First Monday

Zones of silence: A framework beyond the digital divide by Amelia Bryne Potter

There is no doubt that much digital divide work — including connectivity initiatives, technology transfer programs, and other projects — is done with good intention. Yet, as has been widely recognized, the conceptual framework of the digital divide is limiting. The language of the digital divide not only places people into simplistic “have”/“have not” categories, making assumptions about the solution to “information poverty” with little attention to local contexts, its logic also continues a paradigm of development that engages with the global south only at the point of what it “lacks”. I propose a framework, which provides a wider, and more nuanced, lens to look through. It focuses work in ways and in areas consistently overlooked by the digital divide, particularly on the realities, voices, and complexities within its unconnected, “have not” spaces — the zones of silence. Encouraging critical questioning of assumptions and an understanding of local contexts and points of view, a zones of silence framework is a way to broaden the dialogue on global communication and information access beyond a discourse of need, to one of mutual questioning, sharing, and learning. I begin with a brief critique of the digital divide, followed by a definition of this zones of silence framework and how it can help us to see and consider issues differently. I then suggest three areas where work from this perspective might begin.


The limitations of the digital divide
Listening in the zones of silence: A tool to move beyond the digital divide
Ways to begin: Working from a zones of silence framework
First steps




As the designer of a Web site for a project connecting Canada, Brazil, and Angola I began to become concerned with how, and if, it would be useful to all three project teams. The project’s goal was to develop and share knowledge about building food security (people’s ability to access affordable and acceptable food) through online courses, workshops, and local pilot projects. Communication by the Internet was key to the project’s design, but besides our language differences, I realized that I knew little about the context in which the Web site and its resources would be used outside of Canada. According to statistics, Internet and computer access differed significantly among the three countries, but what did this mean? What sort of information would be most relevant to each partner? How useful would resources written only in English be? Where and how would project team members access the Internet? Did their access to and use of computers differ from my own?

Perhaps one of the most exciting possibilities of the Internet is the potential it has to connect people who have ideas, stories, and advice to share with each other. Currently, technology funds for development projects are aimed at enabling this. Making access possible to computers and the Internet is seen as a means of overcoming the “digital divide”. Or, as a way of alleviating “information poverty” by helping those in the countries, communities, or households where access to new information and communication technologies (ICTs) is not easy — to have the same type of information resources that information “haves” enjoy. With access to new resources and experts, it is argued, people will be able to solve many of the issues they face at a local level.

Over the past decade this issue, the digital divide, has been the subject of much attention from development agencies, researchers, NGOs, governments, and the private sector. Given this attention, I expected to find a good deal of work on what it is like to live and work on “the other side of the information highway”, the places where access to computers and the Internet is tricky or presently non–existent, and where development agencies, corporations, researchers, and others believe such access would improve lives. Listening to stories from or of these places, I felt, would help me to begin to learn how to work with my project partners in Brazil and Angola by showing me what questions it might be important to start by asking.

Yet, finding these stories was difficult. Current research provides very few images of what it is, in fact, like to be a “have not”, or to live and work on this “other side” of the divide. These non–connected spaces are defined in most cases as the places, communities, or households in need of ICTs. The simplistic view of these regions as, lacking, poor, and voiceless reflects the binary “have”/“have not” logic of the digital divide. This is not to say that people working on digital divide projects necessarily share this point of view. Many do not, but wider perspectives are difficult to articulate within the discourse. More troubling, the lack of attention to these spaces points to the ways that the digital divide is in some ways a continuation of “the West knows best” (modernization) paradigm in development. The digital divide discourse does encompass ideas about the importance of local context, for example, by promoting projects that provide communities with ICTs to access information to “solve their own problems.” Yet, digital divide work often assumes, one, that ICTs will be helpful, and two, that they will be used for educational, economic, and other “worthwhile” projects. As with the technology transfer programs of the past, the West’s ideas about technology’s usefulness and how it will be used, are not necessarily accurate (for example, see Dagron, 2001; Gunkel, 2003; Prahalad, 2005).

Digital divide work often assumes that ICTs will be helpful, and that they will be used for educational, economic, and other “worthwhile” projects.

Given these discrepancies, how might we begin to view information and communication contexts in a more nuanced way? How can we listen to, and speak with, the “in need” side of the digital divide? How might this alter the ways that ICT projects are designed? And, can we ask these questions from within a digital divide framework?

