined strictly and solely in terms of the interviewee's own value standards" . Textor continues to explain that,"The interviewee is told, though, that this stretching should not exceed the realm of the possible. Just where the boundaries of the possible lie, however, is for [the interviewee] alone to decide. Only after this is the interviewee asked to build his [or her] "most probable" scenario" .
Using the continuum in Box 1, the elicitation of the optimistic scenario began by instructing the interviewee to focus on a desirable future for her or his sociocultural system at roughly the 90th position on the continuum. By directing the interviewee not to focus on the scenario at the 100th position, the risk of the interviewee describing a utopian scenario was somewhat mitigated. Textor (1990a) notes, "in most EFR interviews, the optimistic scenario takes much longer to elicit than the pessimistic and most probable scenarios combined" ; this phenomenon was found to be true in this study.
Following the EFR method, once the optimistic scenario was complete, the pessimistic scenario was elicited from the interviewee. Similar to the optimistic scenario, the previously mentioned continuum of desirability (Box 1) was used in directing the interviewee to concentrate on the pessimistic scenario. The pessimistic scenario is developed by the interviewee's envisioning an undesirable yet possible sociocultural system at roughly the 10th position on the continuum - "not the very worst that could possibly occur, but clearly very undesirable" .
The final scenario elicited in any EFR project is the description of the future that the interviewee most expects: the most probable scenario. In the visualization of this scenario, all that matters is the forecast of what the interviewee expects to occur in her or his sociocultural system by the time established as the horizon date (Textor, 1990a). The interviewee was asked to locate his or her most probable scenario on the continuum of desirability.
After the three scenarios are fully explored and the EFR interview is completed, the interview is summarized into an end product Textor (1980, 1990a, 1995) calls the protocol. The protocol is an elaborated, documented, and edited summary of the EFR interview that "should 'make the future seem real,' so that the reader can 'relate to' it" . Here, the reader is the interviewee who is asked to review the protocol of her or his interview and given the opportunity to correct, clarify, and elaborate on the summary's content.
Application of EFR
In this study, 13 EFR interviews were conducted in which a certain degree of structure was included in the beginning of each. Once the interview was underway, care was taken to provide a considerable amount of flexibility and openness. The purpose of each interview was the elicitation of three possible scenarios of the future of the sociocultural system of Washington State. On average, each interview took 90 minutes. In one case, the interview was completed in 45 minutes, and in three cases, the interviews lasted for several hours. Each interview was taped, transcribed, analyzed, and summarized into three categorical scenarios: optimistic, pessimistic, and most probable. Following Textor's (1990b) advice, each interview was interpreted and summarized into a draft that was returned to the respective interviewee for validation. This summarized interpretation was referred to as a protocol. In most instances, interviewees corrected and elaborated on the content contained in the draft protocol of his or her interview.
One of the chief challenges of conceptualizing the future is what Textor (1980, 1982, 1995; Textor et al., 1985) calls tempocentrism. Similar to ethnocentrism, the often false assumption about how others perceive their world based on our own limited cultural experience, tempocentrism is a result of a narrow worldview in which people pay too little or inappropriate attention to the future. "Tempocentrism refers to a complex psychological state in which we become 'centered' in the wrong temporal frame" . Although ethno- and tempocentrism aid in the reduction of cognitive dissonance, both can be hindrances for individuals who must make decisions in the context of change. Textor (1995) comments, "in a world in which the pace of sociocultural change is constantly accelerating, neither ethnocentrism nor tempocentrism are appropriate stances for leaders" . The EFR interview must be designed to handle the challenge of tempocentrism by helping both the interviewer and interviewee to cultivate the "art of anticipation" .
In this study, the issue of tempocentrism was mitigated in two ways. First, each interviewee was asked to situate his or her scenarios in a moderate and appropriate horizon date (discussed below). Second, interviewees were encouraged to feel uninhibited in creating scenarios based on whatever cognitions and values they might wish by setting the interviews in the context of a safe and confidential atmosphere. Keeping in mind that the EFR approach is not concerned with creating fantasy utopias, the interviewees were asked to keep their scenarios realistic.
Five Elements of EFR
Every EFR project has five basic design elements that help guide the development of the study (Textor, 1980, 1990a, 1990b). The first is the population and culture whose future is being discussed. As a way to narrow the scope of this study, only the future of Washington State was considered. Washington was chosen because of its significant role in the development of information communication technologies and because of the locality of the researcher. Toward this end, this study sought the perspectives of individuals who a) were exploring the boundaries of the digital divide and experimenting with its possible solutions, and b) resided in the state of Washington.
The process for selecting participants resulted in the confirmation of 13 strongly qualified participants. Of the 13 interviewees, each had detailed experience with ICT and each was leading an effort to ameliorate the digital divide within Washington State. Two of the participants were involved in improving the way in which Washington's judicial system serves the public through portals made possible through ICT. Eight of the participants played a leading role in expanding access to, and application of, ICT in their respective communities. One of the participants was involved in researching the technical concerns of providing sustainable communities.
