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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

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have long been imagined as easing problems of social inequality, especially when they were new. Advocates of the telegraph promised to make one world out of disparate cultures and individuals, and electricity itself was touted for extending political and economic opportunities (Carey, 1992; Marvin, 1988). Public officials voiced concern that individuals lacking access to basic electrical and communication technologies would be economically and politically disadvantaged. In many ways, the "digital divide" debate is the latest generation of discourse on the "electronic revolution" and the latest turn in discussion over what constitutes a public utility and how best to distribute the resource.

Echoing earlier hopes and apprehensions, Virtual Inequality: Beyond the Digital Divide by Karen Mossberger, Caroline J. Tolbert, and Mary Stansbury contributes to the debate over the digital divide, the problem of unequal access to and skill in information and communication technologies [1]. Like their predecessors concerned about the diffusion of new ICTs and electric power, today's digital divide debaters conceive of their object of study as both discursive and practical. Specifically, digital divide scholars study the ways in which the problem is perceived, experienced, measured, and discussed. Divide scholars also intend their work to inspire action -- that is, to address the real social inequalities that constitute and underlie discrepancies in access to and skill in ICTs. This review will explore the extent to which Mossberger et al. address these two aspects of the divide, the discursive and the practical, comment on the audience for this book, and consider future avenues for research and action.

One of the most fruitful contributions of Virtual Inequality to wider discussion of and activism around the digital divide is its recognition of the divide as both a social problem and a discourse. After introducing the digital divide as the problem of "disparities in information technology based on demographic factors such as race, ethnicity, income, education, and gender," the authors express the intention to tell "the real story of the 'digital divide'" (xi). "Through telling the story," Mossberger et al. hope to "better define the problem and appropriately target public resources" (xi). Thus, Virtual Inequality builds its study on the premise that we, as social observers, can only measure what we define and vice-versa. As the title suggests, the authors intend their work to move "beyond the digital divide" by measuring the divide differently and thus, expanding our conceptualization of it.

The introductory chapter provides a brief history of the divide, as a concept and a public policy problem. The notion of the divide as one of access, Mossberger et al. contend, has led to policy solutions that cannot address have-nots' needs. In response to the conceptual limitations and policy failures that have characterized the debate, the authors call for retooling the notion of digital divide:
    In order to adequately answer [questions about the divide], we must redefine the "digital divide" beyond the confines of the access issue. Research and policy debate have been hobbled by a simplistic view of the factors that contribute to technology use and a paucity of information about the relevance of these disparities to the public interest. Access is undeniably important, but the real policy question is how well society will be able to take advantage of the opportunity offered by technology. (4)
Policy programs, in other words, have been hampered by the assumption that affordability of, rather than ability to use, information technologies prevents low income users from accessing the Internet. Expanding the notion of digital divide to include skill illuminates the causes of the digital divide and consequently, affects more informed policy decisions. Mossberger et al., therefore, carefully consider the usefulness and limitations of previous conceptualizations of the digital divide and design their study accordingly.

To get at the "story" of the digital divide, Mossberger et al. listen to what the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) called "information have-nots" (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1995). The authors conducted a national telephone survey at Kent State, the authors' home university, in June and July 2001. The survey measures the experiences and attitudes of those "caught in the gap" and analyzes how these experiences and attitudes relate to several interrelated divides that constitute the digital divide: the access divide, the skills divide, the economic opportunity divide, and the democratic divide. Following chapters discuss respondents' attitudes about and experiences with each divide. Based on this analysis, the authors present policy recommendations in the concluding chapter. Let us consider each of these chapters more closely.

Chapter Two, "The Access Divide," reviews past research from the Department of Commerce’s NTIA (NTIA, 1995; NTIA, 1998; NTIA, 1999; NTIA, 2002), the Pew Research Center (Lenhart, 2000), and academic studies (Hoffman, Novak, and Schlosser, 2000; Neu, Anderson, and Bison, 1999; Nie and Erbing, 2000). After reviewing these studies, Mossberger et al. conclude that past research has documented gaps in access based on age and education (23). Although gender was not found to be correlated with lack of Internet access, the studies found that other demographic factors like geographic location, employment status, and optimism about technology mattered. Race and ethnicity were factors in half of the studies reviewed. The greatest weakness in these studies, the authors contend, is the inability to account for the divide. Past research has tended to describe populations who either enjoy or lack access to ICTs, with scant causal explanation.