While there are examples of studies that engage with complex questions from within the digital divide framework, the results are often not visible: they become subsumed into the paradigm’s narrow lens in such a way that it remains possible to read and talk about these projects simplistically. I believe that a new way of looking is necessary. In this paper, I briefly explore the ways that the logic of the digital divide is limiting. I then show how a “zones of silence” framework can function, not as a replacement of “digital divide”, but as a way of expanding how we work on communication initiatives beyond the areas that the digital divide covers by supporting a focus on unique contexts, and relative definitions of information and poverty.



The limitations of the digital divide

The digital divide is a common point of concern for researchers, governments, development agencies, and the private sector. The term, “digital divide”, itself is mobile, and, over the past decade, has been used to define everything from the difference between early and late technology adopters, to the difference in ICT access held by citizens of developed and developing nations. In fact, some argue that the term will likely continue to be flexible and to hold multiple meanings — as it should — because of the quick rate of change the issues it covers are undergoing as new technologies emerge (Gunkel, 2003). Nevertheless, at present, the digital divide broadly refers to the “gap between those who can effectively use new information and communication tools, such as the Internet, and those who cannot.” [1] Though research and discussion around the digital divide has helped to bring about a critique of cyber–utopianism — the belief that ICTs will, with ease, solve many of society’s problems, the term is “conceptually oversimplified and theoretically underdeveloped.” [2] The concept, in fact, is popular in part for its simplicity, allowing policy makers and others to follow a clear logic: “There is a gap between those with access to technology, and those without this access. If this is the problem, the solution is to provide those lacking technology, with this technology.”

Accordingly, work on the digital divide has tended to slot people into a dichotomous model of technology “haves” and “have nots” (Selwyn, 2004). Instead, some argue, it is more helpful to view the digital divide as a continuum (Gunkel, 2003). In other words, it is not simply a matter of looking at whether people have access or not, but also of looking at the hierarchy of access among those who do. Furthermore, though many programs focus simply on providing technology, access to ICTs does not necessarily equal use of ICTs, or “instant information.” There are a variety of social, age–related, psychological, educational, economic, and most importantly, pragmatic reasons why people do not use ICTs (Selwyn, 2004). That is, just because people have the opportunity to use the Internet (or other technologies) does not mean that that they will, and if they do, it will not necessarily be in the ways that the organizations providing access might anticipate.

Since the digital divide reflects other deep (social, racial, geographical, educational, economic) divides in society, making it possible for everyone to access a computer and the Internet is not going to solve all problems, as sometimes seems to be, optimistically, assumed.

Furthermore, critics of digital divide work argue that, in the larger scheme of things, it is not particularly helpful to talk about the digital divide. This is because it is a symptom, not the cause of unequal socioeconomic opportunity (Gunkel, 2003). Essentially, since the digital divide reflects other deep (social, racial, geographical, educational, economic) divides in society, making it possible for everyone to access a computer and the Internet is not going to solve all problems, as sometimes seems to be, optimistically, assumed. Thus, they assert that “efforts to bridge the digital divide will succeed only if they are accompanied by bold policy initiatives to reduce structural inequalities, for instance in education and jobs, that would otherwise result in disparities in skills in using computers and Internet systems.” [3]

Finally, the digital divide formulation that there are ‘information haves’ and ‘information have nots’, “although useful for identifying extant technological and social inequalities, has potentially disquieting ethical consequences, especially when applied in a global context. In distinguishing ‘information haves’ from ‘information have nots’, the technologically privileged situate their experiences with technology as normative, so that those without access to similar systems and capabilities become perceived as deficient and lacking.” [4] Thus, the digital divide is unmistakably from the technology “haves” point of view — “you don’t have what we have.” It is also a continuation of a development paradigm, in which the global south only becomes a part of first world discussions at the point of what it lacks.

How can we begin to talk about, and talk with, the global south in other instances? How can we move to a dialogue about to what sort of communication is happening, and how we might best learn from and assist each other? As stated earlier, I believe we will have difficultly beginning this dialogue from within a digital divide framework. Critics of the digital divide that have continued to use the term to frame their work have had limited success in shifting the paradigm, as seen by government, development and private sectors, to encompass more complexity. Though critics might make clear that their definition of “digital divide,” and what they are investigating, is not one–dimensional, the term powerfully draws up a black and white way of seeing. How can we speak differently about the complex issues that the digital divide tends to gloss over and still be heard by those operating within the framework?



