From Digital Divide to Digital Inclusion and Beyond: A Positional Review

David Nemer

PhD Candidate, School of Informatics and Computing, Indiana University, Indianapolis, United States. Email:

The term digital divide holds a particular social and academic caché, but it is problematic in that it can lead to technologically deterministic thinking. It does not necessarily offer nuanced understandings of socioeconomic conditions under which the marginalized live. The term digital inclusion might be more useful, but it is still ambiguous since it may privilege the "digital" over other factors such as education and appropriation. This paper explores the different ways that scholars have been thinking about the digital divide and digital inclusion.

It starts with perspectives of the digital divide that address issues of physical access to information and communication Technologies (ICTs), education and technological savvy, and culture and sociopolitical empowerment. It also considers the scholarship that appropriates the perspectives of digital inclusion, different definitions of the term, different criteria by which inclusion is determined, implications of such perspectives, and the problems such scholars aim to solve by exploring digital inclusion. This literature review examines issues around the digital divide and digital inclusion, focusing on proposed initiatives to use digital technology to decrease the gap of access that exists between groups of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Research on digital divide access between ICTs and social and economic development has been undertaken for decades. It has, in many ways, been limited by initial efforts at conceptualizing, understanding, researching, and responding to the issues of the digital divide (West 2006). Perhaps the most obvious factor characterizing the digital divide is the extent of physical access to ICTs and the internet (Loader and Keeble 2004).1 Chinn and Fairlie (2004) describe the digital divide as the inequalities between any groups in terms of access and use of digital technologies. In this sense, the digital divide is usually concerned with statistics of access and can contribute by acknowledging where the gaps and problems are situated.

Is Access Enough?

During the 1990s and into the early 2000s, scholars and government-sponsored studies mainly focused on the physical access to technology as the solution to the digital divide. The Australian government (Australian National Training Authority 2002) tried to promote better education to isolated students by simply offering internet access in order to improve the communication between students and teachers. Caspary and O'Conor (2003) advocate that providing ICT access, as a given, to rural communities in developing countries would bring them economic benefits. The office responsible for online government services in the United Kingdom, e-Envoy, claims that the "opportunities to physically access the Internet are now available to all" (Office of the e-Envoy 2003, 5).

Although this overall picture of increasing opportunities for access to ICTs appears as a significant step toward tackling the digital divide, the literature also suggests that it may act to disguise widening differential access and use of ICTs (Loader and Keeble 2004; Correa 2008). In other words, digital technologies have advantaged those who already had access to other resources rather than people who didn't have such resources (van Dijk 2006; West 2006). These digital gaps may aggravate current disparities between social groups because new technologies provide convenient access to information, a tool needed for taking part in a democratic society, as well as providing access to education, employment, trade, wealth, and health (Correa 2008).

Studies have shown consistently that individuals who have access to ICTs, from the telephone to the internet, tend to have more schooling, higher incomes, and higher status occupations than do those who do not have access. Chinn and Fairlie (2004) propose a model that confirms the importance of per capita income in explaining the gap in computer and internet access. Based on this model, they were able to tell the percentage of the population from countries such as the United States and China that were deprived from accessing computers and the internet (Chinn and Fairlie 2004).

As already mentioned, the digital divide has been conceptualized as a gap between the "haves" and "have-nots" (van Dijk 2006). This approach offered that spreading digital technology within the marginalized population would solve the problem of inequalities of the digital divide (Peter and Valkenburg 2006). To reduce these inequalities, the primary effort of policy makers has been to provide physical access to digital technologies such as computers and the internet (Correa 2008).

Conversations regarding access focus on the technology and, as one might expect, largely on "haves" and "have-nots," which is problematic. The focus on technology access overemphasizes technological solutions, such as donation of laptops or programs like one laptop per child (OLPC) (Warschauer 2004). This does not leave space for other ways people come together and benefit from community technology access programs, including those providing community labs (such as Community Technology Centers). These programs are used to find ways for community involvement in determining the technology and access services useful for them (Bailey and Ngwenyama 2009). Van Dijk (2005) and Selwyn (2004) warned about the negative consequences of such a simplification of the issues around technology and access: providing software and hardware and not paying enough attention to the human and social systems which must change for technology to make a difference (Warschauer 2004).