To redress this shortfall, Mossberger et al. use multivariate analysis (using multiple variables for statistical control) to pinpoint the causes of information paucity. Drawing on past multivariate analyses and their own survey of low income individuals, Virtual Inequality shares some unexpected observations. For example, one of the most enduring findings is that young people have greater access to the Internet but also have lower incomes. Thus, the relationship between income and Internet access is more complex than past research suggests. Mossberger et al.'s own survey also finds that income matters: those in the lower income category had a 39% chance of having Internet access (using the Monte Carlo simulation technique), in contrast to those in the high-income category who had a 63% chance. Education, race, and ethnicity were also important determining factors.

After discussing the importance and nature of the access divide, Virtual Inequality takes on the overlooked "skills divide" in Chapter Three. The authors operationalize "skills" needed to use ICTs by considering the extent to which individuals possess "technical competencies" ("the skills needed to operate the hardware and software") and "information literacy" ("the ability to recognize when information can solve a problem or fill a need and to effectively employ information resources," p. 38). "Technical competencies," in other words, are the more narrow set of skills one needs to use a technology, whereas "information literacy" includes those skills one needs to have already mastered in order to acquire technical competencies and utilize those skills. Mossberger et al.'s survey demonstrates just how important both sets of literacies are, as 22% of their low-income respondents needed help using a mouse and keyboard, and 37% needed help finding books in the library and information on the web. How useful are technical skills, the survey suggests, if one does not know how to locate the book she found while surfing the library's databases? Mossberger et al. also find that the skills divide tends to reflect the access divide. Lower-income, older, less educated individuals and African-Americans and Latino/as are more likely to need assistance using computers. Public libraries and CTCs (community technology centers) that promote skills and access might be best positioned to help these individuals. However, not all are equally willing to use public access sites. The survey found that wealthy, highly educated, and African American individuals were most likely to use public access sites. On the other hand, the survey also found that poor, female, Latino/a, and African Americans were also most likely to view public libraries as "community gathering places." This finding suggests that libraries should promote themselves as community gathering places to attract have-nots with these demographic characteristics.

Chapters Four and Five consider the economic and political implications of the skills and access divide. Here the authors explain that although technology has the potential to "enhance economic opportunity" and boost political participation, attitudes about technology's ability to do so might be the best predictor of success. Given that income disparity has been a growing problem for U.S. workers since the 1970s, Chapter Four suggests that education promises workers the surest means to "chart a course through the increasingly volatile labor market" (63). The authors further argue that although ample evidence points to the digitization of all sorts of jobs, data has failed to describe how rapid computerization has affected workers on the "wrong side" of access and skills divides.

Because of rising importance of computer skills and with them, basic literacy requirements, Mossberger et al. measure low-income earners' attitudes toward skills and computers as means to enhancing other competencies. The authors report results for age, race, gender, and employment status. Mossberger et al. find that Latino/as are most likely to think the Internet is necessary "to keep up," followed by African Americans and whites. Individuals under age 30 are more likely than those over 60 to think computer skills are needed to get ahead, while African Americans are more likely than whites, unemployed more likely than employed, and females more likely than males to think computer skills advance careers. A slightly different demographic, however, is more willing to search and has searched for jobs online -- namely young, educated, male, African American, employed individuals. Income was not correlated with attitudes about online job searches but was correlated with a greater willingness to take online courses, as was youth, being employed, and having a college education. African Americans, however, are more likely to have actually taken online courses and are more willing to take them in public places. Mossberger et al. hope that these findings will help guide programs and policies that enable technologically and economically disadvantaged individuals tap "economic opportunity."

Like Chapter 4, Chapter 5 assumes that the Internet extends opportunity, but the authors consider how divides in access and skill impact the "democratic divide" (discrepancies in political participation including voting, registering to vote, looking up government and political information, and participating in electronic town meetings). The authors measure attitudes about and experiences with using the Internet for political participation. After reviewing theories of "digital democracy," including Benjamin Barber's (1984) formulation of direct democracy, research on political participation, voting, and e-government (delivery of information and services via the Internet), Mossberger et al. share their survey results. Respondents overwhelmingly supported using the Internet to retrieve government information: over three fourths indicated they would do so. Over half, however, would not want to vote online. When items specified online voting in a public place, however, 59% of respondents stated they would do so. The authors’ multivariate analysis shows that young educated Democrats who voted in the 2000 election were more likely than their counterparts to support online voting, online voter registration, and looking up government information online. They were also more likely to participate in an online town meeting and support digital democracy. Males were also more likely than females to support all forms of digital democracy except for online voting. It is also interesting, as Mossberger et al. point out, that despite the fact that Republicans are more likely to have access to the Internet, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to support online political participation. Race and ethnicity were not significant predictors of support for political participation online. In the end, the authors found that online political participation tended to reflect traditional participation patterns where more highly educated individuals are also more interested and able to participate in electronic politics.