Listening in the zones of silence: A tool to move beyond the digital divide

I propose a term and a framework that does not replace “digital divide”, but shifts attention to some of the complexities that the digital divide discourse omits. The term, “zones of silence”, provides a focus on three key ideas. Firstly, on voice, that is, what people on the “wrong side” of the digital divide have to say about their lives. Secondly, on communication, or on how and by whom people are heard, and why this is important. Thirdly, on context, or on the diversity of spaces, that the digital divide encompasses, and their interconnections. I begin by defining “zones of silence”, then discuss in more detail how the framework can be used.

As a term I use zones of silence, to mean the unseen, seemingly quiet, technology–sparse spaces of the digital divide. Mansell and Wehn (1998), writing about developing countries and the international governance system, use the phrase to mean the places, found in the developing world, where communities are effectively “silent” because of a lack of access to ICTs. They do not develop the term, but I feel it can be used to name a larger idea. In my definition, the zones of silence, while there may be relative levels of silence, are everywhere. They are what Castells terms the “switch off” regions in the global digital economy: “These patterns of inclusion and exclusion challenge our visions about the geography and political economy of communication. We can no longer adequately refer to First and Third worlds, North and South, and so on, but must recognize regions that are hardwired to networks and information flows and thus ‘switched on’, and the vast disconnected or ‘switched off’ regions of the world.” [5] Zones of silence exist within countries with little connectivity altogether, as well as within zones of high connectivity. They are the places, communities, and homes in the developed/developing worlds where — because of a lack of access to ICTs — people’s voices are, effectively, outside of their immediate community, unconnected and unheard.

What is key is that, while these voices may not be connected to the global communications grid, this does not mean that the zones of silence are silent! People talk, debate, write, dialogue, produce radio and television, argue, live. They are only silent to us. Using the word “silence” in the term is a risk; it has the potential to reinforce the idea that there is nothing here. But, it is a worthwhile risk, because the presence of “silence” implies that there are people who are part of the silence. A zones of silence framework moves our attention from a (digital) divide to a space, thus, raising the questions: Are the zones of silence truly silent? If not, why do they seem silent? Does this silence matter? What do “the silent” have to say? Or, broadly, it shifts our focus from “What do people need?” to “What are people saying?”

Therefore, the question from a zone of silence standpoint is not, “What do they need to be equal to us?” But, “Who are you? And, what is it like to be where you are?” Individuals may be discussing their needs; or, they may be discussing many other things. It of course remains important to aid people without access to ICTs to gain that access if they so desire. In order to make a significant, effective, and positive difference in the lives of “information have nots,” we must listen to their stories, opinions, experiences, and insights — both positive and negative, in support of ICTs and stakeholders agendas, and against. There is much more that we may have to speak about and learn from each other than what we “need”. A zones of silence framework points to the necessity — and opens up a way — of listening.

A zones of silence view can also help us to more easily recognize the diversity within the spaces of the digital divide. Most simply, the notion of “zones” is a very different metaphor from “divides”. In a divide there are two types, a black and a white, a good and a bad. Zones are more flexible. Within a zone, or between zones, there are many possible points of view, many potential gradations and combinations. Zones, unlike divides, are also continuous. What happens in one zone, or one part of a zone affects the rest. Thus, thinking not about a “digital divide”, but of a “zone of silence”, we can see the following. One, there are not simply two types of people — information “haves”/“have nots”. There are differences within a zone of silence, not just in terms of relative access to technology, but, more importantly, in opinions, everyday life, experiences, and modes of communication. We cannot assume that every zone of silence is the same. Each has its own context, its own knowledge. Two, what happens in a zone of silence affects and is affected by zones around them. We are not separated or divided; zones are not bounded from each other. Our actions, or lack of action, interplay with the actions of the rest of the world. Three, a zones of silence framework recognizes that as there are more categories than information “haves”/“have nots”. There is also more than one type of information. The digital divide discourse, when defining people as “information poor”, has a very specific type of “information” in mind. This “information” is important, but there are other types of knowledge. The “information poor” may lack what the digital divide defines as “information”, but this does not mean that the knowledge they have is less useful or less valuable.

In the following section I suggest ways that we might begin working from a zones of silence framework.



Ways to begin: Working from a zones of silence framework

What does working from a zones of silence standpoint look like? I suggest three key areas of inquiry for the framework, simply put as: What is happening? Where are we wrong? And, who benefits? Work is occurring in each of these areas already. A zones of silence framework can help to support this, and to encourage more questions.