The second element of an EFR project is the horizon date by which the possible future changes will manifest. The horizon date used in this study was 15 years in the future, the year 2016. Although this date is less than the typical 20-year horizon date used in many EFR studies, the decision to use the 15-year date was reflective of the focal point of this research: the development of ICT. As discovered in a series of pilot interviews, the rapid development in the various ICT fields rendered the 20-year horizon date be too far into the future to have a reasonable sense of what is possible in the way of technological progress, especially in relation to the progress of ICT.
The third element of an EFR project is the determination of the domains of culture the EFR study will explore. The domains chosen for this study included those aspects of society that may be impacted by the digital divide in the future (see Box 2). In many of the interviews, the interviewee, without prompting, either placed in front of himself or herself, or held in hand a document that displayed the domains and used it to organize and describe the futures he or she imagined for a given scenario.
The fourth element is the identification of "the most important forces driving broad sociocultural change" . Two of the most important driving forces affecting this study included a) the impact technology has on society; and, b) the impact society has on technology. Other driving forces included Washington's demography, political system, economic system, and environment.
The fifth and final design element of an EFR project is an understanding of the culture's underlying assumptions. "Every discussion of the future, whether in the EFR mode or any other, must proceed from certain assumptions, and it is useful to make some of these explicit" . The assumptions used in this study were important to the overall strategy because they provided a degree of consistency among the elicited scenarios. Each interviewee was asked to keep these assumptions in mind when formulating their three unique scenarios. The assumptions included the following: First, as of the horizon date, 2016, the state of Washington will remain a free, capitalistic, and democratic society. Second, as of the horizon date, 2016, there will not have been any nuclear holocausts, life-ending ecological collapses, or other similarly significant interruptions to daily life in Washington State. And third, technologies designed to communicate information (i.e., ICT) will a) continue to be developed at an increasing pace; b) become more effective, economical, and accessible; and, c) become more integrated.
The first interview was with Anita, the director of a large justice system law library in Washington State. Anita, trained as lawyer, was involved with a handful of statewide initiatives aimed at broadening access to court systems through the use of ICT. Anita felt passionate about the role of justice in everyday life and the need for people to have better access to the judicial system.
From Anita's perspective, Washington State is a society composed of individuals who have learned the skill of living together. Describing Seattle as an optimistic town built by the pioneer spirit, Anita perceived that community as benefiting from what she calls "the-end-of-the-road gene pool", which is to say that many of the people who end up in Seattle are typically those who kept moving west in search of a better place. Washington is "kind of a catch basin for people who are non-conformists, original thinkers, and creative thinkers."
According to Anita, Washington has two divides: the digital divide and the Cascade divide. In a sense there are two Washingtons: "there's the west of the mountains and there's the east of the mountains." The west side of the Cascade mountain range is characterized as an urban core with a dense population and a concentration of wealth, and the east side is composed of the rural areas, which are sparsely populated larger geographical areas whose economies are based largely on agriculture. As described by Anita, the Cascade and digital divide separate these two regions. Anita, who has experience in sponsoring bills in Washington's State Legislature, articulated how difficult it is to bring together these two very different areas in a governing body to create policy. She saw this challenge as a tension between the collaborative spirit of Washington and the state's individualist pioneer heritage.
The second interviewee was Brenda, a networking specialist for a regional university. Brenda was the director of a program whose mission involves supporting the ICT needs of the university's residential students. Before working as the program director, Brenda was an ICT consultant.
Embedded in each of Brenda's scenarios was the concept that ICT, and technology in general, is a tool. "Technology is not a thing in and of itself ... but a shadow underneath us." Like a shadow, the application of a tool is dependent on and indicative of the being that created it. In this way, Brenda was commenting that the quality of ICT as a tool relies on the skill and will of the tool's user. Technology and ICT are not capable of providing a solution to any given problem; rather, they are tools society can use as components of a solution. "It may provide a little different way to get the word out, or something like that. But I don't see [ICT] as an entity in itself that would do anything grandiose - it's the people."
Charlie, a former high-ranking county court official, was the third interviewee for this study. Trained as a lawyer, Charlie had close affiliations with state organizations dedicated to providing better and clearer understandings of how the state's judicial system handles the emergent challenges presented by new technologies. Charlie has held many civic leadership positions, including tenure as a judge, a chairperson of a Washington State Bar Association committee, and a chief proponent for legislation that addresses the changes ICT is prompting in the judicial system.
Describing the impact of ICT on the court system, Charlie employed the metaphor of rippling waves: "Without proactive planning ... those waves will become a tsunami and engulf us all in a very destructive fashion ... . [However,] if the energy of this great wave were channeled constructively it could be a very positive thing." Charlie was dedicated to constructively channeling ICT's energy. Charlie noted that Washington is the first state in the Union to pioneer such legislation, a designation that has led Charlie and his group of justice advocates to be sought out by both domestic and international groups interested in asserting justice in technologically mediated societies. "People from around the country have been in touch with us and want to help us do a very good job and produce a very good product so that what we do can be used as a model."
The next interview was with Derek, a computer science professor. One of Derek's research foci was the computation aspect of the planning of livable, sustainable cities, and transportation systems. Derek's research has implications for broader social issues such as environmental preservation, social equity, and economic vitality. Among other duties, Derek served in the leadership of a national computer association.
