Will Deep Tech Expand the Digital Divide?

Kenna Castleberry

I recently wrote an article about diversifying the quantum workforce, which included addressing issues surrounding the “digital divide.” As a science writer covering the deep tech beat, I found this phrase popping up again and again, without fully understanding its implications. With the digital divide based on technological advancements, the development of deep tech can have profound implications on this divide. I decided to write this article to properly explain the impacts of the digital divide and what effects deep tech may have on it in the future.

What is the Digital Divide?

The phrase “digital divide” was first coined in 1990 during the rise of broadband internet. This phrase simply means the gap between locations and demographics who have access to Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and those who either don’t have access at all, or who have restricted access. ICT describes a lot of different types of technology, including smartphones, TVs, the internet, computers, and even deep tech, like AI or VR.

What Does This Divide Look Like and How Bad is it?

A digital divide can occur with no tech or internet access or even with low-performance computers, dial-up internet, or slow-speed internet. All of these things can negatively impact people’s abilities to learn, work, or even socialize.

To be frank, the digital divide in the U.S. is pretty bad. A 2015 study by Pew Research found that 30% of American households make less than $30,000 annually and don’t own a smartphone. Another 44% don’t have a personal computer or broadband services. To put these percentages into more realized numbers, a 2019 report found that approximately 5 million rural American households and 15.3 million metro-urban areas still don’t have access to broadband internet. The divide also, unsurprisingly, affects underserved communities and minorities more. A study found only 49% of African Americans and 51% of Hispanics have high-speed internet, compared to 66% of Caucasians in the U.S. This digital divide shows negative implications for individuals who are trying to succeed in society by working remotely or learning remotely or even trying to keep in touch with friends and family.

The Digital Divide and Deep Tech

Answering the question: Will deep tech expand the digital divide is complicated. We need to factor in what people think of deep tech, its benefits, and the larger implications of streamlining this technology. In early 2021, Pew Research surveyed a large number of Americans to better understand how they viewed deep tech. The survey found that people predicted that the technology would worsen the economic inequality, as the technology would not be widely accessible or affordable for some time, leaving only higher-income households with access. Other predictions included the increase in power of big tech firms, as well as the wider spread of misinformation over the internet. Not all predictions were negative, as many believed deep tech would overall improve quality of life, with more ‘smart” systems like telehealth and the rise of remote working.

However, the digital divide filters who will be able to currently participate in the benefits of deep tech. While telehealth and remote work are positive, not everyone has access to or can afford them. As the technology advances and improves, it will become less accessible and affordable for some time, widening the digital divide temporarily. We’ve seen this pattern already happen in the past with the rise of smartphones, personal computers, and 5G internet. Many people still cannot afford the cost of these products, being on the “losing” side of the digital divide. Deep tech products like AI and supercomputers are just the next step towards widening this gap, even if it is hopefully temporary as technology becomes more affordable in the future.

While this widening of the gap is already in motion, there are things we can do to help bridge the digital divide. Offering accessible technology and better connective internet, while seeming beneficial, is not enough. The digital divide is everywhere, and needs specific methods to overcome, as those on the “losing” side are already falling behind. In order to successfully bridge this divide, programs need to be established that teach digital literacy and skills to the “losing” side to help them catch up, along with programs that offer better technology access, social mobility, and economic equality. That is a lot to ask for, but some states are already working on it with some success. COVID-19 makes this divide more obvious in the case of remote learning, with Congress allocating more than $13 billion to help provide resources for schools to improve remote learning. This money has already begun to improve the estimated 12 million students-and some teachers-who don’t have home internet access. This is the first step and the right direction, and hopefully better understanding of the digital divide can help the U.S. and its technology businesses develop deep tech by bridging this gap in mind.

References:

Anderson, Janna, Lee Raine, and Emily A. Vogels. 2021. “Experts Say the ‘New Normal’ in 2025 Will Be Far More Tech-Driven, Presenting More Big Challenges.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. February 18, 2021.

“Myths about Bridging the Digital Divide.” 2021. NoaNet. January 21, 2021.

Rouse, Margaret. 2019. “What Is Digital Divide? – Definition from WhatIs.com.” WhatIs.com. 2019.

Soltan, Liz. 2014. “Digital Responsibility.” Digital Responsibility. 2014.

Strauss, Valerie. 2020. “Coronavirus Pandemic Shines Light on Deep Digital Divide in the U.S. Amid Efforts to Narrow It.” Washington Post. April 29, 2020.

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