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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

Virtual inequality is not virtual in the sense of being illusionary or phony, nor will it simply go away by way of distributing Apple computers to everyone. Disparities in technological access, usage, and literacy are both real and complex, and these gaps are explored in this well-organized piece of sociological research, Virtual Inequality: Beyond the Digital Divide. This work has three authors: library scientist Mary Stansbury and political scientists Karen Mossberger and Caroline J. Tolbert, all of whom work at Kent State University in Ohio.

Usually books written by more than one person often have too many cooks who spoil the soup. That is not the case here, as the different expertise of the three faculty members complement each other. Stansbury spotlights the overlooked role of libraries as vehicles to spread technological information and skills, while Mossberger and Tolbert appreciate the nuances and paradoxes of attitudes in reference to education and government stemming from the use of the Internet. The centerpiece of their study revolves around the results of their national telephone survey of over 1,800 individuals, who were asked an array of questions ranging from their actual competency in using the computer through their apparent willingness in performing key educational and civic functions online. With a larger inclusion of more working class and poor respondents than nearly all other technology-related polls, this project and its findings give low-income citizens a voice, while they expose elite policymakers to the sometimes surprising opinions of the disadvantaged.

Virtual Inequality posits at least four digital divides, not just the one of simple access made famous by the two Clinton-era reports from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA): the access divide, the skills divide, the economic opportunity divide, and the democratic divide. Even the one of simple access is not so simple, according to this research. The survey found that while it is obvious that most Americans are using computers and the Internet more frequently and regularly than in 1995 and that such use has universally expanded without regard to class, gender, income, or race, the regular and frequent use of technology is much less common among low-income, elderly, less-educated, African American, Latino, and/or Democratic citizens. Even if cashiers, salesclerks, and mechanics routinely use a computer at work, they are much less likely than their middle-class professional counterparts to have or to use a computer outside their workplace. Home computer ownership and use bestow greater time to practice and, thus, to learn a deeper level of technological competency.

Unfortunately, as the authors conclude, "for the most part, the skills divide replicates the access divide -- those who lack skills are older, less-educated, poor, African American, and Latino" (56). This divide is more serious than the one of simple access because it reflects something much more ominous: the widespread dearth of reading and writing abilities among America's common people. The prospects for possible solutions to this bleak picture are mixed. Public libraries are embraced by many who want to do better as possible venues of instruction, but the study found that very few had followed through on their intention to use libraries or any other vehicle to master online tasks. For poor and older whites, in particular, the study finds no eagerness to pursue training to close this gap. Yet among upwardly mobile African Americans, the authors rejoice in finding a significant reservoir of desire to learn about technology by any means necessary. Indeed, from the study's results, African Americans of all income levels seem the most determined in overcoming these divides, being the most likely to use the computer in a job search or the most willing to enroll in an online course. One hopes that this enthusiasm will eventually render race as statistically insignificant as gender has become with regard to the digital divides. Yet this ray of hope must not be eclipsed by the lingering legacy of four hundred years of oppression.

As an associate professor of history at a medium-sized, urban, and historically African American university in the South, I grapple with the issues of virtual inequality every day. My History Department's "Lab" consists of three obsolete units in an overheated broom closet. Other better-equipped labs are available on campus, but they are designed for majors in the sciences and/or they close at 5 pm and thus are inaccessible to the largely commuter, working adult profile of my clientele. I teach an online class, History of Civilizations, Part 1. Students flock to this exclusively online section, and, for the last two years, it has been the first class to be filled to its capacity of 40. Yet a general lack of technological access and skill dampen the students' initial enthusiasm for the course. The most technologically challenged miss important class announcements because they do not know how to scroll down. Others cannot attach their drafts of papers to emails. The slim majority who do have basic computer skills do not always have access to the best computers. Most of their home, school, and public library computers do not have sound, or they do not have the memory space for a digitized film file. Wanting to provide more than a souped-up version of a 1920s correspondence course, I would love to have voice snippets or film clips about ancient cultures in the Blackboard shell if only most students would have access to computers from this century. My students fit the authors' profile of eager-to-advance African American students who are anxious to learn online and to use technology but who are often stymied by lack of access or knowledge or both.

Online instruction demands more from both the faculty member as well as from the student. Understaffed institutions on shoestring budgets have college faculty teaching up to five sections per semester anyway. My school offers no release time for developing an online course. Thus, the quality of the courses may suffer because the harried faculty member does not have the time to help out every student who has trouble using a mouse and/or who does not have a reliable computer at home. On the other hand, students working two or more jobs and rearing children frequently find out that they have no time for the Discussion Boards, or online chats, or to take the at-home tests, which at first seemed so convenient. Thus, the lack of a supporting infrastructure at schools which serve the poor accentuates virtual inequality, which, in turn, is worsened by the frustration of working adults who fail an online course. Most tragically, many online students with poor time management skills and/or overly busy schedules turn to cut-and-paste plagiarism from websites as a shortcut to success in writing their papers or in answering short-answer essay questions. They only end up failing anyway. These same students do not realize that such cheating is now easily detectable thanks to Google.

While the Internet has threatened the integrity of education in some dangerous ways, it has added to our virtual democracy, virtual in the sense of being artificial or theatrical. Our leaders, using the Internet as well as other media, have ushered in a second Gilded Age without a glimpse of a Progressive era on the horizon. As many know, the Progressives were interested in cleaning up the electoral process, and online voting has been mentioned as a modern-day "good government" tool to end the hanging and dimpled chads of 2000. Interestingly, the authors downplay the impact of digital democracy, noting it would only perpetuate the skewing of likely voters toward entrenched elites and special interests. Only young people, the authors discovered, indicated that online venues would increase the probability of their casting a vote or expressing an opinion, and the young are notoriously unreliable in following through on their intentions, especially when it comes to participating in elections. The authors do not directly address the misuse of visual and technological media, but they do lament the resistance among the poor to use government websites about the public services that they are most likely to use or to need. Indeed, as the authors discern, "the poor have more negative attitudes about e-government -- participating in an electronic town meeting or searching for government information online -- than did those with higher incomes" (100). As domestic budget cuts proceed to fund the voracious wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I doubt that the authors’ recommendations for more government spending and even for vouchers and subsidies to spread technological literacy will find receptive ears in Washington. Perhaps state and local governments and, to a lesser degree, local non-profits could pick up part of this slack, but I am not convinced that addressing the Internet's potential to both close and widen inequality is a priority of civic leaders, who are still misled by the Bush administration's premature optimism (found in a 2002 NTIA report) about greater computer use and access at work. And, there are no populists or tribunes nationally bemoaning these problems in part because, as the authors show, the poor are the least likely to want to use government websites for information or transactions.

Most useful is the relative lack of statistical and bureaucratic jargon, which is banished to the endnotes at the end of each chapter and to the appendices for those specialists who want to know about details of method. For the general reader, the "What Matters" boxes showcase the most important conclusions, reinforcing the clarity and passion of the accompanying prose. Indeed, the boxes and the emboldened headings of this book remind one of a well-designed website, easy to navigate and to comprehend. One only hopes that its trenchant analysis gets beyond the ivory towers of academe to influence policy.

Charles Ford:
Charles Ford is an Associate Professor of History at Norfolk State University, where he has worked for the last twelve years. Since August 2003, he has served as the Chair of the History Department there. He also has contributed to his colleagues' Race, Time, and Place Project, which features, among other things, digitized
historical documents from Tidewater Virginia during the Jim Crow era.  <chford@nsu.edu>

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