Influencing all of Derek's scenarios of Washington's future was his deep concern about the monopolistic tendencies exhibited by large corporations. Derek suggested that corporate entities that own and control both the content of, and the access to, the communication portals made available to the public pose a threat to society. Such corporate domination would reduce citizens to the role of information consumers, a role that is passive and manipulative.
The fifth interview was with Emily, an elected official of a tribal council in charge of information systems. Emily was born on the reservation where her family lived, although they did not stay on the reservation during her childhood. After living and working in various communities outside of the reservation, Emily eventually moved back to the reservation, where she currently resides. Her work experience with technology-based businesses prepared Emily for her current leadership position with the tribal council.
While her tribe is recognized as an independent, sovereign nation, the tribal government is not economically independent from the United States federal government. Contributing to this economic dependence is the lack of a sustainable revenue base located on the reservation. Current problems facing Emily's community include drug and alcohol addictions, few economic development opportunities, and a tribal government with relatively high turnover. Emily is working to address these problems with the aid of ICT:"One of the long-term goals is to have [an ICT infrastructure], whether it's a WebTV type thing, most people in our community all have TVs, they don't all have computers. If we could set it up so that we could have some kind of WebTV based communication to go back into the community intranet type thing that we could say, "This is going on, what do you think about it?""
Fred, a university dean, was the next interviewee. Previously Fred served as a faculty member in information systems and will soon serve as the dean of one of the information departments at this university. Outside academe, Fred has been a program officer with the United Nations and an urban planner in the state of Washington.
Fred viewed Washington's workforce as having been impacted by the technology giants that make Washington their home (e.g., Boeing, Microsoft, etc.). These corporations demand a workforce that is "in tune" with technology, and because of this, Fred perceives Washington as being ahead of other states in terms of technology. "If Microsoft wasn't located here, if Boeing wasn't here ... I think this region would look very, very different." Because these technology-based corporations are based in Washington, this state "is known as the Silicon Valley of the Pacific Northwest."
The digital divide, as described by Fred, is affected by how much technology corporations demand that their work forces be technologically savvy: that is to say, the degree to which technology employees have to be in touch with the latest and greatest technology because of their jobs. It was evident to Fred that this trend actually contributes to the widening of the divide that separates technology workers from those who do not, and cannot maintain access to the cutting edge technology. Technology-dependent industries are attracting a flood of techie-immigrants, which appears to be contributing to the growth of the digital divide in Washington State.
Gina, the seventh interviewee, was the development officer for a non-profit organization committed to providing access to technology in historically disadvantaged communities. Describing herself as a telecommuting writer of "persuasive narratives," also known as grant proposals, Gina's work was in line with her philosophy that an element of passion should be a part of what one does. "You can't be genuine if you don't emotionally feel tied to what you're doing."
There is a fundamental concept at work in all of Gina's scenarios concerning social equality: "That which diminishes any of us diminishes all of us." There are large segments of our society that do not have equal access and are being left behind. The effect ICT is having on these inequities is referred to as the digital divide:"Information technology has really become the divider between the haves and the have-nots. And the have-nots are seniors, rural, and inner city kids, and people of color. In order to change the profile of our social structure so that it is based on something other than technology haves and have-nots; again, we have to close those gaps and we have to provide the means to these people to be included."
The eighth interview was with Henry, the manager of a municipal telecommunications division. In addition to his duties of overseeing a municipality's cable television services, facilities, and franchises, Henry also advises his city council on telecommunication policies. Henry brings to this position professional experience in both commercial radio and television journalism.
As ICT changes, so does Henry's position. When he first began this position, Henry was in charge of the city's cable television systems. Now, a few years later, Henry's responsibilities include the overseeing of a rapidly expanding range of telecommunications issues that impact his municipality.
Central to each of the scenarios described by Henry was his awareness of how important access to information is in the United States. Specifically, Henry is deeply concerned about public policies that ensure universal access for the United States population."Information is the driving force behind our culture. People being well informed and able to come to their own conclusion on any given subject is absolutely critical to the operation of an open participatory culture or society ... . You can't have a culture that celebrates the individual without the ability for individuals to form opinions based on a variety of information."
The next interview was with Ivan, the chair of one of Washington's premier university information departments. Ivan's experience with ICT is broad; he is recognized as an expert in the fields of distance education, information technologies, news media relations, rural telecommunications, satellite communications, and television production. In addition to his work experiences in higher education, Ivan is also an international consultant in the field of ICT.
Threaded throughout Ivan's scenarios is his emphasis on diversity. While acknowledging that this value may not be universally shared in the state of Washington, Ivan asserted the validity and importance of diversity:"I think that the diversification in ethnicity is a healthy thing. A lot of people may disagree with me [because] it creates some strains on some of the social services and that type of thing, but I think that it is a very healthy thing for people in terms of their development as citizens and as human beings. I also think that economically it offers some interesting possibilities for this state in terms of tapping work forces that may not be home grown."
Jack was the tenth interviewee in this study. Having been a state utilities commissioner, Jack was the director for a university-sponsored program to address the digital divide. This program has recognized that many rural and low-income urban neighborhoods are a) underserved by telecommunication services; b) lagging behind in the ownership and knowledge of personal computers; and, c) not able to readily participate in an information economy. Furthermore, his university-endorsed effort is positioned to assist communities in creating local opportunities through ICT, educate and inform local leaders in the effective use of this technology, demonstrate effective use of ICT, serve as a clearinghouse for ICT information, and provide policy analysis for governmental entities.
