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Virtual Inequality: Beyond the Digital Divide

Author: Karen Mossberger, Caroline J. Tolbert, Mary Stansbury
Publisher: Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003
Review Published: August 2005

 REVIEW 1: Charles Ford
 REVIEW 2: Jane Weiss
 REVIEW 3: Michelle Rodino
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Karen Mossberger

This has been a wonderful opportunity to receive feedback from a knowledgeable and diverse set of scholars, each with a unique perspective. The reviews have caused me to reflect on some issues for further research, and I would like to share those thoughts.

It was interesting to read, for example, Dr. Ford's discussion of the impact of technology inequality in the classroom, in an historically African-American university. One of the puzzles that emerged from our book, Virtual Inequality, was the contrast between the particularly positive attitudes that African-Americans had about technology and their lower rates of technology access and skill. Race clearly matters for information technology, but in contradictory ways. In some more recent research using hierarchical linear modeling to introduce environmental factors, Caroline Tolbert, Michele Gilbert and I have found that when we control for living in a zip code with low median income and low educational attainment, that race is no longer a significant predictor for technology access or use. In other words, technology disparities among African-Americans are a product of racial segregation and concentrated poverty, and the institutional barriers in poor neighborhoods that prevent low-income African-Americans from translating positive attitudes into practice. These neighborhood effects are important over and above individual income and educational attainment. That the college students in Dr. Ford's classes still struggle with technology is a manifestation of continued discrimination in society on many fronts, including housing and K-12 education. We need to know more about exactly how concentrated poverty inhibits technology opportunities.

Dr. Rodino suggests that we have strayed into technological determinism in some parts of our book. I agree that this is an important issue that confronts Internet and technology researchers more generally. There is a difficult balance to strike in arguing, on the one hand, that technology matters, while acknowledging that it is only one dimension of more complex social interactions. We were conscious of this dilemma, although it's not always easy to resolve. In the chapter on economic opportunity, for example, we tried to avoid presenting technology use and skills as a panacea for economic restructuring and change, while arguing that such skills can be useful for economic opportunity and mobility. In the conclusion, we argued that digital inequality is clearly tied to problems such as unequal educational opportunities, and that it calls for more than technological solutions. Dr. Rodino's critique is an important one, because as researchers, we need to continue to pay attention to understanding causes and solutions for the digital divide beyond technology, and to avoid overstating the role of technology.

Finally, I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Weiss's point that our presentation of the multiple divides is incomplete. We chose what we felt were major areas relevant to public policy to show the importance of understanding how technology is used, and we hope that other researchers will expand on our efforts. Health care, in particular, is clearly a critical area for further research, and one that all three of us are now pursuing in some way.

Also, I want to support the idea that it is important to measure more types of skills and more advanced and empowering skills, such as the ability to create online content. Admittedly, our operationalization of skills was basic -- whether respondents needed help using a mouse and keyboard, word processing, spreadsheets, databases, or the Internet. But, prior to our study, we couldn't find much that was generalizable on the topic of skills. We wanted to address the issue of skill as well as access, as we saw this as a shortcoming in both research and policy debate. In particular, we wanted to call attention to the need for information literacy, as well as technical skills. I hope that we have at least done that. The challenge for future research is to improve our measures of skill, especially as technology develops. This will require a variety of methods -- surveys, case studies, and experiments, among others.

I want to thank the reviewers for their perceptive and careful reading of our work, and for their useful insights. It's exciting to see that they have truly understood what we set out to do, and that they see it as a contribution. I especially want to thank the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies for selecting our book for this honor, and for providing this valuable forum for the exchange of ideas across disciplines.

Karen Mossberger
University of Illinois at Chicago

Karen Mossberger


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