What is happening in the zones of silence?

The first type of inquiry that a zones of silence view can support answers the question: what is happening in the zones of silence? In particular, we might ask: In what ways is communication happening in the zones of silence? Face–to–face, orally, in written form, through performance, through technology, by other means? What attitudes towards, and ideas about, communication technologies, including radio, film, video, television, telephone, computers, and the Internet, exist? Where are these technologies used, how, and to what extent? How do people speak about ICTs? How does this resonate with or differ from the development discourse around ICTs? We might also consider questions such as: What might a person use a computer (or other technology) for? How easy or difficult is it to get this technology, and keep it running? How do climate, power supply, the local economy, and communications needs affect this?

This work can draw on research that has treated digital divide issues as neither so simplistic, nor so straightforward as is often assumed. Thus this might include studies like that of Clark, et al. (2004), who use ethnography to explore the attitudes of people of varying economic backgrounds towards the digital divide in the United States; like Salvador and Sherry’s (2004) research on practical barriers to ICT connectivity in the Peruvian Andes and the assumptions of technology designers in the West; or, the study by Barbatsis, et al. (2004) on the relevance and appeal of Internet sites to various social and ethic groups in the United States. This inquiry can also draw more generally on ethnographic accounts — detailed observations or personal accounts of everyday life — of areas within the zones of silence. To be useful this ethnographic work need not address technology. Many factors — including history, gender and power relations, climate, local job market, and family practices and expectations — influence how communication happens, and are important to understanding how technology might be used. Such studies show that in the “zones of silence”, there are an abundance of ways of speaking and communicating, a thriving use of radio (Dagron, 2001), significant film and television production for local markets (for example, Banerjee, 2002), engagement with a variety of media (Downing, 2003), and differences in gender in terms of access to communications and other technologies (for example, see Prahalad, 2005). These kinds of studies are distinguished from typical work on the digital divide by taking into account a wide range of people, not just ICT project leaders or ICTs use statistics. They also recognize that communication is much larger than technology, asking questions that do not assume more ICTs are necessarily the answer.

Where are we wrong? Questioning assumptions

“Development communication researchers have adopted research techniques designed to answer the needs of Western societies and which do not always suit African cultures or societies that are in the main rural and non–literate. This means that for most of the time communication scholars have either been asking the wrong questions altogether or asking the right questions to the wrong people.” [6]

We must learn to examine the way we think technology is, can, and should be used.

For policy makers, researchers, or designers who live day to day within zones of high connectivity, enjoying high–speed Internet access, their own computer, reliable electricity and controlled indoor environments, it is sometimes difficult to imagine what it might be like to work with ICTs in other places, and how and why people might, in fact, like to use them. We must learn to examine the way we think technology is, can, and should be used. The danger of making assumptions about the relevance and usefulness of ICTs is apparent historically. For example, in the 1960s, working under the similar beliefs to those now held by “information poverty” projects, UNESCO recommended minimum numbers of ICTs per capita as a hallmark of development (UNESCO, 1961). A number of governments implemented policies to increase ICT access. Many exceeded the minimum and yet failed to develop corresponding improvements in social and economic conditions (Tehranian, 1990). Specifically, we might ask: What do we assume about technology use and the usefulness of technology? Do these assumptions correspond with reality? How have these assumptions shaped our questions and actions? Have they been misguided?

Important issues to consider include potential differences in language, literacy, relevance of content, connection speed, access to ICTs, and cultural patterns of leisure and work. Useful directions for future research should include not just whether our assumptions about ICT use correspond with reality, but how these assumptions are formed and perpetuated. For instance, an interesting project would be to evaluate the plans and suggestions made by development agencies regarding ICTs in comparison with how people in the zones of silence, in reality, conceive of and make use of these technologies: In the recent explosion of funding programs for ICT–based development projects, what sorts of application criteria and project guidelines have emerged? What types of project designs are supported or rejected? Why? In these designs what assumptions are made? How do agency workers conceptualize zones of silence and how ICTs might influence them? How are projects evaluated, and what counts as “success”?

In the next section I suggest ways how we might investigate one of the largest assumptions of the digital divide.

Who benefits from connectivity and how?

A key assumption of digital divide discourse is that greater access to technology and, through this, information, will improve lives. This may be the true but, it is important to consider more critically who benefits from ICT connectivity and how.

