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Cultural divide
(not “digital”)

September 2001

disponibile anche in italiano

  Giancarlo Livraghi
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Censis is a major, government-supported institution for social analysis and research in Italy. In July, 2001 it published its first report on the availability and use of communication resources in Italian families. It’s a massive document (over 100 pages) but some of its basic findings can be summarized briefly – and reveal circumstances and attitudes that are probably found, in varying proportions, also in other countries.

They report that they were “surprised” to find a greater availability and variety of communication tools than they expected. Of course almost everyone has radio and television – and mobile phones are widely spread. But they also found books, newspapers, magazines, video recorders, videogames, computers and internet connections much more widely than was generally thought.

The key finding is that the abundance of available resources doesn’t mean that they are used. Censis found a distinction that divides families roughly 50-50. Half of them have an increasing abundance of information and communication tools and have problems adjusting to clutter – how to manage the variety and the overload. People in the “other half” may have the tools but lack the knowledge and the desire to use them.

Censis comments that this «is the picture of a country in which half of the citizens have the cultural tools (over and above technical resources) to benefit from the opportunities offered by the “information society”, while the other half have serious handicaps that are not caused by the lack of tools but by a deficit of linguistic competence, cognitive habits and behavioral motivations.»

This is not a new development and was not caused by the availability of new tools. It has its roots in pre-existing cultural circumstances. As Censis reports, «the people that read books and newspapers – and are familiar with radio, teletext and videorecorders – feel more easily comfortable with computers and the internet. The other half of the people may have their homes full of media, old and new, but don’t use them, continuing to have television as the dominant, if not only, point of reference.»

According to this report there is a computer in 43 percent of homes but only in 20 percent it is used regularly. There is an internet connection in 20 percent (and growing) but it’s actually used only by about half (11 percent) of the people. People may be buying equipment and tools because they want to “keep up with the trend” but that doesn’t mean that they are changing their habits and attitudes.

Except for cases of extreme poverty or isolation, the “information have-nots” are not conditioned by lack of tools. Their problem is that they are not really interested in what those resources have to offer.

The effective users of new technologies are the same people who already knew how to use a variety of information and communication tools.

In the case of television, “new” resources (satellite and cable) are underdeveloped in Italy compared to other European countries. But they are beginning to grow – in that part of the population that was already well equipped with a variety of communication tools. In the other half, “generic” television prevails – with programming aimed at its “heavy users” and therefore repetitive, superficial and intellectually dull. When these people read newspapers or magazines, they concentrate on the same stuff that they are watching on television (such as sports, fashion or gossip). If they use (occasionally) the internet, they go for “more of the same” – a repetition or enhancement of their favorite tv programs and personalities.

In simple words: there is no “digital divide”. Users of “digital” tools are the same people that know how to use all sorts of information and communication. There is a “cultural divide” and it’s staying where it was – or getting worse.

In other countries the proportions may be different. There may be a higher or lower percentage of “haves” and “have nots”. But (except in that unfortunately large part of the world where there are severe restrictions on information and freedom, or extreme poverty, or both) “to he best of my knowledge” the nature of the “divide” is more or less the same.

This is a serious problem. And it can not be solved just by increasing the availability of technology or technical training. It’s a problem of basic education in knowledge, curiosity, awareness, openness and sharing.

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