History: Voice to the World (VW) started as an after-school program for the students of Henderson Middle School, a Richmond Public School in the Northside area, in January of 2010. The initiative started as a volunteer site through Build It, the largest program under the University of Richmond's Center for Civic Engagement. Different mentoring programs and volunteer experiences made the founders of VW aware of the technology-literacy disparity prevalent in certain populations. After two semesters at Henderson, the program expanded to Refugee and Immigration Services in January of 2011.
The Digital Divide has been recognized worldwide by sectors of government, business, and philanthropic initiatives. Large programs, such as the Cisco Networking Academies and One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), characterize the recognized importance of the divide, substantiated by hundreds of reports, including "Falling Through the Net" by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NITA) and the 2001 Human Development Report issued by the United Nations Development Programme. All of these organizations, initiatives, and reports establish the validity and magnitude of the digital divide, particularly in terms of access to technology. In response, many programs have narrowed the divide in those terms. In 1998, 32 percent of schools in the US reported having Internet access, which rose to 90 percent in 2001. In terms of access, great strides have been achieved in addressing the digital divide. In 2003, in their book Closing the Digital Divide: Transforming Regional Economies and Communities with Information Technology, Marshal et al. identified "steadily decreasing costs of use and steadily increasing ease of use" as factors that will cause, "in the coming months... controversies about the 'digital divide' to fade away."
However the digital divide has not faded away, in part due to the misleading nature of the term "access." Those schools reporting Internet access do not specify how many of their computers have access to the Internet, or how many computers the school even has. Furthermore, how many of those computers are restricted to the administration, and how many computers are made available for student use? How much time may students spend on the computers? What websites are blocked? How is the technology used in the classroom? Are the teachers comfortable and familiar with the technology? In terms of hardware, is the computer up-to-date? What software is used in the educational process?
Unfortunately, merely addressing the divide of access cannot answer these questions. The real problem with the digital divide, the gap of knowledge evident in societies not only pertaining to technology but seen throughout education, perpetuates the gap between rich and poor. In developed nations, where familiarity with technology is vital for higher education and employment, technology serves as a tool to limit access to higher levels of success. Knowledge of technology is vital to succeed.
In December of 1997 the UN General Assembly endorsed the ACC Statement on Universal Access to Basic Communication and Information Services, which stated that "introduction and use of information and communication technology must become a priority effort...in order to secure sustainable human development." The UN's endorsement of the statement was among the first world-wide recognizing the importance of technology in daily life, education, career, and success, specifically in developed nations. On an individual level, technology, particularly computers and the Internet, play a vital role in everyday activities. Online banking and shopping has spurred entire Internet-based corporations. Travel sites allow travelers to easily book and travel the world. Job and higher-education applications are becoming electronic at an exponential rate. Likewise, computer use on the job and in the classroom is nearly inevitable.
Globally, the digital divide speaks to a much larger educational deficit, one magnified by the gap between rich and poor. Education is a measure of success, but also a form of control. Those groups lacking proper access to educational systems are disenfranchised, excluded from social avenues that would allow them to rise in society. Western attention to technology has cemented this means of control, solidifying a global lack of access to technology. Termed "information poverty," numerous reports by the United Nations highlight the staggering global digital divide. Both at home and abroad, the digital divide speaks to larger social issues of education, access, and control.
In the US, the digital divide is captured predominately by inequalities of exposure and knowledge, not access. Statistically speaking, the levels of no-access are very low in the US. Since NITA was established in 1994 in the Department of Commerce, large and very successful strides have been taken to increase access to computers and the Internet. First focusing on phone access, NITA and the initiatives it represents have made the US one of the leading countries in terms of access. Today, citizens who do not own a computer or have a connection to the Internet will find these services free of charge at their local library or community center, at the very least. According to the US Census, which stopped asking households about computer ownership in 2007, 61.8 percent of households owned a computer, and 54.7 percent had Internet use at home (68.7 percent in 2009). Therefore we can expect at least 30 percent of the American population, or over 90 million Americans, to be without both computer and Internet access in their home, necessitating other methods of connectivity.
The digital divide, like other disparities, shares correlations with other social identifiers. Benjamin Compaine, conducting extensive statistical analysis in his book The Digital Divide: Facing a Crisis or Creating a Myth?, writes that "information have-nots are disproportionately found in the country's rural areas and its central cities." Predominately, the digital divide is greatest amongst minorities, particularly African Americans. Educationally, less-educated populations experience a greater lack of technological knowledge. These correlations speak toward a commonality of inequalities, and the increased need to narrow these divides.