Global capital

The interests of international corporations and global capital in high–speed, pervasive communications technologies are often overlooked in work on the digital divide. Yet, this perspective is important. Or, in parallel, “labor is too often excluded from discussions about the Information Society. It is, however, one of the critical components. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are changing not only people’s actual work environments, but also the way labor markets operate.” [7] Using the Internet and other ICTs corporations can function as transnationals with increasing ease. ICTs enable them not only to communicate quickly with subsidiaries around the world to organize production and distribution, but also with consumers, to market and sell their products. In fact, it is argued, that no country can hope to attract foreign investment without an adequate telecommunication infrastructure (Sonaike, 2004). Thus, as countries are able to acquire appropriate connections they will become integrated more fully into the global economy. Is this desirable? Or, further, how does enabling connectivity in a region affect the labor market? According to people who have been affected in this way, has the experience, ultimately, been to their benefit? Is there any alternative to joining the network? What would it mean to continue to live within a zone of silence? Are there more strategic ways of becoming connected?

Community connections, world connections

Besides enabling access to information, ICTs are often seen as important means of increasing communication opportunities. While they clearly have this potential, it is important to ask if ICTs are the best form of communication in zones of silence? What means of communication are already in use? Are additional means of communication needed? These questions are significant because the relationship between ICTs and communication is not direct. ICTs are one element in a larger view of communications. In fact, despite the euphoria for ICTs, older technologies such as radio (Dagron, 2001), video (White, 2003), and theatre (Riley, 1990), seem to continue to be better community–level communication tools. Effective dialogue does not need to be high–tech.

ICTs might be initially more useful in helping geographically dispersed zones of silence connect with each other [8] as well as connect zones of silence with zones of connectivity in ways that are strategically and socially beneficial. Connections to family members abroad, between members of diaspora populations, and between activists and researchers around the world are important. The power of this sort of communication has been demonstrated in the work of the Zapatistas in Mexico, and the Kayapo in Brazil, who have used communication technologies (Internet, video) to raise awareness about issues they have faced as indigenous communities. Through these means they have successfully attracted international attention. This has led to pressure on their respective governments, who have consequently, to some extent, modified their policies (Dagron, 2001). These questions return to issues of silence and of voice — who is being heard by whom?



First steps

How can we begin? Initially it is important to bring together individuals whose work takes a nuanced view of digital divide issues with those whose research falls outside of the digital divide discussion — including work in mass media, local and community media, and on social factors that influence communication and access to ICTs. Perhaps even more crucial to include are those who have experienced life and work in zones of silence, as well as within zones of connectivity, and who have a perspective on some of the misguided assumptions that operate between the two. At this stage it is both important to think about the questions we have been asking and to find ways of formulating the questions we should ask.




Much research on the digital divide has been done with good intentions. Yet, the conceptual framework of the digital divide is limiting. We need a new, wider, and more nuanced, lens to look through. A zones of silence framework can provide part of this lens. It focuses work in ways and in areas consistently overlooked by traditional notions of the digital divide, particularly on the realities, voices, and complexities from within its unconnected, “have not” spaces. By encouraging a critical questioning of assumptions and greater attention to local context and points of view, it is a way to broaden the dialogue between zones of connectivity beyond a discourse of need, to one of mutual questioning, sharing, and learning. End of article


About the author

Amelia Bryne Potter is an M.A. candidate at the York/Ryerson Joint Programme in Communication in Culture, and holds a B.A. in Anthropology from Columbia University, Barnard College. Her work has focused on instances of cross–cultural meeting, narratives of change, and ways to use intellectual and creative work to encourage people to consider points of view that they otherwise might not. She is currently working on processes for using video to explore, build, and present layers of imagination and memory surrounding stories of global migrations.



Special thanks to Amin Alhassan for his encouragement and editorial support.



1. Gunkel, 2003, p. 504, citing Benton Foundation.

2. Selwyn, 2004, p. 343.

3. Sonaike, 2004, p. 45.

4. Gunkel, 2003, p. 507.

5. Winseck, 2002, p. 401, citing Castells, 1996.

6. Nyamnjoh, 2000, p. 146.

7. Zachmann, 2004, p. 84.

8. For example, see Skint Stream at



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Editorial history

Paper received 19 March 2006; accepted 12 April 2006.

Contents Index

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Zones of silence: A framework beyond the digital divide by Amelia Bryne Potter
First Monday, volume 11, number 5 (May 2006),