Furthermore, simply providing access to ICTs may persuade people that, as digital technology expands through society, the issues of the digital divide are solved. In addition, it may lead to the conclusion that digital inequalities are vanishing among developed countries and connected people (Hargittai and Hinnant 2008; van Dijk 2006). Accessing ICTs and the internet is different from accessing the content that nests on them (van Dijk 2004). People may be excluded politically, economically, and socially if they don't attain the ability and appropriate the skills to use the internet (Newhagen and Bucy 2004).

Consequently, as more people are using the internet to communicate, retrieve information, and even contribute with content, "Encouraging remaining non-users onto the first rung of the internet ladder will remain an important challenge to guide policy in the next few years" (Office of the e-Envoy 2004, as cited in Livingstone and Helsper 2007). However, academics and policy makers have increasingly conveyed that it is necessary to shift the focus from a simplistic and binary conceptualization of internet access to a more advanced and complex approach (Correa 2008). In order for "individuals to fully realize the benefits of the internet we must help them move up the ladder-to move from basic activities such as e-mail and browsing to more advanced uses" (Office of the e-Envoy 2004, as cited in Livingstone and Helsper 2007, 4).

Helsper (2008) argues that there remains significant debate around the social and cultural aspects that may have helped or hindered the digital divide. In this sense, the digital divide cannot simply be understood as an absolute measurement of exclusion from access to ICTs (Loader and Keeble 2004). Since 2002, research on the digital divide has been moving beyond physical access to pay closer attention to concepts that are concerned with issues around culture, empowerment, social mobility, and differentiated uses of the internet (e.g., de Haan 2004; Hargittai 2002; Newhagen and Bucy 2004; van Dijk 2006). As the technological digital divide is decreasing between those with access to the internet and those without, the meaning of the term digital divide is evolving.


The emergence of this second wave of research on digital inequality has been identified as the (1) usage gap, (2) second-level digital divide, (3) emerging digital differentiation, and (4) digital inclusion.

Usage gap: Van Dijk (2005) has argued that access problems of digital technology gradually shift from the first two kinds of access, mental and material access, to the last two kinds, skills and usage access. When the problems of mental and material access have been solved, wholly or partially, the problems of a usage gap, structurally different skills, and uses come to the fore. The author proposed to define digital skills not only as the skill to operate computers and network connections but also as the skill to search, select, process, and apply information from a superabundance of sources and the ability to strategically use this information to improve one's position in society. They are called instrumental, informational, and strategic skills, respectively.

Second-level digital divide: Hargittai (2002) and Correa (2008) refer to the second-level digital divide as the production gap. This gap separates the consumers of content on the internet from the producers of content (Reilly 2010). New applications have made it possible for anyone with a computer and an internet connection to be a creator of content, yet the majority of user-generated content available widely on the internet, like public blogs, is created by a small portion of the internet-using population (Reilly 2010).

Emerging digital differentiation: van Dijk (2002) and Hacker and van Dijk (2003) conceptualize the digital divides as recursive and thus a dynamic phenomenon where gaps close at one stage and open at another. For example, if internet access gaps are bridged, internet skill gaps or internet usage gaps occur. This approach suggests that characteristics of internet users play a more important role in shaping internet adoption and use than the characteristics of the network. The emerging digital differentiation approach tends to evaluate the social and political role of the internet critically, with slightly pessimistic, dystopian undertones (Peter and Valkenburg 2006).