Concern for the inequities of social capital frames each of Jack's scenarios. The degree to which this inequity is addressed and ameliorated forms the basis for each of his three scenarios:"I think there are certainly differences in respect to access to social capital. Who you know is so important in our world, and you're either connected or [you're] not. If you're not connected, it is hard to make those connections and so where people sit in respect to their connections to resources, including people and finance, determines their access to opportunity. In general, I think we are a fairly differentiated society at the moment and I don't think Washington is any different than the rest of the country in that respect. America is one of the more differentiated societies in the world in that sense."
Kyle, the eleventh participant in this study, has been involved for many years with the emergent issues at the intersection between society and information technologies. Having consulted for a variety of United States governmental agencies, corporations, regional economic agencies, and universities, among others, Kyle has worked in the fields of Internet strategic planning, telecommunications policy, electronic commerce, distance learning, and a handful of other related areas. Most recently, Kyle has been a principal investigator for the United States Department of Commerce's Telecommunications Opportunity Program exploring community informatics.
Kyle stressed that the digital divide should not be understood as being a result of the poor being unable to access and use ICT; rather, the digital divide is best understood as being about the loss of privacy individuals must endure to afford connectivity. According to Kyle, the wealthy will be able to afford ICT that protects their privacy, while the poor must trade their privacy for connectivity. "Privacy is now going to become an increasingly expensive commodity that only the rich can afford, and the poorer you are the more you are exposed and can be preyed upon."
A social reality that influences each of Kyle's scenarios is the value of individualism inherent in American culture, a value particularly evident in Washington State. Kyle noted that those who settled in Washington State many years ago were fiercely independent pioneers. On the whole, the population of Washington State is very protective of privacy:"In the Pacific Northwest the general culture is like, "Get those busybodies out of my life! They have no right peering down my throat. Don't tread on me." This is what brings the skinheads and other folks to the same table; they all feel the same way. The Idaho Nazis are going to be just as on board with this one as the ACLU and the Jesuits."
The next interview was with Larry, the project manager of a cooperative project designed to improve community connection, funded by both a national agency and a state university. Larry has been involved in the development of technology infrastructure for years. Many years ago, before the Internet was publicly available, Larry helped committees build electronic bulletin board systems. Over the years, Larry's interests have evolved from the technical aspects of building ICT infrastructures to the social implications of ICT. He stated,"Yes, I'm involved in technology and I know it's going to be important, I think people need to get access to it, but it's not going to be a miracle cure. Not at all. It's just going to be another piece in the arsenal that you have access to. You have to have the education and the understanding so you'll be able to use something useful, but without that, it's just going to be a vice that you may or may not use, that you may or may not be able to afford. You'll know about it: whether you can afford to use it or to have access is another story."
Currently Larry's interests are in the development of communities, particularly in helping groups gain access to the latest communication technologies. Much of the work Larry does is concentrated on outreach in urban and rural regions, professional communities, communities of color, and communities of interest.
The final interview was with Mark, a technology planner for a municipal technology department. Mark is dedicated to helping people communicate in a society that is increasingly defined by ICT. He has been involved in this type of work for the past 20 years. Beyond enabling local communities to communicate more effectively, Mark would also like to learn and share more in an international context. He explained,"One of the reasons I do the work I do, or one of the pieces of the work I do right now is, we're seeing the information technology skills are almost a basic requirement for citizenship in the United States. At what point do we actually really say that? People are at a real disadvantage by not having IT skills, whether it's looking for work or whether it's access in non-business hours to city information, government information."
Recently, Mark helped implement a residential technology study designed to track the influence of technology on his city over time. One of the goals of this study is to define "a set of values around what a technology healthy community would be." His study is enabling his community to "apply technology to solving social issues and be conscious of how technology is being applied for business and economic development."
As described by Mark, the way in which society uses technology will change. Despite this inevitable change, Mark believes the basic social needs that all communities have will remain the same. He defined them as being the need for organizing; identifying of common goals and objectives; developing resources; expressing culture, values, politics; processing issue; and, participating in civic action. The way in which society approaches the provision of these needs will also remain generally the same: the teaching of young people to communicate effectively with others. In the future, this education will involve the use of communication tools and the fluency of technology. Whether or not these needs are met adequately frames the differences between his optimistic and pessimistic scenarios.
The digital divide, as perceived by Mark, is a reflection of pre-existing social maladies, and the digital aspect is the compounding effect ICT brings to social problems. In some cases, ICT can exacerbate the social divide, and in other cases, ICT can help ameliorate these problems. He stated,"The digital divide is not new; the social divide has always been there. It's not a new concept . . . and not one that's necessarily going away easily. Social and economic justice is the issue, so as a society we have to find mechanisms and commitments to solving the social and economic justice issues to close the digital divide."
How Was the Digital Divide Described?
