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Digital divide

di Elena Guarneri

 Information Society and digital divide by the light of cultural globalisation

The term digital divide appeared for the first time in 1996, in the United States. Since then it has been adopted to point out the gap – both quantitative and qualitative – in the use of Information and Communication Technologies, particularly Internet.
In a society where the access to information is the necessary condition (and pre-condition) for most exchange processes and transactions, digital divide is at the same time mirror and driving force of a cultural, social and economic gap. The distance between “info-poor” and “info-rich” boosts the overall effects of globalisation, with a “winner-takes-all” consequence.
In his trilogy “The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture”(1), the sociologist Manuel Castells states that knowledge and cultural values are the effective tools of change. In this perspective, influencing cultural codes is the only real challenge to modify the status quo: “If you win the battle of minds, you win the battle of politics, the battle of economy, because people will decide what they want to buy or what they don’t want to buy, for instance.”

But is it possible to draw the frontiers of the digital divide? And does it really mark an overall process of globalisation? Although there are still a “North” and a “South” of development, the exchange model settled through Internet – and Information and Communication Technologies in general - is becoming headless and, in this sense, more democratic. The widely accepted categories of a “North” and a “South” are too restrictive: relational and socio-economic factors lead the game, much more than geographical distance or proximity. These elements give rise to the so-called “worldly techno-apartheid”(2), a two-speed social geography which excludes whole regions of the Globe and creates narrow ties between territories far from each other. The result is a polymorphous space, shaped by the dialectics between the hubs of knowledge – linked to specific backgrounds – and its spreading through the networks of communication. In this way, information society conciliates globalisation and localisation, strengthening somehow the need of physical interaction and nearness (a clear example is the concentration of IT labs, researchers and firms in the Sylicon Valley pole).
Compared with the over-simplified perspective of a world ruled by big groups and lobbies of economic power, information society allows freedom of expression of the niches, boosting the voice of ecologists, feminists, religious fundamentalisms and of all localisms.
Nowadays we can witness a twofold process of development: on one hand, the growth of global networks and massive economic interests; on the other, the attempt to oppose dominant values and to search for alternative sources of meaning. It’s a cultural revolution generated by the system itself, and carried out through the tools which originally exclude alternative voices and values.
Therefore, new technologies of communication can lead to different outcomes, according to different backgrounds: in the interview 'Identity and Change in the Network Society'(3) Castells reverses the terms “think globally, act locally”, stating that actions always arise from tangible needs, which are then spread through global networks. In the on-going play between local and global the negotiable balance of the network systems is being constantly (re)shaped.
Telematic networks play with the complexity of contemporary society, by prompting the development of hybrid systems (the metissage, to quote the anthropologist Serge Gruzinski(4)), where the appropriation and the re-appropriation of values and ideas is always an active process. The anthropologist Ulf Hannerz describes the new technologies of communication as “media of life”(5), highlighting their interactivity and the power to foster collective identities by strengthening long-distance bonds, through an ongoing process of reorganization of sense.
In this perspective communication and international communication are vehicles for the transmission of new cultural values. An example? The Sem Terra in South America, one of the first movement to have adopted Internet to spread their protest throughout the world.

Web references

Digital divide

UNESCO Observatory on the Information Society

ITU (International Telecommunication Union)

WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society)

European Commission – Information Society Directorate General


(1) Castells, Manuel, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Blackwell, Oxford (1996, 1997, 1998)

(2) Petrella, Riccardo, Limites à la compétitivité, Editions La Découverte, Paris, 1995

(3) Castells, Manuel, Identity and Change in the Network Society, interview by Harry Kreisler available online:

(4) Gruzinski, Serge, La pensée métisse, Editions Fayard, 1999

(5) Hannerz, Ulf. 2000, Flows, Boundaries and Hybrids: Keywords and Transnational Anthropology. Paper available online

di Elena Guarneri