Digital inclusion: Crandall and Fisher (2009) suggest digital inclusion is the rallying cry of the twenty-first century. They claim that digital inclusion goes beyond access to computers and the internet for all, regardless of physical, cognitive, or financial ability; it means technological literacy and the ability to access relevant online content and services. Hache and Cullen (2009) extend the definition by arguing that digital inclusion is the process of democratization of access to ICTs in order to allow for the inclusion of the marginalized in society. They claim that digital inclusion should be seen as a wagon to social inclusion that ensures individuals and disadvantaged groups have access to the skills to use ICTs, further indicating these individuals will be able to participate in and benefit from electronic-mediated, growing knowledge within an information society.

What is Digital Inclusion?

Digital inclusion definitions, just like those for the digital divide, are misunderstood, especially in relation to the information society. The term has often been used, particularly by international organizations and the public sector, as jargon in appealing and populist policies, such as when providing tablets in exchange for popular votes (Vicknasingam and Mazlan 2008). The term has also been used for new and dazzling solutions for almost all gaps in contemporary society: poverty, social inequality, educational needs, social injustice, unemployment, violence, and crime, among others (Bonilla and Pretto 2011). Such inconsistencies lead to ambiguities in understanding why and what it takes to be included in the information society. Lemos (2003) questions these widely accepted assumptions, calling them the tenets of digital inclusion and exclusion. He proposes that the "Information Society," in which inclusion is a dogma and reflects the absence of discussion, provides the material conditions to access technology without questioning the cognitive processes involved, such as providing tablets to public schools and expecting the tablets to improve the quality of children's education. Some may believe this is the way that society should be included in the information age. Yet Lemos (2003) rhetorically asks:

What is this Information Society? Who is this included person? And what would he do with the possession of these new tools? Never mind. Let this be the happiness of companies, NGOs and tech companies which are going to sell us, under this ideology, more and more technological toys. (1)

Digital inclusion should examine the extent to which initiatives enhance interactions and possibilities of the marginalized people to participate and actively engage in current socio-technical dynamics. Therefore, it is not just a terminological or semantic discussion about the term "digital inclusion" but a social reading combined with the analysis of political interfaces between the actors involved, seizing their critical and constructive senses (Kok 2006). Hence, digital inclusion policies and appropriation of technology should afford new social realities for those who have been marginalized from (information) society.


Bonilla (2005) proposes possible ways to escape from an inclusive logic that is linked to an economistic perspective, meaning that being "included" means to be a consumer. To the author, being a consumer of technology means to accept epistemologies from the West (United States and Europe) concerning the "have-nots." In order to include someone digitally, Bonilla seeks perspectives and policies that create opportunities so that the marginalized are able to participate, question, produce, decide, change, and become an integral part of social dynamics in all instances. Such perspectives are summarized in one ideology: appropriation of technology.


Appropriation, therefore, should be at the core of every attempt to promote digital inclusion. For example, the Program of Socio-Digital Inclusion in Brazil tries to tackle the issue of the digital divide by "allowing the appropriation of technology and development of people in the most different aspects, stimulate job creation and income, and promote quality of life for families, provide greater social freedom, encourage the construction and maintenance of an active society, educated and entrepreneurial" (Bonilla 2005, 12).

The appropriation of technology presented in the definition above, and in many other digital inclusion initiatives, must be understood in order to promote personal and community empowerment. The use of technology can actually make a difference and improve people's lives when incorporating appropriation in digital inclusion initiatives. Anthony Akubue (2000) defines it as the technology that is suitable to the social and economic conditions of the geographic area in which it is to be applied. Furthermore, he suggests that appropriating technology is environmentally sound and promotes self-sufficiency on the part of those using it. According to Mori and Assumpção (2007), appropriating technology means that people who attend Community Technology Centers (CTCs)-e.g., telecenters, infocenters, and LAN Houses (units of public ICTs access)-would be "taking over" the digital technologies, "making these people" own them.