At the beginning of each interview, the interviewees were asked to consider the following working definition of the digital divide: A social problem caused, in part, by inequities in access to and ability to use ICT. Then, each interviewee was asked how the working definition compares with his or her own. Based on the interview data, the digital divide was generally framed by all of the interviewees in terms that can be understood as issues of social and economic justice. There were notable differences in the specific definitions of the digital divide and no single specific definition of the digital divide emerged from the data. Descriptions of the digital divide tended to focus on a) issues of exclusion; b) erosion of personal rights; c) the evolution of new requirements for membership in the dominant culture; and, d) exacerbation of existing social inequalities. The following discussion explores these four aspects of the digital divide.
Issues of Exclusion
All of the interviewees observed that society is becoming increasingly integrated with, and dependent on, ICT. Examples provided by the interviewees of social structures in which technology integration is occurring included the legal system, education institutions, economic structures, access to government, and venues for public discourse. Individuals who are not able to use the technology to access these social structures are excluded from participation in these elements of society. The exclusion of individuals from participating in society can be understood as an obstacle or hindrance to the provision of social and economic justice, as described by Ferree (1948).
While support for universal digital inclusion was the majority position of the participants, there were alternative perspectives. For example, Brenda suggested that having some people "not technologically connected is going to benefit society." She suggested that there is a need to closely examine the consequences of having a society in which everyone is digitally connected. Brenda's point was that a society completely connected via ICT is homogenous and at risk of losing a certain degree of perspective. This observation is provocative for two reasons. First, Brenda is asserting that the various media through which people communicate affect diversity in perspective. Second, there may be a myopia that prevents society from perceiving that complete dependence on ICT is anything but positive, beneficial, and desirable. It may be that the relationship of Brenda's observation to social and economic justice depends upon whether individuals are not connected because they do not understand the implications of not being technologically connected, or because they wish to be connected and are unable to be so due to circumstances beyond their immediate control.
Erosion of Personal Rights
Another aspect of the digital divide's description involved the erosion of personal rights. The chief concerns associated with the erosion of personal rights were privacy and the loss of personal choice and freedom. In this description of the digital divide, individuals had access to ICT, but it came at a significant cost to some. As pointed out by Kyle, individuals who are economically disadvantaged will have to make a "Faustian bargain" to gain access to ICT. More specifically, personal privacy will be traded away in a corporately arranged solution to bridge the digital divide. Individuals will gain access to ICT, but those without the necessary monetary resources will have to pay for their access with their personal privacy.
Another personal right foregone in the effort to participate in an online society will be individuals' ability to freely choose the sources of their information. For example, if the only access one has to receive news of current affairs is through freely available Web sites, and if these sites are, as suggested by Schiller (1996) increasingly under the ownership and control of media corporations, the messages individuals receive will possibly be limited to carefully crafted propaganda.
Both Derek and Kyle suggested that if voting becomes entirely an online activity, the choice of going to a physical polling location to cast an anonymous vote will evaporate. Choice in alternative media or secure connections that afford anonymity in online activities will become an option only for those who can afford such amenities.
The erosion of personal rights alters the meaning of the digital divide. The digital divide is transformed from being an issue of having access to an issue of degree of access. When certain rights are available only to those who can afford them and when those rights are basic rights, such as privacy, access to unbiased information, and anonymous ballot casting, the degree of justice depends on the degree of access.
New Requirements for Membership in the Dominant Culture
The third aspect in understanding the digital divide is the consideration of how ICT is necessitating new skills for literacy and fluency within the dominant culture. In a society that relies heavily on the abilities of its members to know how to and be able to effectively use ICT, the digital divide can be seen as a byproduct of the evolution of new requirements for both membership in the dominant culture and citizenship in society. Connected with the exclusionary aspect discussed above, this particular aspect is focused on what happens to those who are unable to develop the necessary literacy and fluency skills to participate fully in society despite their ability to access ICT devices. Echoing the comments by Fleisher (2000) and Shapiro (in NTIA, 1999), most interviewees agreed that the acquisition of new technological literacy and fluency skills will be critical for successful participation in Washington's future society.
Gina and Larry described the role technological literacy and fluency skills will play in the future in significantly different ways. Gina asserted that to be successful in Washington's future sociocultural system, one will "need to be fluent in reading, writing, speaking, and in technology." Larry offered a different perspective. He foresaw that technology will adapt to human communication patterns in such a way that technology will become invisible. "I see a person talking to a computer in plain language." The need for technological literacy will dissolve. The issue on which Gina and Larry appear to disagree has to do with how people will interface with ICT devices. Gina suggested that this interface will require more technological skill, while Larry suggested the opposite. Given the fact that ICT is becoming more user-friendly and seemingly more "human" in its interface, Larry's perspective appears to have merit. However, to be more than just a user of ICT devices, the ability to control, fix, and modify these "information appliances" does require a more elevated level of understanding of technological systems. In this respect, Gina's call for greater technological literacy and fluency appears to be appropriate.
Within the interview data collected, there are alternative viewpoints on the degree to which technological literacy and fluency will determine the requirements for membership in the dominant culture. However, all interviewees agreed that ICT is influencing the criteria for membership in Washington's sociocultural system. Framed in the context of determining membership based on the acquisition of skills, the meaning of the digital divide moves beyond being an issue of exclusion based solely on access to ICT; it becomes an issue of knowledge, skill, and ability to make use of the access.
