Global Digital Divide
There are striking international differences in access to computers and the Internet. This global digital divide may hinder the ability of non-industrialized economies to 'catch up' with the living standards and productivity of the industrialized world. The growth of personal computers has been rapid. Chinn and Fairlie note "There were only 2.5 personal computers per 100 people in the world in 1990. By 2001, the number ... had climbed to nearly 9. Internet use grew from essentially zero in early 1990s to 8.1 percent of the world's population by 2001" (2004: 7).
Graph from: Chinn and Fairlie 2004
But access was uneven, particularly between regions of the world. In 2001, there were 61 computers per hundred people in North America, and only 1 per 100 people in sub-Saharan Africa and 0.5 per 100 in South Asia.
Regional comparisons show clearly the striking disparity between those who have access to PCs and those who do not.
Graph from: Chinn and Fairlie 2004
What the maps show
Internet Use: From 1990, when the Internet was in its early stages and few people could use it, access has grown rapidly in the industrialized world. In 2002, there are few users in West, Central and sub-Saharan Africa. By contrast, nearly half the population in North America, Australia, South Korea and Scandinavia, and about a third of the population in the rest of Europe, Malaysia and Japan, could use the Internet. Nonetheless, access is growing in much of Asia, and Latin America.
Use of personal computers:
The number of Personal Computers (PCs) per 100 people follows a similar progression as Internet use, although a disparity of use was already prevalent in 1990 with a high concentration of PCs in the West, particularly the U.S. As of 2002 the United States, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, South Korea, and Australia have the highest concentration of PCs in the globe with more than half their populations in possession of PCs. When compared to much the of the rest of the world, especially in non-western developing regions, the difference in the dispersion of PCs in the population is huge. For example throughout most of Africa there has been little to no increase in the number of PCs since 1990. Notable exceptions are South Africa, Namibia, and Zambia which all increased from 1 percent of population penetration rates to between 5 and 15 per cent penetration rates of the population. However, according to Chinn and Fairlie (2004:7) and reflected in the maps, as of 2001 in the sub-Saharan region of Africa there is an overall computer penetration rate of below 2 per 1000 people.
The growth rate for PC and Internet use is highest in developing countries. As stated by the United Nations,"These now account for 34 percent of all Internet users in 2002: a dramatic increase from the 2 percent share in 1991" (2004). However this dramatic growth, while impressive does not belie the fact that a substantial disparity still exists and a 'considerable amount' of time will be needed for developing nations to 'catch up' (Chinn and Fairlie: 2004:7). Factors contributing to the increasing ubiquity of PCs and access to the Internet are related to "Growing investment in information technology, falling prices through technological improvement and reductions in trade barriers, domestic production, and greater functionality..." (UNSD: 2004).
Where does the data come from?
Statistics for personal computers per 100 people and Internet users per 100 people comes from the International Telecommunications Union's World Telecommunication Indicators Database. The ITU derives its statistics from annual questionnaires and estimates based on a multitude of factors, such as Internet Service Provider subscriber accounts and supplementation by other sources (Chinn and Fairlie: 2004: 24).
What could change this inequality?
According to Chinn and Fairlie both Internet penetration rates and PC penetration rates are most greatly affected by per capita income. However this is not the only factor, both telecommunications infrastructure and the quality of regulation (property rights and effective institutions) also have a significant influence on the diffusion. Also increased education (years of schooling) is associated with greater Internet and, particularly, PC use. Changing these conditions could reduce the digital divide. But there may also be an effect in the opposite direction, that is increased spread of PC and Internet use could raise productivity and education. The maps show that there is general improvement across the globe in both PC and Internet use rates. There remains, nevertheless, a long way to go to achieve global digital equality.
URL for maps: http://gis1.ucsc.edu/~ericw/index1.html
Suggested further reading:
Warschauer, Mark. 2003. Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Chinn, Menzie D., Robert W. Fairlie. 2004. "The Determinants of the Global Digital Divide: A Cross-Country Analysis of Computer and Internet Penetration." California Digital Library. Retrieved 13 July 2004. http://repositories.cdlib.org/cgirs/CGIRS-2004-3/
United Nations Statistics Division. 23 March 2004. "Goal 8 -- DDevelop a global Partnership for Development." Progress Towards the Millennium Development Goals, 1990 "2003. Retrieved 13 July 2004. http://millenniumindicators.un.org/unsd/mi/mi_coverfinal.htm