Santa Clara University

STS Nexus

Lessons from the Field: The Less-Known Dimensions of the Digital Divide

Manuel Gandara

The Digital Divide: a Multidimensional Problem

There is a growing awareness that the digital divide is not just a matter of economic and physical availability of computers and connectivity. Large scale, national projects are being carried out in several countries, including Mexico, using federal funds to provide “access.” As these projects advance, it is increasingly clear that other dimensions of the digital divide should be addressed as well; the technology by itself will probably not be sufficient to bring about the benefits of a connected world.

Allen Hammond has argued cogently about the importance of separating the manifestations of the digital divide, the causes that bring it about, and the effects it will have if it is not closed (Hammond 2002:140). In Mexico, the manifestations are quite clear: not even seven percent of the total population is connected .1 Distribution of access points is quite uneven, concentrating at the largest cities (Mexico, Monterrey, Guadalajara, Puebla), and mostly in the northern portion of the country.2 The urban middle class (and upward), and young and middle aged males seem to be the groups most connected.

The effects of the digital divide in Mexico parallel what could be said for all other developing countries: the digital divide will exacerbate other internal historic, social divides, and increase the dependence and subordination to more developed countries. Avoiding or at least attenuating these negative consequences is so important in Mexico today that it is the main justification for the Sistema Nacional eMéxico (Margáin 2003:14), a presidential initiative with plans to create more than 2,500 “centros comunitarios digitales” (digital community centers) by the first quarter of 2003, and increase the number to close to 40,000 centers by 2006. Each center will average 10 computers, a server, and a 256 Kbps connection to the Internet.

The focus of this article is on the causes of the divide, because these will support the main argument: providing computers and connectivity all over the country is a great step in the right direction, but by itself it may end up being insufficient to bridge the divide. The lessons from the field were drawn through projects conducted by the “Centro de Cultura Digital” (Center for Digital Culture) based in Mexico City.

Accessibility Analyzed: Lessons from the Field

Hammond points out that technology should “not only be affordable and available, but accessible” (Hammond 2002:142). Price and physical availability are the two causes normally recognized for the divide, but there are others that Hammond includes under “accessibility” which could, in the long run, undermine the efforts of bringing computers and connectivity to everyone. “Accessibility” can be analyzed using six components: operability, intelligibility, cultural compatibility, relevance, usability, and security, which can be illustrated with examples taken directly from recent experiences in the field (in the Mexican states of Tlaxcala and Oaxaca).


Operability is defined as the degree to which the technology requires specialized training of the users before they can operate it efficiently. Operability is closely related to usability, but emphasizes the perspective of the intended users: what previous exposure or experience they must have to make good use of the technology. An operable technology will require less training or perhaps no training at all, other than watching others already familiar with the technology using it.

The impact of operability has been quite easy to observe in Mexico. During the 1990s there were several projects that brought computers to schools, only to have them wait in a storehouse for months because the teachers did not know how to use them and there were no provisions for teacher training in the project’s budget. This raises a concern with the current eMéxico program, given the number of community center coordinators to train—and not all of them will be teachers. The program has created a training arm to help prevent a repeated failure.

Not only computers have operability problems. Leticia Reyes found in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala that poor rural communities, supposed to have bad communication services, turned out to be quite heavy users of an expensive technology: cellular phones.3 While in several towns there was only one fixed phone line linked to the one phone booth (“la caseta”) offering long-distance service, cell phones were ubiquitous. However, their use seemed to be restricted to a quite specific age group: male teenagers and young adults. Older people found the device too complex and disconcerting to use.

A peasant in his late fifties told an interviewer in the town of Villareal that he was “…baffled by all of these buttons; they all look alike, and are too tiny for my eyes and my fingers. I am always pressing the wrong ones, so I rather have my son dial the thing for me and also to hang it up, since I seem to never remember how to do that.” This was a user who had no problem with analog phones, but who could not make, apparently, the correct mental model for the operation of the cellular phone: he did not get a dial tone immediately when he “picked up” the device, nor was it obvious how to “hang it.” There was a button to turn the phone on, a different one to initiate a call, another one to end it, and yet another one to turn the phone off, plus many buttons for which there are no equivalent functions in an analog phone. Since these basic operations vary across manufacturers, he could not generalize his learning and hence also felt ridiculous when he was unable to use someone else’s phone. So, he decided that he had no patience for something he felt should be “as easy as using the phone.” The owner’s manual was only available in English.

