Day #080: The Digital Divide

Why do some get left behind while other thrive?

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea: Continue making serious efforts to understand the digital divide while improving computer education and access.
  • Difficulty: 4 — The problem is still loosely defined and people like Dr. Nancy Stutts are still struggling to get people engaged with the issue.

Few inventions in human history rank ahead of the computer and the internet. Not since Guttenberg’s printing press has the documentation and spread of information accelerated as quickly. The printing press raised the ceiling and median of society in unprecedented ways. At the same time, it increased inequality and created an unhealthy asymmetry of information until an incredible movement promoting the ability to read and write helped those left behind catch up. The computer has elevated society, but it has also created a “digital divide” that needs to be further understood as quickly as possible.

From inception to publication, this has been the lengthiest article in 100 Days to a Better RVA” by a significant margin. I had never even heard the term “digital divide” until a few months ago, but I now believe it is a serious issue lurking in the shadows that feeds and is fed by inequality. Like posts about everything from parking lots to The Four Cemeteries at Evergreen, I set out to learn as much as possible about the world before basically sharing my opinion on a solution.

Few, if any problems in the first 79 days had golden answers, but some solutions made sense, attracted a consensus, and were making progress. This doesn’t seem to be the case for the digital divide, and I think that is the core of the problem.

Economic Opportunities

The digital divide is an economic and social inequality driven by lack of access and understanding to hardware, software, wetware (the knowledge and experience of navigating a digital environment), and cultware (social capital that allows individuals to solve problems with hardware or software). These inequities create serious barriers to finding, qualifying for, and creating jobs.

Virginia has one of the highest concentrations and rates of computer science jobs in the country. Despite high salary offerings and job security, Virginia can’t fill these jobs because of a lack of skills. This is an incredible opportunity for high wage jobs that deserves attention.

One of the largest drivers of income polarization in this country is skill biased technology change. Computer automation has eliminated routine jobs while amplifying the productivity of workers who are skilled enough to do non-routine jobs. Computer literacy is the new reading and writing.

These opportunities are a way to maintain the middle class. Not everyone is going to work for Google, but computer skills could be the difference between minimum wage and working for Best Buy’s Geek Squad. Also, many opportunities in the labor market are going to be hybrid jobs that require a knowledge in a discipline and computer skills.

More importantly, job matching is becoming more and more computer driven. 80% of Fortune 500 companies recruit online but only 25% of adults search for jobs on the Internet.1 A huge part of career advancement is joining companies that continue to develop human capital. If the only jobs low-income people have access to are low-skilled, then it’s tough to progress. Most workers, even those from households with multiple degrees, are unskilled when joining the labor force. This could be a huge driver of inequality that is locking some people into a class before their first job.

Social Problems

Few are working as hard as Rebecca Dovi to train students for the next generation of jobs. After years of teaching computer science at Patrick Henry High School, she recently turned her after-school work at CodeVA into a full time job. She’s clearly passionate about the economic issues of computer science, but the social problems may be even greater.

“Computer science right now, is how we solve human problems. By only having one group of people working on problems, the solutions tend to reflect who works on them. Having the tools to solve problems usually means having the power to decide which problems get attention.”

There is no shortage of beer tracking apps or variations on Twitter, but there is plenty of unmet potential in apps that empower and help people. Over half of households that make less than $30,000 per year have smart phones. A huge driver of this could be the distribution of computer science skills amongst people.

1,655 computer science exams were administered in Virginia last year. Only 308 girls participated and only 16 African American girls sat for the test. If the designers of our most powerful tools are from one background, then our society will skew toward their issues.

But the issues go beyond tech startups. A basic understanding of what computers can and can’t do is essential to thinking creatively about problem solving regardless of who’s writing the code.

Better Understanding

Our understanding of the digital divide is crude at best. It’s a barrie and a result, but we have little perspective as to what it means despite the incredible efforts of some unbelievably smart individuals. Better understanding the digital divide has to the be a priority.


Meaningful computer education is incredibly important. Schools need to teach computer literacy, not computer consumption–and that’s a huge difference. Dovi and her organization is at the forefront of that change. They are working tirelessly to train teachers in Virginia and to get as many CS teachers in schools as possible.

Education is a powerful tool, but the oldest people being educated right now are sixteen and seventeen years old. The digital divide is too important of an issue to wait until 2050 to be resolved.

Improved access and information about access

There are plenty of places to access the internet for free in Richmond, but timers and hours are a concern. Research is incredibly ambiguous as to whether access or knowledge of access is a bigger concern. In the fight for traditional literacy, simply having access to books wasn’t the answer.

Computer matching program

The combination of Moore’s Law and American consumer behavior has created an unbelievable surplus of unused computers. There’s something uniquely American about a graveyard of unused stuff lining the attic. Old computers are rapidly depreciating assets that most store unused for years. A program that attracts donations, wipes hard drives, and matches them with people to promote 100% computer ownership would be very effective and is entirely plausible.

— ∮∮∮ —

The digital divide is a serious problem that manifests itself in ways that are not immediately attributable. We need to seek to understand while dampening the effects of polarization for the betterment of society.

Dr. Nancy Stutts (Interim Chair, Master of Public Administration Program & Nonprofit Studies, VCU), Rebecca Dovi (Director of CodeVA), and Amanda Lineberry (UR Center for Civic Engagement) contributed to this article; however, the entirety of it does not necessarily represent their views.

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation.

Photo by: oh estelle

  1. According to a presentation by Nancy Stutts and Liana Kleeman, 
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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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