Exacerbation of Existing Social Inequalities
The fourth aspect in understanding the digital divide is described as an exacerbation of existing and, perhaps, chronic social inequities. For generations, Washington State has had a number of social inequities based on class, race, ethnicity, geography, language, and gender. The digital divide, in many cases, is seen as merely an intensification of some of these inequities. However, given the many possibilities ICT offers to alleviate historic inequities, the digital divide was seen by some interviewees as an opportunity to properly address and redress some of these existing social problems. Anita described the existing inequities in Washington State as "the Cascade divide" between western and eastern Washington, adding that "the digital divide has the potential to dissolve the Cascade divide." In this way, the digital divide, while being acknowledged as a problem, was also perceived as a chance to make progress in the effort to assert social and economic justice.
The lack of a single, focused definition of the digital divide is problematic for the efforts to ameliorate the divide. As Mark and Jack pointed out, without a common definition of the digital divide, establishing common goals and approaches for bridging the digital divide will be difficult. The interviewees described several different meanings of the digital divide. The fact that there are multiple meanings of the term may be indicative that a) ICT's influence on society is still unfolding; b) ICT is influencing nearly every dimension of society including the macro sociocultural dimension; and, c) ICT's influence may be so pervasive that the influence may not be adequately definable using currently available contexts and concepts. Common within the various descriptions of the digital divide collected by this study is a concern that ICT has the potential to negatively affect a society that holds justice as a primary value. Despite differences in specifics, the digital divide is described by all of the interviewees as an issue of social and economic justice.
What Were the Perceived Driving Forces of the Digital Divide?
In various ways, the interviewees identified a collection of forces driving the digital divide. These descriptions are summarized below into three general forces: a) the tendency of corporations to commodify and commercialize information and the infrastructures that deliver it; b) the various government policies that regulate the ICT-related industries; and, c) the continual development of new technologies designed to communicate information. Central to each of the driving forces behind the digital divide was the special role information seems to have in Washington's sociocultural system. Information appears to be a very special type of resource: its value is relative, it can be shared without being lost or diminished, and it is important enough that corporations compete for it and people ask their governments to insure access to it.
Most interviewees described corporate attempts to dominate ICT-related markets as being a primary driving force of the digital divide. As described by Jack, for-profit corporations are obliged to create value. One way to do this is to limit the supply, which drives up demand and increases value. Henry noted that this economic model works fairly well for the distribution of certain commodities, such as breakfast cereal. However, when information and information delivery infrastructures are commodified and treated like breakfast cereal, access to information and its delivery devices are subject to being hoarded for the sole purpose of creating value. As Henry reminds us, information is not like breakfast cereal; it can be shared without giving it up. As described by the interviewees, market-oriented corporations that treat ICT like a regular commercial product propel the digital divide.
The second driving force discussed by the interviewees was the government's policies designed to regulate ICT. The basic right of access to information has been codified by a collection of policies implemented by federal, state, and local governments. Perhaps the best known of these policies is the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Act mandates that efficient and effective worldwide communication services be made available to all United States residents at reasonable charges. However, the interviewees described many of these policies, including the 1996 Act, as not being fully enforced. They indicated that a decreasing number of large corporations are gaining ownership and control over an increasing portion of the industries that gather, process, and distribute information. Offering an example, Henry noted "there used to be prohibitions against a newspaper company owning a television station and a radio station in the same community. Well, there is continual pressure for those kinds of restrictions to go away." As a driving force of the digital divide, government was perceived by the interviewees as not enforcing or intentionally softening policies originally designed to protect information from being monopolized and hoarded.
The Continual Development of New Technologies
Perhaps the most pervasive driving force behind the digital divide as described by the interviewees was the apparently unstoppable development of technologies designed to communicate information. As ICT develops continually, the ability of individuals to keep up with the latest and greatest technologies creates gaps between those who have the time, energy, motivation, and resources to keep pace and those who do not. If ICT did not continually evolve in its complexity, sophistication, and power, the digital divide would probably be easier to define and simpler to bridge. However, ICT does not stand still and, as a result, the interviewees perceived ICT development as a force contributing to the digital divide.
A common feature of the various descriptions of the driving forces behind the digital divide is concern about the treatment of information. The interviewees described information as being a necessity for all members in society. A lack of equal access to information in a society in which information is very important raises clear and obvious concerns for the establishment and preservation of social and economic justice. The tendency of corporations to commodify and commercialize information, the lack of adequate governmental protection of access to information, and the continual development of new technologies designed to communicate information were all described as forces driving the persistence of the digital divide.
How Was the Digital Divide's Future Envisioned?
As defined by the method employed in this study, Ethnographic Futures Research (EFR), three scenarios of the future of the digital divide in Washington State were collected through interviews. Through these broad ethnographic scenarios, the interviewees considered how the digital divide will affect Washington's future. The following discussion briefly summarizes each scenario.
While the optimistic scenarios differed from one another to varying degrees, they included the following common aspects. First, the essential role of information and the infrastructures designed to collect, process, and distribute it will be better understood by all members of society, especially those who have the power to control access to ICT. As a result of this improved understanding, the optimistic scenarios included more effective efforts to increase access and thus close the digital divide. Optimistically, as the people of Washington State realize the significant intertwining of ICT with nearly every dimension of society, a greater awareness will develop that will lead to ICTs being appropriately and adequately applied. Without this awareness, the pessimistic scenario becomes more probable.