Training in these cases (and maybe also in the case of computers) can come as informal acts of “just watch me and imitate me.” In some contexts this happens to involve people from two different age groups, with the younger generation as the teaching group, which does not always go well in a culture that still places a lot of authority and respect on the normally self-reliant older generation. Here, operability and cultural compatibility conspire against the use of a technology. Lack of use has nothing to do with price or availability.

Sometimes what the user needs to know goes beyond the mechanics of the device itself. Several of those interviewed asked why the pace at which they “used up” their prepaid cell phone cards varied so much. They wanted to know if there was a way of obtaining cheaper and more stable rates. The research team initially thought that the variance was a function of the different rates of their respective carriers. On closer inspection they found that most informants used the same company. It turned out that not every one in the village had “activated” their cell phones in the same place since there are three nearby cities where this can be done. Depending on where they did it, the phones belonged to different area codes, and thus a call to a neighbor next door could actually count as a long-distance call. While none of this information was “secret” or intentionally hidden from the users, it simply was not salient enough to be easily learned.


Technology that requires little training will still be inaccessible if it is unintelligible for the users. While having cell-phone manuals in English is a nuisance, Web content in English is useless for those not able to translate. While more than seven percent of Internet users speak Spanish, only about 2.5 percent of available content is in Spanish. By contrast, 68 percent of content is in English despite the fact that English speakers are just 36.5 percent of users worldwide. 4 In rural Mexico the situation gets worse, because even if the contents are in Spanish, there is a high rate of illiteracy (15 percent for the country as a whole is the figure quoted most often), and there are still many people who only speak their own native language.

Bridging the language aspect of the digital di­vide was the original motivation for Monroy (2002) to address the challenge of creating content in some of the indigenous languages of Mexico, specifically in the southern state of Oaxaca. Using HDL, a program cre­ated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab, Monroy developed a methodology to train and help people from indigenous communities in creating “Internet newspapers,” following up on similar and successful projects carried out by MIT in the U.S. Monroy approached two non-governmental associations in Oaxaca (the “Unión”5 and the “Coalición”6 ), each with important indigenous con­stituencies. Both found the idea of having online news­papers appealing. While Monroy’s original idea was to help them create content in Zapotec or Mixtec (two of the most popular Oaxacan languages), the teachers from the Coalición pointed out that the real problem was not the availability of the newspaper in the native language, but rather that many indigenous people read neither Zapotec or Spanish (Gándara and Monroy 2003). Again, availability of technology will not, by itself, bridge the divide created by illiteracy.

Cultural compatibility

What variables, other than price and physi­cal availability, influence the adoption of new tech­nologies? The typical assumption is that poor penetra­tion of new technologies in rural and marginal areas of Mexico is caused mainly by high costs or the physi­cal absence of connectivity. The research hypothesis (Reyes 2002a:2) was that there are variables not nor­mally explored which give rise to other aspects of the digital divide; specifically,  “cultural patterns of use” of communication technologies could lead to incom­patibilities and hence rejection or at least slower ac­ceptance of new technologies.

The research team went to Nepopualco, state of Tlaxcala (about 2 hours by car from Mexico City, population 413) prepared to see a very limited pen­etration of communication technologies based on their assumptions focused on affordability and availability. The town is mainly an agricultural community, but supplements its income hiring themselves out for all sorts of jobs in the larger towns and cities nearby. Also, it is now common for many (currently 33 percent) of the younger men to migrate (legally or illegally) to the United States. These migrants send money back to their families each month, and return (at least the legal ones) to town at least once a year for the town’s patron saint’s fiesta. This may help explain what the research team found much to their surprise: while there is just one telephone line—and hence this town would count as “under connected” by most definitions—there were no less than 70 cellular phones. Sixty-five percent of the families in town have one. Given the cost of a cel­lular call in México (typically around 2 or 2.50 pesos a minute, or about $0.20- $0.25), this was surprising indeed: they were spending around 500 to 600 pesos ($50-$60) a month on average (Reyes 2003b:1). Migrants probably have had an impor­tant cultural impact, introducing and making cell phones familiar, creating “cultural compatibility,” and providing both the need and the means for their use. Cell phones allow the migrants’ families to maintain contact with them while they are in the United States.

