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Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide

Author: Mark Warschauer
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003
Review Published: April 2004

 REVIEW 1: Chris Hewson

Over the last few years the concept of "the digital divide" has become somewhat elongated, manipulated by diverse factions, asked to perform ever increasing amounts of conceptual work. As Mark Warschauer acknowledges, it has become "stretched," almost beyond the point of utility, and so must be rethought, accepting that "from a policy standpoint, the goal of using ICT [Information and Communication Technology] with marginalized groups is not to overcome a digital divide but rather to further a process of social inclusion" (8). In what follows, Warschauer convincingly argues that both community technology advocates, as well as grassroots practitioners, must refocus their efforts, advancing beyond the valorization of technological artifacts, gadgets, and boxes deployed in isolation, directing their efforts towards an improved understanding of the complex socio-political transformations which new technological configurations might bring about. To clarify this point, it is worth quoting Warschauer at length:
    Meaningful access to ICT comprises far more than merely providing computers and internet connections. Rather access to ICT is embedded in a complex array of factors encompassing physical, digital, human, and social resources and relationships. Content and language, literacy and education, and community and institutional structures must all be taken into account if meaningful access to new technologies is to be provided. (6 -- my bold)
In other words, technological configurations are to be understood as the entwining of new technologies, and new technological practices, with existing realities as they are perceived by citizens, daily, and within their own communities. To highlight this point, the author begins the book with three cautionary tales, living examples of what could be termed "technological failure": an Egyptian computer lab, an Irish "Information Town," and an Indian kiosk project. The lesson drawn from these illustrative sketches is twofold: firstly, each project, in a different way, failed to build upon existing social, cultural, and emotional networks; and secondly, each project privileged a priori the deployment of material resources, and physical access to these resources, above considerations of other categories of "resource" and "access."

It is via a discussion of "access" that Warschauer frames his central thesis. Access is too often seen as a problem to be alleviated, albeit one which includes the seeds of its own resolution -- let’s simply provide easier access, more physical resources, all where people want them and can use them. However, as the author rightly concludes, this line of thinking ignores the truth that "what is most important about ICT is not so much the availability of the computing device or the internet line, but rather people’s ability to make use of that device and line to engage in meaningful social practices" (38). This is the crux of the argument, where physical access remains the principal rationale behind ICT policy, considerations of access to material technologies (gadgets and boxes), will overtake and crowd out considerations of other key resources: digital, human, and social. Moreover this imbalance may further lead to a set of scenarios where the potential users of new ICTs, the citizens towards whom particular deployments are targeted, are neither consulted about, nor facilitated in the use of, new, and to some perhaps daunting, technological tools. Warschauer attempts to overcome such linear thinking, offering a holistic view which recognizes that:
    In considering these four sets of resources, it is important to realize their iterative relation with ICT use. On the one hand, each resource is a contributor to effective use of ICTs . . . On the other hand, each resources is a result of effective use of ICTs . . . these resources can thus serve as a virtual circle that promotes social development and inclusion. (48)
This is a process which requires, for any technological intervention to be successful, a coming together of stakeholders, be they creators, suppliers, teachers, or users, in order to lay out and map the social milieu within which the technological intervention is to take place. One can conceive of this as democratization through ICT, a process which occurs before anyone has the chance to switch a computer on, rather than assuming the inherent democratic potential of particular technologies. This points to one key flaw with the concept of the "digital divide" as it stands, that a binary problematic is invariably invoked, leading to potentially dynamic stakeholder relationships becoming ossified, in many cases rendered in terms of a supposed gap between technology "haves" and "have-nots." Moreover, as a simple framing device, this encourages a theorization of, and reliance upon, simple causalities, which habitually eschew the fact that, as Warschauer repeatedly highlights, "technological and social realms are highly intertwined and continuously co-constitute each other in a myriad of ways. This co-constitution occurs within organizations, institutions, and in society at large" (205). In sum, it is necessary to move away from the implicit functionalism of many "digital divide" narratives (cf. Giddens, 1984, for a sociological theory of co-constitution).