Policies in CTCs

The CTCs are also seen by Gomez (2012) as potential units of digital inclusion in which people in communities need to act with autonomy and independence. In these units, managers have policies to enforce rules of use for the digital technology, which goes against the autonomist perspective. Thus, marginalized people are submitted to a passive use and limited access to the ICTs since they have to follow these policies imposed by the units. Not only do internal CTC policies hinder people's appropriation of technology, but governmental policies also hamper this appropriation when they don't take into consideration institutional and community structures (Bonilla and Pretto 2011).These standard governmental policies for dissemination of CTCs for access to digital technologies (telecentres, infocenters, and LAN Houses), seem to be the main strategy for promoting digital inclusion, especially in countries like Brazil and India.

In Brazil and India, these governmental policies are followed as most of the population does not have the financial resources to buy their own ICTs (Neves 2010; Rao 2005; Warschauer 2004). Dias (2011) argues that although mobilizing large investment efforts by the government may seem significant actions to promote digital inclusion, the results and consequences of such efforts are still poorly evaluated. This is especially true in social and political aspects where only 4% of internet users in Brazil use the free public access centers, while 45% of the Internet users goes to LAN Houses (cybercafes) (Bonilla and Pretto 2011). The authors suggest LAN Houses are more sought after than public free units as the users have more freedom in LAN Houses than in free public units, where excessive control policies for digital technology use are in place.

Schwartz's (2006) critique of public policies aimed at digital inclusion shows the various political and conceptual errors that characterize the actions taken by the governments, such as providing lines of credits with low interest rates so new LAN Houses could be opened, but no education or training is given to the owners to run the facilities (Nemer, Gross, and True 2013). These public policies are further critiqued by Pretto (2001), who supports initiatives that allow the "inclusion of citizens, not as mere consumers of products or information, but as reasonable people that participate in the contemporary world as ethical beings, and autonomous decision-makers" (45). In this sense, it would be necessary, for example, to evaluate whether or not the basic computer courses provided to the marginalized population actually contribute in some way to the formation of participative and autonomous individuals. These alternatives invite scholars to reflect on the course of policies and actions that call themselves digital inclusion in order to avoid ambiguities and shortcomings (Pretto 2001).

Another alternative proposed by Schwartz (2006) consists of "a concept of digital emancipation as a way to enhance the results obtained from traditional digital inclusion programs or to redesign them" (2). The digital emancipation, as proposed by the author, aims to "organize the production and demand for goods and services produced digitally by the communities served by digital inclusion programs" (2). These emancipatory perspectives seek to change the focus of policies and actions, emphasizing the production of digital content combined with the digital and traditional cultures, overcoming barriers in communities, and encouraging them to be autonomous (Schwartz 2006; Bonilla and Pretto 2007). This approach emphasizes the importance of coordination of digital inclusion initiatives with educational and cultural issues and promoting political participation of citizens through ICT use. It has been observed that cultural and educational issues are present when discussing digital inclusion (Castells 2005). However, these issues are also often insufficiently addressed:

The digitally marginalized have three great ways to be excluded: first, they do not have access to the internet. Second, they have access to the communication system, but with a very low technical capacity. Third, (for me is the most important form of exclusion and the least addressed) they are connected to the internet and do not know how and what information to seek, how to combine information with one another and how to use it to improve their lives. This is more serious because it broadens and deepens the most serious exclusion of all history, is the exclusion of education and culture because the digital world increases dramatically. (Castells 2005, 132).


Digital inclusion must go beyond the physical connection and access to the hardware; in fact, it is not the access to the technology that will promote inclusion but how the technology will meet the social needs of local communities. Implementing digital inclusion programs must empower communities, fight poverty, promote citizenship, and provide better education (Nemer and Reed 2013).


Education is seen as an area that benefits digital inclusion since it shares the same belief that people's relations to digital technology should go beyond the technical perspective and mere access of it; it should promote its use with critical consciousness (Freire 2005). According to Warschauer (2002), education must be taken into account if meaningful and empowering access to new technologies is to be provided.