The majority of these phones, as men­tioned before, operate via pre-paid cards, rather than by monthly contract. The pre-paid card was the key to the phenomenal success of cellular phones in Mexico. Many people do not have enough cash flow to commit to a monthly fee, despite the fact that they would get a lower per-minute rate under those plans. People in Nepopualco and elsewhere do not like the feeling of not knowing whether they will have the money for next month’s bill because, indeed, they may not have it. So they buy the prepaid card and try to limit their calls to what they already own and have paid for. If there is a bad streak, and the card is used up, they simply wait until they have money again: no harm done, no credit history spoiled. And since one of the main reasons to have a phone is to call their migrant sons, they themselves help to foot the bill with the monthly remittances of money. Pre­paid cards are more “culturally compatible” than con­tracts with mandatory periods and monthly fees. There has been no change in the technology itself but in the form of ownership, one more compatible with the cultural patterns that derive from the limitations of a rural economy.

Thus, in order for technology to make sense in rural contexts, the question of what previously ex­isting forms of communication can new technology really improve upon without clashing with other as­pects of culture must be addressed. In the smaller com­munities, it is likely that in-town communication still depends on face-to-face interactions, and on the par­ticular patterns of authority and prestige that act as “editorializers” for whatever circulates inside. This leaves communication with the larger, outside world as the prime motivator for the introduction of tele­communications technology. But whatever is brought from the outside first has to have a crucial quality: relevance. Otherwise, the community will see no rea­sons to adopt it since there are probably other cheaper, easier to use technologies already in place.


Even if the technology is operable and the content intelligible, it will be of little use if the content is irrelevant. While most potential users in both the Oaxaca and Tlaxcala projects recognized the value of having electronic mail (given the notorious inefficacy of land mail in rural areas) and were very enthusiastic about the idea of using the Internet to place long distance calls at a fraction of the cost, they were not so sure as to how else they could use the Web.

Given the scarcity of socially useful and rel­evant content produced in Mexico, one fears that the digital community centers envisioned by the eMéxico Program may end up as souped-up cyber cafés, and that the technology may end up alienating rather than enriching the recipient communities. Uses such as in­consequential chats, searching for pornography, MP3 file sharing, and instant messaging already are im­portant in commercial cyber cafés. Whether the Internet will really be a medium to illuminate the masses or a vehicle to deliver them to the advertising industry through the latest form of massive entertain­ment remains to be seen.7 Relevance will be key. An immediate way to create relevance is to have the users become content creators—one of the motivations for the Oaxaca project mentioned before.


Usability is a desirable property of hardware, software, and other technologies, and it depends on five elements: (1) ease of learning, (2) retention of what was learned, (3) low rate of user-generated errors due to design characteristics, (4) efficacy in helping users achieve their goals, and (5) the subjective satisfaction of the user (Nielsen 1993). The importance of usability cannot be under­estimated. In the United States alone, a recent survey showed that of those not yet connected to the Internet (about 100 million people), 57 percent had no inten­tion of getting online, and one of the most cited rea­sons was that the Internet is too difficult and complex to use—which means, of course, that it is still not very usable. An international survey found similar results.8 Overall, more than 65 percent of respondents identi­fied the perceived lack of need, and difficulty of learn­ing and/or using the technology, as the main reasons to remain off-line .9

The Oaxaca experience was illuminating. The software used, HDL, would probably count under normal conditions as being quite user-friendly. How­ever, tasks such as inserting an image into the online newspaper turned out to be daunting to most users. They first had to incorporate the picture into a data­base (not very difficult, but it required an understand­ing of the file system), and then, copy the file name and path and paste it in the proper place in the target page, while activating an “images option” to display the picture. This sequence is not too difficult for an experienced user, and thus not a terrible shortcoming of the software. It became an issue because some of the people we worked with were using a computer for the first time, and training time was limited to less than 24 hours. Each time the sequence of steps went wrong for some reason, the participants’ self-confi-dence would drop while their anxiety went up. At more than one juncture the HDL users’ frustration would reach levels they felt were too high to be worth the effort.