Warschauer seems to suggest that, paradoxically, cynicism around the "digital divide," generated in the aftermath of the dot.com collapse, might in fact herald new policy opportunities. These opportunities are ones which take into account the increasing "informationalization" of modern life, yet eschew the idea that "technological fixes" might spontaneously serve as a panacea for specific social ills (Hamelink, 2000). From the outset, Warschauer recognizes the qualitative changes in sociation (ways of living) and communication (ways of expressing how we live), which a proliferation of new computer-mediated communication technologies have brought about; where the gap between speech and writing is put into question; the boundaries between public and private communication are problematized; and the ability to instantaneously address either distant friends, or large numbers of strangers, is made effortless (cf. Meyrowitz, 1985; Thompson, 1995). This is a process that has slowly evolved, from the printed word, to the telegraph and phone, through radio and television, en route to the internet. We have entered the age of "hypertext," where linear flows of information, and perhaps more crucially, the linearity of pedagogic practice, are increasingly laid open to critique (see Weinberger, 2002). Warschauer’s aim is to outline why this might be a universally empowering experience, rather than one characterized by mystification and apprehension.

Notwithstanding his previous critique, Warschauer begins the main body of the book by considering the issue of access to physical resources (chapters 2 & 3), noting that although the developed and developing "worlds" face separate challenges, regarding differences in infrastructure, differences between home and community access, and the prevalence of different types of ICT, competition is crucial within both realms. However, this should not be confused with either privatization of ownership and public infrastructure, or across the board market deregulation. Rather, competition is needed to drive innovation, particularly in the case of the developing world, where certain stages of the communications cycle might be "leapfrogged," for instance by adopting wireless technologies in areas without fixed phone lines. Warschauer is not trying to suggest that "access" is unimportant, rather he endeavors to raise the question "access to what?" After this has been considered, answers usually converge around one key issue, access to content, which above all other considerations, must be local and relevant. This is the central plank within any socially inclusive ICT agenda. Reporting on a U.S. study of internet content and diversity, Warschauer states:
    Perhaps the greatest barrier was a lack of locally relevant information . . . low income users seek practical, relevant information that effects their daily lives . . . information at a basic literacy level . . . content for non English speakers . . . (and) finally more diverse cultural resources are desired. (88, 89)
Potential users have to cope not only with geographical imbalances, cities and more affluent areas being more adequately served with relevant content (see Graham & Marvin, 2001), but also the danger that certain collective identities are give preferential treatment over others. It is via this consideration, the need to promote "diverse cultural resources," that Warschauer is able to move his argument beyond the trope of "access," and towards a discussion of "digital resources" (Chapter 4), where his considerations center around the somewhat richer conception, of accessibility.

Warschauer argues that in order to encourage the production of accessible materials, "digital resources," ways of living mediated through technology, must be located within a grounded view of "literacy" (or literacies), which should in turn be viewed as the central "human resource" (Chapter 5). His fundamental proposition is that the "re-emergence of the ‘natural sign’ has profound implications for digital democracy" (115). This observation, once again, gestures toward a progressive hypertextual landscape, which if properly channelled might relieve citizens of a reliance upon restricted forms of education and information provision, encourage critical pedagogies, and stimulate situated (i.e. localized) forms of learning activity (Servon, 2002). In this scenario, technologies can be used both to represent communities to various "other" groupings, as well as to permit change within communities themselves. To give one example, this might be done through shared use of digital cameras and editing equipment, where learning is experiential, and "communities of practice" are able to form around local interests and enthusiasms (see Wenger, 1999; Brown & Duguid, 2000). Here an enthusiasm might be cultivated around either the technology itself, or the functions to which it might be put when utilized in the pursuit of a collective end. Nevertheless, a note of caution is also sounded. Warschauer gives the example of an elite school which uses technology in order to prime future scholars, and compares this with a poorer school, whose leadership sees ICT as geared, primarily, towards the preparation of pupils for the labor force (132). The warning, to reiterate a recurring theme, is that "digital democracy" is not something that can simply be superimposed upon existing social conditions. Once again, technological configurations must be considered in their entirety.