Palacios (2005) criticizes the digital inclusion initiatives that address the low educational and cultural aspects, highlighting the interplay between literacy, hegemonic culture, and digital inclusion:

Since we are in a society of exclusions, of extreme polarizations, the population that is digitally excluded is also excluded educationally and culturally. Even in the sense of culture that we call hegemonic, from the elites, or academic and school [...]. So if you give access to a person and she/he is semi-literate, she/he would have great difficulty reading because she/he doesn't have a major skill in terms of western culture - a culture that is driven by capitalism, that person would do very little in having access to a computer. (2)

Palacios understands that literacy is a prerequisite for the use of ICT, which reflects on the need, or not, to be literate to interact in digital environments. The more inserted and participatory into the contemporary dynamics, such as to be enrolled in school, the faster the people will understand and be familiar with the digital process. However, with the convergence of media, it is possible that a semi-literate person could produce, interact, and trigger dynamics of content production in several languages, including increasing the person's literacy processes in all these languages.

There is a great difficulty found among those that are raised in a strictly analog culture. Whether literate or not, they wouldn't understand, at least not immediately, the digital logic, such as the need of electricity and the on and off button. Some people from this culture, by facing an unknown environment, may feel alienated and scared, requiring training to feel comfortable in this new digital environment and culture. Palacios (2005) believes there are several possibilities at play in the dynamic construction in contemporary culture, not a single path.

Oliveira (2003) and Buzato (2007), point out that the link between digital inclusion and education in developing countries boils down to the holding of school activities in CTCs. This seems to be a very useful opportunity for students. However, the authors highlight a continued consumption of information by the students at CTCs, and they don't see any links between the practices at these spaces and pedagogic dynamics learned at school. Also, these "links" are not proposed, planned, or encouraged by public policies. In developing countries such as Brazil, public schools find themselves experiencing great pedagogical, structural, and technological difficulties (Oliveira 2003). Few students have access to computers in their schools, and the number of teachers who propose learning or cultural activities articulated directly with ICTs is even lower. Buzato (2007) criticizes such situations where ICTs are used in an instrumental perspective, with poorly taught basic software courses, or to do a search on the internet, which does not alter the dynamics already established by the school.

Bonilla (2009) argues that the technological spaces in the public schools should be considered public centers to access ICTs. Since technological spaces are already inserted in the schools, opportunity exists to link the digital culture and the pedagogic places to better digitally include the students. That is, such spaces should be used for intertwining school with everyday life, within the community, within the work place and culture, to promote a "space for the integration of young people in the culture of their time-and their time is marked by contemporary digital processes" (186). This approach would educate and create a digital culture among the population, allowing them to better understand the role of digital technologies in their lives and increasing the chances of appropriation and conscious use of ICTs.


Since great social and educational needs are concentrated in the poorest parts of the population in developing countries, the focus of digital inclusion programs is to fight poverty in a sustainable manner. Fighting poverty is constituted as one of the central arguments in the formulation of public policies dealing with appropriation. This is usually addressed with an welfare dependency approach in which people are seen as passive recipients of aid rather than as active transformers of their environment, becoming another issue superficially tackled in studies and digital inclusion initiatives (Virilio 1996).

According to Schwartzman (2004), poverty comprises a complex issue that has no simple cause or treatment. Accordingly, Schwartzman suggests studies around this theme have given an understanding of the survival strategies of the poor and the way public and private resources are aimed at solving the problems of poverty becoming (in)effective in the concerned sectors. Additionally, identifying the difficulties of adopting policies could change the living conditions of these marginalized populations, which "often fail to achieve the expected results, or have negative results, even when resources are available" (97). This happens because the generation and maintenance of poverty is part of the capitalist economic model and public policy. This model is focused on compensation, seeking only to maintain the balance between the forces in tension without effectively solving social issues. It does not offer the "instruments"-training, communication channels-required by the marginalized in order to demand their rights (Schwartzman 2004). In this sense, we can assume that hunger is not the greatest problem of poverty; the lack of citizenship is the greatest issue because it prevents the poor from becoming subjects of their own destiny, even working to see that hunger is reduced (Demo 1998).