Within the context of projects such as eMéxico, the research indicates that whenever there is lack of familiarity with the technology, usability be­comes a premium feature. Extra care should be de­voted to insure that the first experiences users have are pleasant, reassuring, and not frustrating. The per­ceived complexity of the technology that prevents many people from using computers and the Internet is not just a perception: it is quite real.


Worldwide, quite a number of people off­line (and others that used the Internet and later stopped) quote security and invasion of privacy as major concerns. Spam, pop-up windows with un­wanted ads, and the risk of malicious attacks via com­puter viruses or as a “hack” of one’s system keep some people away from Internet. This is not yet a problem in Mexico, perhaps only because there are still rela­tively few users and potential invaders. Given our sad Latin American history of government abuse of the media, censorship, and unauthorized surveillance, we should keep alert and consistently inform new users of the potential dangers.

Conclusion: Beyond Affordability and Availability

It is frequent in Mexico to hear that the big challenge of the digital divide is universal access. Fol­lowing Hammond’s lead, “access” cannot be reduced to affordable and available computers and connec­tivity.  It has to incorporate other, less visible dimen­sions of the divide, which Hammond calls “accessi­bility,” and which consists of  at least six factors: operability, intelligibility, cultural compatibility, rel­evance, usability, and security. The lessons gleaned from fieldwork show that in order to bridge the digi­tal divide these factors must be taken into account.

End Notes

1 Digitrends estimates Internet penetration at 6.7 million users

( “Crece

influencia de Internet en el Mundo.” In Noticias de eMéxico

(, accessed February 27, 2003).

2 This pattern resembles that of phone penetration, for which

estimates also vary, but that is normally quoted at about 12

lines per 100 people (Margáin 2003:12).

3In the context of a joint research project with Motorola México,

that Reyes coordinated for the Centro de Cultura Digital in 2002.

4 Source: (, accessed

June 12, 2002.

5 The Unión de Museos Comunitarios de Oaxaca (UMCO)

congregates the two-dozen community museums in the state

that are planned, designed, implemented, and maintained by

the communities themselves. Information on their impressive

work is available through their Internet newspaper at http://

6 “La Coali,” as it is known in Oaxaca, is a “Coalition of

Indigenous Bilingual Teachers” who were concerned that by

teaching literacy in Spanish they could be altering and affecting

their own native culture. Their Internet newspaper is available


7 This is a problem not only in the developing countries. Nielsen

Ratings indicates that in the United States the average user

connects to the Web 19 times a month, visits 40 pages per session,

and spends about a minute per page. Source: http://,

accessed June 12, 2002.

8 Source:

index.cfm?key=168, accessed June 12, 2002.

9 Ibid


Manuel Gándara and M. Monroy. Informe Final. Proyecto

Periódicos Comunitarios (México City: Centro de Cultura Digital

Internal Report, 2003).

Allen Hammond. “The digital divide in the new millennium.”

Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal 20, no.1 (2002),


Julio César Margain. “El Sistema Nacional eMéxico.”

Nexos, Política Digital (edición especial, 2003), 12-14.

Marco Monroy. Developing a Framework for a Minority

Language-Based Utility (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Media Lab,

M.A. Thesis Proposal, 2001).

Jacob Nielsen. Usability Engineering (Boston, MA: Academic

Press, 1993).

Leticia Reyes. Informe Final. Proyecto ‘Naranjo’ (México

City: Centro de Cultura Digital Internal Report, 2002b).

Leticia Reyes. Proyecto de Investigación Naranjo (México

City: Centro de Cultura Digital Internal Report, 2002a).

About the Author

        Manuel Gandara

Manuel Gandara

Manuel Gándara is senior researcher at the Centro de Cultura Digital (Center for Digital Culture) in Mexico City, where his work centers on problems of usability and the educational and socially relevant uses of computers and Internet. His Ph.D. is in Design and New Technologies from Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Azcapotzalco campus, though he is originally an archeologist. He served as Director of the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National School of Anthropology and History), the Center for Educational Technologies of the Mexican Ministry of Education, and was a founding partner of EduMac, the first company in Mexico devoted to educational computing. Dr. Gándara has worked on the educational uses of computers since 1984, and has also developed commercial educational software and produced more than 36 interactive multimedia kiosks for Mexican museums.

Printer-friendly format