The pessimistic scenarios were characterized by an assumption that ICT is not having and will not have a positive impact on Washington's sociocultural system. Poor decisions made by leaders in government, business, and the community will manifest this dearth of concern and awareness. Pessimistically, the digital divide will expand in both its nature and its extent. The unintended consequence of the digital divide's expansion will be the intensification of social and economic injustices.
Most Probable Scenarios
The scenarios described as being the most probable generally acknowledged the persistence of the digital divide as a social problem. Most interviewees believed that there will be some progress made in ameliorating the digital divide; however, existing social and economic injustices will continue to be exacerbated by the exclusionary tendencies of a technological society driven by greed and self-interest. The success made in bridging the digital divide will primarily be the product of concerned individuals and community groups motivated to improve social conditions. However, these community efforts to solve the digital divide will lack the necessary resources to significantly assert social and economic reforms that will insure the provision of justice for all.
The Critical Variable Separating the Scenarios
Most of the participants interviewed in this study were optimistic about Washington's future. The variable that appeared to determine whether a scenario was optimistic, pessimistic, or most probable was the balance between capitalism/individualism and compassionate community. These two values were perceived to be held by Washingtonians. The first value is society's belief in and strict adherence to the ideals of unfettered capitalism and unrestrained individualism. The second value is society's desire for friendly, responsive, and compassionate community life. In the optimistic scenarios, the balance leans toward the community-oriented social value. In the pessimistic scenarios, the balance leans toward the capitalistic and individualistic social value. The most probable scenarios described how this balance fluctuates, but predominantly leans toward the social value of healthy, intact communities.
How Were Efforts to Close the Digital Divide Described?
The interviewees described a wide range of current and future efforts designed to close the digital divide. While the interviewees provided many specific examples, only a few will be mentioned in this discussion. To provide a synopsis of both current and future efforts, a brief summary characterizing the current efforts will be presented, followed by a brief explanation of future efforts.
Most of the current efforts discussed were either programs, initiatives, policies, or practices that in some way expanded access to one or more of the following: a) ICT portals such as computer terminals; b) broader bandwidth at affordable prices; and, c) training in how to use ICT efficiently and effectively. Examples of efforts aimed at providing ICT access for Washington State residents included a) the establishment of community technology centers where computer equipment is connected to the Internet and often located in low-income neighborhoods; b) the provision of computer access in public libraries and schools; and, c) the funding of community access initiatives by charitable organizations. Examples of efforts working toward the improvement of connectivity to broadband infrastructures included a) public utility districts and smaller telephone companies offering high-speed connections in rural exchanges; and, b) the leasing of available bandwidth by the Bonneville Power Administration on its regional fiber optic network. Examples of efforts geared toward training individuals to use ICT effectively and efficiently include a number of literacy and community connection programs. Most of the current efforts to bridge the digital divide are localized and relatively small in scope.
Among the future efforts discussed, there was less emphasis on specific actions to be taken and more concern about the general approaches employed to bridge the digital divide. Future efforts were described as needing to be holistic, collaborative, and more inclusive of the input from those communities affected by the digital divide. Perhaps as a comment about the current localized efforts, some of the interviewees perceived a need for future efforts to be systemic and comprehensive. In other words, future efforts to bridge the digital divide need to look beyond the symptom manifested as an inequity in access and address the reasons why this inequity exists. This critical approach requires a holistic perspective. One possible approach for achieving the systemic reform needed to ameliorate the digital divide is the forging of new relationships between the private and public sectors. As Jack strongly asserted, bridging the digital divide must include a "win-win" solution for both the public and the private sectors. To reach a win-win solution, collaboration may be necessary. Lastly, future efforts to bridge the digital divide were described as needing to be community-borne. As Emily pointed out, communities may not know what their solutions are, but they do know what their problems are. Apparently, the importation of solutions that do not consider the context of the community into which they are being introduced is not an acceptable future effort to bridge the digital divide.
There was a difference between the descriptions of current and future efforts to close the digital divide. The character of this difference has to do with the approach used. As described by the interviewees, current efforts, while effective and important, are generally localized and small in scope. Future efforts call for more holistic approaches in which all stakeholders are included in the process. For efforts to be effective, the solutions need to have a common goal and originate, in part, from within the community. It may not be practical for a community that is adversely affected by the digital divide to solve their problem alone, but the community must be involved in identifying the problem and designing a solution. Resources from outside the community may be necessary, but the community must be included. Future approaches to bridging the digital divide need be aimed at helping all members of society recognize that solving this social problem is a definable and desirable goal aimed at making Washington State a more economically and socially just society.
In its essence, the difference between current and future efforts is that currently, bridging the digital divide is neither clearly nor widely recognized as an imperative and significant issue impacting the common good of Washington's sociocultural system. In the future, the assumption of the interviewees is that awareness about this issue will grow. To make this happen, the leaders of the effort to ameliorate the digital divide will learn how to frame this social problem as important, definable, solvable, and desirable for everyone who values a just society.