The argument of citizenship becomes the justification for political actions. Several authors, including Lafer (1988), Correa (2002), and Arroyo (2001), have discussed and focused on citizenship as a dynamic concept that evolves according to different historical contexts. Arroyo (2001), by performing a historical analysis of the concept in the Brazilian society, notes that "they need to redefine the concept of citizenship, restoring the issues of citizenship in other words, social citizenship rights, human rights, the basic human rights" (43).

Not only is there a need to rebuild the notion of citizenship but also to build different technologies for citizenship (Eubanks 2011). "In order to do so, we must jettison the thinking that binds the marginalized to the distributive paradigm and narrows the vision of social justice in the information age. Within the confines of access-only approaches, it is impossible to acknowledge or understand the experiences" (98) the marginalized "have with ICTs in communities, the social service system, and the low-wage workplace" (98). Eubanks claims that "It is impossible to recognize, and therefore transform, the real world of information technology" (98) without adding the sense of citizenship.

Promoting digital citizenship also encourages digital inclusion; digital citizens use the internet regularly and effectively (Mossberger, Tolbert, and McNeal 2008). This perspective of citizenship is linked to the effectiveness of social and human rights by building participatory and dynamic public space. Public space, according to Lafer (1988), "is not the territory within the meaning of geographical locations and boundaries, but first and foremost a political and legal concept … that results from the action of its members" (219). Therefore, public space is a prerequisite for the construction of citizenship and the realization of rights. Arendt (2000) states that "the process of assertion of human rights, while the invention for living together, requires a public space, to which only you have access through citizenship" (22). Correa (2002) also suggests the political process of building citizenship "aims to create opportunities for equal access to public space as a condition of existence and survival of humans as members of a political community" (221). Based on Lafer (1988), Arendt (2000), and Correa (2002), therefore, citizenship can be understood as a constructive political process and constitution of the realization of social and human rights.

The understanding and experience of public spaces as spaces comprised of claims, constructions, and realizations of human rights, as argued by Correa (2002) and Berwig (1997), or as "spaces of all spaces and not the government," as claimed by Toro and Werneck (1996, 16), is therefore an essential condition for citizenship. Equal access to public space goes beyond the elimination of poverty and social inequality; it means promoting democracy, political participation, and social engagement. Such issues are not addressed in the measures of compensatory policies, as observed in many policymaking and digital inclusion projects; it represents human rights institutionally legitimized by the capitalist state.

Consider that, through ICTs, various spaces and digital information resources have been established in recent years. ICTs help make a space for dynamic communication and through the constant expansion of cyberspace. This is where social, economic, political, cultural, and subjective processes flow. Additionally, consider that the right to access information and communication is part of fundamental human rights. Citizenship is effective through living collectively in public space, and cyberspace is also part of the contemporary public space. Access to communication through ICTs, therefore, should be on the list of human rights in contemporary society (Bonilla and Pretto 2011).

Equal access to ICT extends beyond the proposed digital inclusion, which is based predominantly in overcoming poverty and social inequalities. The full use of ICTs is comprised of human rights, citizenship, and the dynamics of a generation of "new human rights." It is part of the contemporary condition of self-organization, collaboration, and horizontal processes that build the foundation for the establishment of a new social organization.

Therefore, no single technological solution will be an answer to the digital divide, however it may be defined. There are no silver bullets, whether wired or wireless, state or market-driven, mobile or fixed. These technologies need to be seen in the wider communication and informational environment in which they operate (Wilson, Best, and Kleine 2005). Issues related to digital inclusion are much more complex and multi-layered, as they cross economic, social, and cultural boundaries (Helsper 2008). In this sense, the term digital divide is insufficient to explain the potential of ICTs in organizing the people around their goals of social transformation, or digital inclusion, even though it has a broad power of communication. In the absence of a term that best expresses the potential of ICTs and has "communication power," using the popular term digital inclusion, while pointing out their ambiguities, contradictions, and implications, seems to be the right way to go.


1 "Internet" is often spelled with a capital "I." But according to Markham and Baym (2009), capitalizing means that "internet" is a proper noun and implies either that it is a being or a specific place.


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