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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

Over the past decade, information technology has grown from an esoteric novelty into an integral tool for business, education, and everyday life. The internet and affiliated technologies have transformed the way people, especially in developed countries, teach and study, pursue careers, shop, and communicate. But access to online media and the necessary skills to make use of them remain inaccessible to a significant sector of the population. Karen Mossberger, Caroline J. Tolbert, and Mary Stansbury define this "digital divide" as "the patterns of unequal access to information technology based on income, race, ethnicity, gender, age and geography" (1). The existence and significance of the "digital divide" has been hotly debated since the mid-1990s, but the authors point out that discussion has been based on limited evidence and has focused exclusively on questions of disparities in access to the internet's resources. Virtual Inequality: Beyond the Digital Divide reports the findings of a survey they undertook both to provide more accurate statistical data and, more importantly, to expand the definition of the "digital divide" to comprise "a skill divide, an economic opportunity divide, and a democratic divide" as well as an access divide (2). The study convincingly demonstrates that multiple divides do indeed exist, and are likely to deepen existing inequities in social and economic opportunity and democratic participation. Yet even with their focus on multiple aspects of internet technology use, the authors may still be underestimating the depth of the "digital divide."

At the heart of Virtual Inequality is the data obtained through two national telephone surveys designed by the authors and conducted in 2001 by Kent State University's Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing lab, with the intention of augmenting the findings of large-sample studies conducted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Pew Research Center, and the American National Election Studies between 1995 and 2002. One survey contacted 1190 respondents from high-poverty areas in the forty-eight contiguous states; a second national random sample of 655 respondents without reference to income served as a control group. As a result of the demographics of high-poverty areas, the survey included an unusually large proportion of minority respondents. While the data from previous published surveys allowed the authors to track trends in internet access over time, their own survey was designed to examine attitudes toward key uses of the internet, as well as access to equipment and the skills needed to exploit such access successfully.

The surveys find that divides in access, skills, and attitudes consistently separate the poor from the general population. For example, in a chapter titled "The Access Divide," the authors report that 61 percent of their low-income respondents had access to a home computer, 54 percent had home internet access, and 58 percent reported having an email address at which they could send and receive email. Only 15 percent of respondents reported using a computer at school or at a library, while 26 percent used computers at friends' or relatives' houses (25). Lack of computer access at home or on the job is clearly a constraint. Respondents without home computers or home internet access were less likely than other respondents to use the internet in other venues: while 17 percent of the full sample reported using the internet at school and 10 percent at a public library, only 7 percent of the respondents without computers used them at school and 9 percent at the library; apparently access to the internet is effectively contingent on the familiarity and convenience gained through having a computer at home or at work (25).

But reluctance to use the internet does not necessarily stem from a misconception that it is unimportant or useless. In "The Economic Opportunity Divide," the authors report that 69 percent of their respondents agreed with the statement "it is necessary for people to use the internet to keep up with the times," and 79 percent answered yes to the question, "Do you believe you need new computer skills to get a job?" Nor were individuals solely referring to their own limited computer skills: "only 6.5 percent reported having been denied a job because they needed more computer skills" (68). Remarkably, the authors found that the belief that computer skills are crucial for economic mobility "did not vary by income or education" (71). Ethnic minority populations especially appreciate the connection between technological sophistication and career opportunities: the survey found that Latinos and African-Americans were likelier than white respondents to answer yes to the questions, "Do you think you need the internet to keep up?" and "Do you think you need more computer skills to get ahead?" (69). The low rates of computer and internet use among people without home or workplace access may reflect inadequate facilities at the schools and libraries serving those populations, rather than any lack of interest in the potential value of information technologies (134).

Minimal enthusiasm for online political participation is more troubling. In "The Democratic Divide," the authors report that populations with internet access are significantly more likely to vote in presidential elections, more likely to exchange information about candidates, and more likely to manifest interest in politics in other ways, from wearing buttons to attending rallies (91). Populations that are comfortable with information and communication technologies are predictably likely to see it as a means of political involvement. Wealthier and more educated respondents are likelier to support online voter registration and voting, and likelier to look up government information online, patterns suggesting that "e-democracy" may serve to disenfranchise poorer, less technology-savvy communities (107-109).

The structure of Virtual Inequality is at once its strength and its weakness: While the authors demonstrate convincingly that the digital divide involves far more than simple access to a computer and internet service provider, the "four divides" that they identify are somewhat arbitrarily conceived, positing convenience of access, technical and information management skills, attitudes toward the computer as a career tool, and attitudes toward online participation in political activities as comparable categories. While all four certainly merit study, one wonders, why these four divides? Why not include a "health divide," and inquire about attitudes toward finding accurate medical information or contacting health care practitioners online, or an "education divide" focusing on levels of comfort with the many online components of higher education, including online registration, online courses, and online library catalogues, indices, and scholarly databases and journals?

A more serious limitation of the study is the narrow scope of the discussion of the "skills divide." While the authors identify "technical competence" as "using the mouse and keyboard," "using email," and "word processing/spreadsheet programs," a more alarming divide is emerging between people with the minimal technical skills to use the internet passively, and those whose skills enable them to participate actively in the creation of new media (44-45). Similarly, while "information literacy" is defined as "finding books in a library," "doing homework," and "finding information on the web," effective use of information technology takes a far greater level of critical literacy to distinguish among the surfeit of valid and invalid materials elicited by a cursory Google search, while the ability to make use of the far more reliable information contained in academic databases and journals demands above-average reading skills and conceptual vocabularies, as well as access to a library with subscriptions to these elite services (45). The last chapter, "Beyond the Divides: Toward Opportunity and Equity," urges "equal educational opportunity and public investment in lifelong learning," noting that "the ability to use information technology, and to learn and adapt in a changing world, rests upon a general educational foundation" (136). This "critical literacy divide" may in fact be the most crucial aspect of virtual inequality, warranting a full chapter of examination.

While the need for further study is evident, Mossberger, Tolbert, and Stansbury offer substantial data and sensible suggestions for bridging the digital divide. "Computers and internet access," they conclude, "will not remedy problems of racism, segregation, unequal education, unequal political participation, and economic inequality, but they represent one dimension of the problem of providing equal opportunity in a democratic society" (138).

Jane Weiss:
Jane Weiss received a Ph.D. in American and English Literature from the CUNY Graduate Center in 1995. Her areas of scholarship are nineteenth century American domestic literature and culture, and the intersections between contemporary theory and the business models being adopted by American academic institutions. She is currently teaching in the Humanities Department at SUNY College at Old Westbury.  <weissj@bway.net>

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