Module 4: The Materiality of Media

4.3 Digital Divides

What is the Digital Divide?

One of our assigned readings this week is “Permanent Online Landlord and Tenant Board Hearings Are Having Devastating Consequences” released by the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario. In this statement, the Advocacy Centre describes the impacts of Landlord and Tenant Board hearings being moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic. The statistics show a dramatic decline in tenants attending hearings, leading to a default ruling in favour of the landlord. The paper also notes the different ways in which landlords and tenants access the hearing—with landlords more likely to call in with video conferencing, while tenants are more likely to call in on a phone.

What this contemporary example illustrates is the digital divide—a material gap in digital access. Not every person has access to a personal computer and high-speed Internet, or to the time, energy, and money it takes to craft or maintain a personal or professional website.

Why is it important to consider who has the time, energy, and resources to create an online presence?

For example, if you are trying to choose a business to frequent, such as a restaurant or hair salon, or hire someone like a contractor or plumber, would you likely search for their website or social media? What would happen if you found well-maintained websites and social media pages for some but not others?

Who is Affected by the Digital Divide

The digital divide in Canada falls across lines of privilege and reflects inequalities in society such as income, urban/rural location, age, and immigration status (Haight, Quan-Haase, & Corbett, 2014). Here are some of the other population groups that are affected by the digital divide:

Disabled / Able Divide

According to the World Economic Forum (2021), disabled people in the United States are significantly less likely to own a computer or smartphone. However, Goggin (2017) cautions that most research on the digital divide for disabled people operates through a medical or charity model of disability (as discussed in Module 1) and fails to capture:

  1. The diversity of disabled people’s experiences with technology
  2. The many ways there are ‘built-in’ accessibility barriers to technology
  3. The ingenuity and contributions of disabled people and culture to digital design
  4. Intersectionality in disability and its high incidence alongside other marginalized identities with relationships to digital inequality such as class, race, and global location.

Indigenous / Settler Divide

Critically, a significant divide exists between Indigenous and settlers peoples in Canada, where only 24% of Indigenous communities have access to high-speed internet (Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, 2019). There is a complex relationship of ‘access to technology’ between Indigenous and settler peoples in Canada perpetuated by dominant media narratives that frame settlers as “technologically advanced” and Indigenous peoples as “technologically unsophisticated” (Winter & Boudreau, 2018). Winter and Boudreau (2018) assert that these framings create a false binary in the digital divide that imagines technology only through settler colonial values. They also point to examples of Indigenous initiatives in digital storytelling and virtual landscapes and draw on the words of Cheryl L’Hirondelle, a multidisciplinary artist who works within a Cree worldview,

“Connection to the land is what makes us Indigenous, and yet as we move forward into virtual domains we too are sneaking up and setting up camp — making this virtual and technologically mediated domain our own. However, we stake a claim here too as being an intrinsic part of this place — the very roots, or more appropriately routes. So let’s use our collective Indigenous unconscious to remember our contributions and the physical beginnings that were pivotal in how this virtual reality was constructed.”

(L’Hirondelle, 2016)

Gender Divide

Another digital divide emerges across gender, which has shifted significantly over time and location. In 2006, Henry Jenkins described the “stark divergence in rates of participation, dependent on socioeconomic status, race, and gender, with men considerably more likely to participate online than women” (p. 109). Recently, in the , this gendered divide in access and participation is closing (Haight, Quan-Haase, & Corbett, 2014) but it remains a pressing concern in the (Antonia & Tuffley, 2014).  However, as this divide in digital access is closing in the Global North, we have to ask ourselves: why are men more likely to participate online than women? A few answers come to mind: that women, femmes, and feminine persons are still on average doing more domestic and childcare labour than men and masculine persons, often alongside a full-time job; that Silicon Valley and Silicon Valley-inspired tech cultures are known to be toxically masculine spaces, and therefore unwelcoming for women and feminine persons; and that technology is typically coded as masculine, i.e., it’s more likely that boys will be encouraged to play with computers than girls.

Global Divide

Researchers today often use the terms ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ to describe how certain nations control technologies and industry while others provide the resources and labour for this industry (Kazemi, 2017). Broadly speaking, ‘Southern’ countries are those with higher rates of poverty and a history of being colonized or conquered by ‘Northern’ countries (Meekosha, 2011). While this distinction falls roughly along a North/South boundary, there are exceptions (such as Australia and New Zealand as ‘Northern’ and Central Asia and Mongolia as ‘Southern’) and many complexities and gray areas within this model (including the categorizations of China, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, and others).

When comparing the Global North with the Global South, Richard Heeks (2021) argues that today there is less of a global digital divide in who has access to technology; in fact, many poorer nations are growing rapidly in their digital engagement. However, Heeks contends that poorer nations are less included in the advantages of digital technology, i.e. these technologies allow and even encourage “a more-advantaged group to extract disproportionate value from the work or resources of another, less advantaged group.”  As an example, Heeks points to people in South Africa who end up earning less than minimum wage working for tech companies that use a gig economy model.

Contextualizing the Digital Divide

The digital divide encompasses a range of material conditions: from the homes we (may not) live in and work from, to being able to afford technology and wi-fi, to having access to high-speed internet at all. It includes being able or unable to operate the devices which were crafted for able-bodied users. It includes having the time, energy, and skillset to participate in online culture. It includes barriers to participation in online communities, which continue to reproduce offline violence, including the harassment of women, queer and trans people, and people of colour, often driving users off social media (Duguay, Burgess, & Suzor, 2020; Madden, Janoske, Winkler, & Edgar, 2018).

Astra Taylor (2014) writes that

“material and social conditions have not given way to will and imagination… The disparities of the off-line world have not been upended and we do not have equal access to the tools of creative production and capacity to attract an audience” (p. 108).

She goes on to explain that “despite the Web’s lowered barrier to entry, not everyone has equal resources or time to devote to the creation of art and culture” (p. 138). As we discussed in Module 3, predominantly through Safiya Noble’s  Algorithms of Oppression (2018), the Internet may not be a democratic space but instead can reproduce offline inequalities in a digital sphere. In an increasingly digitally mediated world in which our online presence is not only assumed but often required, those with power and privilege are advantaged. However, these conditions also create spaces for resistance and agency amongst those who might be otherwise disadvantaged. For example, listen to or read the transcript of this podcast hosted by Alice Wong who talks with Amanda Cachia about technology and access in museums:

Digital Divide in COVID-19

During COVID-19, these disparities became glaringly clear. The landlord-tenant example at the beginning of this module illustrates the stark class divide in terms of internet access, which of course overlaps and intersects with other social positions as mentioned above. When we think about the digital divide during COVID-19 we may reflect on questions such as:

  • Who is joining an online meeting/gathering/appointment from a private office on a high-powered computer, and who is calling in from a shared computer or a cell phone in a crowded apartment?
  • Who isn’t able to join an online meeting/gathering/appointment at all?

Erin Knight, in her CBC article that was assigned for this module, writes that “one in 10 Canadian households still have no internet at home, relying on mobile, work, school and libraries for basic connectivity. This raises the question: who’s being left out of the new online normal?” She goes on to note that “it’s disproportionately people living in rural and remote areas, low-income families, and Indigenous people” who do not have Internet access, and adds that for many other Canadians, their Internet access is slow—particularly on Indigenous reserves.


Think about times when you have had glitches and dropped phone calls, static and frozen screens.  Describe a time when technology failed you. What happened?


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Digital Methods for Disability Studies Copyright © 2022 by Esther Ignagni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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