This links well with Warschauer’s analysis of what he terms "social resources" (Chapter 6) where further prominence is given to the idea of "social inclusion," especially the need to understand that "social networks and computer usage are inextricably linked," the upshot of this situation being that "community initiatives can take advantage of this linkage to facilitate home computing" (157). The promotion of home computing is important for a number of reasons, primarily in terms of the way it furnishes users with experiences which can be re-utilized within their associational activities. Here the ubiquitous "micro-level" notion of "social capital" is brought up (cf. Putnam, 2000) as well as "macro-level" concepts such as transparency, associational democracy, and citizen feedback (see Wilhelm, 2000). However it is within what Warschauer labels "meso-level" social resources that the most interesting conclusions might be drawn. The digital age has driven developed societies away from Alexis de Tocqueville’s (1840) celebrated "civil society" bulwarks, the meeting hall and the local newspaper; according to many commentators politics is an anodyne and controlled spectacle, local newspapers are increasingly timorous vehicles, radial spokes of larger media corporations. Yet many have suggested that through new and mediated forms of "collective cognition" (187), where individuals are able to come together, and find each other, to discuss, share, and promote ideas, traditional deliberative spheres of civil society activity can, to a certain extent, be reclaimed (one might here reflect on NGO activity around The World Summit on the Information Society). Warschauer sensibly adds a number of caveats: warning that these type of associative activity should be promoted across the board -- not simply left as a middle class preserve or hobby; suggesting that a balance must be maintained between virtual and face-to-face interaction; and stressing that a focus upon particular narrow interests should be balanced by a prevalence of deliberative fora, engaged in the intricacies of wider social and political debates (see also Sunstein, 2001).

Warschauer concludes by arguing that we ought to move away from considerations of the "digital divide" towards a more holistic understanding of "digital inequality." However, this should not mean that we ignore, to give but one example, locales suffering from low internet penetration rates. What Warschauer is attempting to delineate are a set of theoretical tools which respect local differences, yet are able to claim some sort of universal authority; in his words an understanding that "social context, social purpose, and social organization are critical in efforts to provide meaningful information and communication technology (ICT) access, whether in developed or developing countries" (201). In this endeavour he largely succeeds, although this may possibly be confirmed only in hindsight, and following a number of empirical studies which take these tools, and their assumptions, as a point of departure.

Brown, John Seely and Paul Duguid (2000). The Social Life of Information. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.

de Tocqueville, Alexis (1840). Democracy in America Volume 2 (Trans. H. Reeve 1994). London: Random House.

Giddens, Anthony (1984). The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Cambridge: Polity.

Graham, Stephen and Simon Marvin (2001). Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. London: Routledge.

Hamelink, Cees J. (2000). The Ethics of Cyberspace. London: Sage.

Meyrowitz, Joshua (1985). No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Putnam, Robert D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Servon, Lisa J. (2002). Bridging the Digital Divide: Technology, Community and Public Policy (Information Age Series). Oxford: Blackwell.

Sunstein, Cass R. (2001). Republic.Com. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Thompson, John B. (1995). The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Weinberger, David (2002). Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

Wenger, Etiennne (1999). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilhelm, Anthony G. (2000). Democracy in the Digital Age: Challenges to Political Life in Cyberspace. New York: Routledge.


Chris Hewson:
Chris Hewson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology, Lancaster University (UK). His research interests include: media policy, technological governance, and community informatics. He is currently in the process of writing up his thesis, "Technologies of Citizenship: Local Media and Public Service," a study of the conjunctions between local media projects, and escalating technologies of e-governance, within the United Kingdom.  <c.hewson@lancaster.ac.uk>

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