Summary of Findings
The following summative statements recapitulate some of the findings from this study. Perhaps the most important finding of this study is that the participants in this study believed that a bright and desirable future is possible for Washington State. Additionally, they believed that if the people of Washington make certain efforts, the optimistic scenarios described by the interviewees can be rendered more probable. The interview data contains a rich vein of hope. Primary points discovered in this study include the following:
- The digital divide was described as a broad and significant social and economic justice issue that could not be narrowly and specifically defined.
- Efforts to bridge the digital divide need to reach beyond treatment of the symptoms and identify and address the source of the social problem.
- Efforts to ameliorate the digital divide need to be comprehensive, community-centered, and framed as a "win-win" solution for both the public and the private sectors.
- To implement the approach necessary for solving the digital divide, a new kind of leadership is needed that can articulate why the digital divide is an important social problem affecting all of society and can facilitate a broad collaborative effort to reorganize society to assert social and economic justice.
- Traditional conceptions of leadership and social change will need to accommodate alternative notions of leadership and social change such as entrepreneurialism, the democratization of information, and the reform of social institutions.
- A clear, consistent, and inclusive vision of the common good must be developed, protected, and used as a guide for the full-time work of making Washington State a socially and economically just society.
This study suggests that hope is a strong theme concerning Washington's future. However, tied to this hope are many clear and consistent calls for specific action. The desirable futures described by the interviewees included in this study will probably not come to fruition without considerable effort. The desirable futures are ones in which social and economic justice is asserted and protected and, as Ferree (1948) points out, this type of justice demands full-time work on an ongoing basis. Along with the call for social change and reform, the results also provided some ideas for future action. In the following discussion, the effort to bridge the digital divide is presented as one avenue for bringing about social change and reform.
The values needed to bridge the digital divide in Washington State must be reflected in corporations' practices, governments' policies, and communities' actions. The desirable future for Washington will be less probable without the active and cooperative participation of the corporations and the government. Between these two sectors of Washington's society there are the resources to render a more desirable future in which the state can be more socially and economically just. However, it is unlikely that corporations or the government will set up and implement the necessary changes and reforms without adequate motivation. Currently, what appears to motivate both is monetary and political power. Somehow, corporations and the government need to become more responsive to and motivated by concern for the common good.
The citizens of Washington State have the power to reform and reorganize their society, including corporations and governments, in such a way that the common good is justly defined, actively asserted, and adequately protected. Bringing this power to fruition will require the diverse populace of Washington to come together, declare that social and economic justice is a worthy and obtainable goal, and develop collaborative efforts to achieve the long term goal of defining, asserting, and protecting the common good. While bringing people together can be difficult, one suggestion for making this happen is the establishment of a focal point around which people can gather with their needs, hopes, and desires.
The digital divide is one such focal point that can bring Washington's diverse interests together. Awareness is growing that access to information is a fundamental need for equal participation in society and that access to information is an issue that affects everyone. Bridging the digital divide has the potential to unite Washington State in the effort to make important social changes and reform structural impediments to social and economic justice.
Efforts to address and redress the digital divide need to start with the society's declaration that information is a unique resource and access to it is beneficial to the common good. Forces that are effectively blocking access to information need to be clearly identified and removed. As described by the participants in this study, there are three main sources that contribute to the blocking of access. The first has to do with corporations that commodify and commercialize information and the associated ICT infrastructures. The second is related to the way in which the government protects public access to information. The third is the continual, rapid evolution of information communication technologies. Of these three sources, two are controllable by the will of the people. Washingtonians, if they choose, can influence how both corporations and their governments treat information. By demanding that social values be observed and respected by their governments and the corporations, Washingtonians can work together toward a future in which social and economic justice is more probable.
There are no future facts; there are only possibilities. This study was an exploration of what a group of participants believed is the future of the digital divide in Washington State. The participants included in this study were all experts on the digital divide as well as experts in various other fields. Each interviewee could imagine a possible future for the digital divide in Washington State in which social and economic justice was possible and each could imagine a future in which justice was denied. However, what is positive and powerful about these interviews is that there was strong agreement that a desirable future for Washington could be rendered more probable.
In closing this study, a few words are offered concerning the experience of conducting a qualitative study on what participants believed will be the future. There is an ontological transformation awaiting anyone who decides to conduct futures research. Quite quickly it becomes obvious that neither the past nor the future actually exists; only memories, projections, and perceptions exist. However, both the past and the future guide current action. When blended with the topics of social change and leadership, the value of futures research emerges as an absolute imperative. Without the ability to plan, project, and forecast, the ability to prepare for the future is hopeless. However, without hope, there is no future.
About the Author
Dr. Matthew M. Mitchell currently serves as the Program Development Coordinator for Washington State University's Center to Bridge the Digital Divide and as the Deputy Director for the Network for Capacity Building and Knowledge Exchange in the Telecommunications Sector of Africa. His research foci include eLearning, social justice in information societies, ICT-enabled economic development, and community leadership.
The author recognizes Drs. James Beebe and Robert Textor for their moral and technical support in completing this study.
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Paper received 3 October 2002; accepted 25 October 2002.
Copyright ©2002, First Monday
Copyright ©2002, Matthew M. Mitchell
Exploring the Future of the Digital Divide through Ethnographic Futures Research by Matthew M. Mitchell
First Monday, volume 7, number 11 (November 2002),
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
© First Monday, 1995-2013.