Smartphones Have Bridged The Digital Divide

Since at least the 1990s, when personal computers first became commonplace, public policy experts have worried the ill effects of a Digital Divide. That is, a learning, socialization and economic gap across socio-economic status, race and gender caused by unequal access to computing resources.

No need. The Digital Divide has now been bridged by smartphones - the most advanced personal computing devices ever. While personal computers were disproportionally used by the rich, the white and the male, smartphones are more likely to be used by Blacks and Hispanics than Whites, and by girls as equally as boys.

Whites Trail In Smartphone Ownership

According to a Pew research survey conducted last year, 49% of Hispanics and 47% of Blacks own a smartphone, compared to only 42% of Whites. The survey also revealed than men and women were about evenly split (46% to 45%, respectively) in smartphone ownership, as were suburban and urban residents (49% to 48%, respectively).

Only The Income Gap Remains

Mobile computing is a fast-moving revolution that is spreading online access to all who welcome it. In fact, the majority of adult Americans and more than a third of teens now own a smartphone. That said, household income remains a differentiator - there is still a clear gap in smartphone ownership between rich and poor.

Expect this too to disappear very soon as prices continue to fall.

Android smartphones and the latest Nokia Asha devices, for example, are available for less than $100 (no contract needed) all around the world. In the U.S., many smartphones now come free with a carrier voice and data plan. Prices for devices and services will almost certainly continue to drop.

In an interview with Bloomberg last month, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen noted that "$50 Android smartphones" would be available this year.  Carriers that demand fees that millions cannot afford are likely to be routed around - by Google fiber as likely as legislation. Fewer and fewer people, particularly in the United States and other rich countries, will be denied always-on, any-place connectivity to the global Web.

The Smartphone Is The Computer

Naysayers like to retort that smartphones don't fully erase the Digital Divide because, even more than tablets,they are primarily "consumption" devices. While "real" computers, the argument goes, can be used to create things and do real work, smartphones are all about downloading content and chatting on Facebook. 

Work is changing, however, in many cases to take advantage of the spread of smartphones.  Such changes may, in fact, disproportionately favor minorities. A separate Pew study last year revealed that Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to use their mobile devices for a wider range of activities than do Whites. 

(See also Teenagers & Smartphones: How They're Already Changing The World.)

Further, some have called the notion that smartphones are not designed for "real work" an elitist view: 

To discount identity performance, socialization and other activities on social media as not productive, not educational, not meaningful, pure entertainment and a waste of time offensively reduces less privileged folks as “an other,” less worthy and less human.

Productivity Divide?

If smartphones connect an increasing number of Americans to knowledge resources, job opportunities and cultural amenities, are they  delivering a clear and calculable economic benefit equivalent to that provided by PCs? 

It seems that economic analysis has simply not yet caught up with the impact smartphones are having on work and the economy. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that already today's smartphones possess the computing power of a "desktop" in 2005 and that "at heart [smartphones] are like all computers before them. They are efficiency engines, a means of saving time, bridging distance, reducing cost."

Nonetheless, the Journal acknowledges that proving smartphones' aggregate economic value remains difficult: 

Yet there's something bizarre going on. Even as an estimated 130 million smartphones roam the U.S. streets, economists can't quite find them.

Still, as the Journal also states: "Can you find an area of life and business not being affected by the devices?" 

Global Phenomenon

The situation may be even clearer overseas. Already, 89% of the developing world has a mobile device. It's a solid assumption that these mobile phone users will soon transition to smartphones. Indeed, smartphone sales now eclipse traditional mobile phone sales. According to the International Telecommunication Union, "mobile broadband" subscriptions have grown from 278 million in 2007 - when the iPhone was first introduced - to 2.1 billion this year.

These numbers continue to grow - and researchers say the trend is already making a big difference:

As smartphones continue to spread to every demographic group in every corner of the world, there's just no more room for the Digital Divide. That's a big deal, and likely to bring significant economic, social and cultural effects over the coming months, years and decades.

(See also The Numbers Are Clear: Mobile is Taking Over the World.) 

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.