Significance of Virtual Inequality

Academics and policymakers will find Virtual Inequality useful for extending the notion of "digital divide" to emphasize skill as well as access, exploring attitudes toward these divides, accounting for these attitudes and experiences, and for considering consequent divides in economic and political opportunity. Mossberger et al. are attentive to the importance of the digital divide as a real and discursive problem, as the two main goals of the study suggest: broadening the definition of the divide and connecting their findings to policy agendas. As the authors conclude: "In short, we have presented a number of arguments about the ways in which the policy 'map' of the digital divide must be altered to more closely resemble the reality of information technology-related disparities" (117). Based on their survey results and review of digital divide research, Mossberger et al. make three general recommendations for policy makers and programs aimed at closing the divide: 1) attend to skills development in public access sites; 2) conduct a limited experiment with educational technology subsidy (vouchers); and 3) support basic literacy and technology skills as lifelong learning issues. Perhaps this book's most notable strength, however, is its usefulness for those who want to design and promote programs to redress the problems of unequal access, skill, and basic literacy. The authors' analysis of attitudes toward computers' use as economic and political vehicles would be most helpful for designers of and spokespeople for digital divide remediation programs.

The one weakness worth mentioning here, however, is that although Virtual Inequality sets out to expand debate and action around the digital divide, this book does not think too far outside of the box. What I mean by this is that despite the authors' success at complicating matters beyond mere access, Mossberger et al. focus a bit too closely on the technology itself -- its ability to extend economic opportunity and boost political participation. This focus on technology and skill in technology springs from the assumption Mossberger et al. reiterate at the conclusion of their work: "Computers, databases, and the Internet have transformed processes of production and the dissemination of information, they have replicated -- and, in some cases, exacerbated -- long-standing inequalities" (138). This conceptualization of the relationship between technology and society posits that technology directly transforms society (more specifically, the economy and distribution of information), while also reinforcing inequalities in these areas. This formulation exemplifies Raymond Williams' (1992) definition of soft technological determinism or "symptomatic determinism" more specifically. Symptomatic determinism is that brand of technological determinism that views technology as symptomatic of wider trends. The problem with this conceptualization is that other key variables that contribute to the problem of and fallout from the digital divide get overlooked. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, long-term jobless IT workers are going for months without finding jobs. Worse yet, some jobs might never be replaced (Riccardi, 2005).

Of course, by suggesting that Virtual Inequality could broaden its definition of digital divide even further, I am also making a wider critique about the digital divide as an object of study. The digital divide remains a discursive and material problem, one that requires us to integrate even larger questions and analyze underlying problems. Virtual Inequality makes a significant contribution to understanding the technical aspects of the problem, and I do not think my critique is at odds with the central purpose of the book. I look forward to more digital divide scholarship and activism from those who want to extend economic and political opportunity by all means possible, not just technological ones.

[1] Key digital divide works include those by Compaine (2001); Hoffman, Novak, and Schlosser (2001); Jung, Qiu, and Kim (2001); Light (2001); U.S. Department of Commerce (1995, 1999, 2002); Warschauer (2003).

Barber, B. 1984. Strong Democracy. Berkeley: University of California.

Carey, J.W. 1992. Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. New York: Routledge.

Compaine, B. 2001. 'Preface.' In B. Compaine (ed.), The Digital Divide: Facing a Crisis or Creating a Myth? (pp. 223-242). Cambridge: MIT.

Hoffman, D., Novak, T. P., Schlosser, A.E. 2001. 'The Evolution of the Digital Divide: Examining the Relationship of Race to Internet Access and Usage over Time.' In B. M. Compaine (ed.), The Digital Divide: Facing a Crisis or Creating a Myth? (pp. 47-97). Cambridge: MIT.

Jung, J. Y., Qiu, J. L., & Kim, Y. C. 2001. 'Internet Connectedness and Inequality: Beyond the Divide,' Communication Research 28(4): 507-535.

Lenhart, A. 2000. "Who's Not Online: 57% of Those Without Internet Access Say They Do Not Plan to Log on." Pew Internet & American Life Project. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/21/report_display.asp. Accessed on May 10, 2005.

Light, J. 2001. 'Rethinking the Digital Divide,' Harvard Educational Review 71(4): 709-733.

Marvin, C. 1988. When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford.

Neu, C.R., Anderson, R.H., Bikson, T.K. 1999. Sending Your Government a Message: Email Communication Between Citizens and Government. Santa Monica: RAND.

Nie, N. H. and Erbring, L. 2001. 'Internet and Society: A Preliminary Report' in B. Compaine (ed.) The Digital Divide: Facing a Crisis or Creating a Myth?, 269-271.

Riccardi, N. 2005, March 11. 'Long-Term jobless Find a Degree Just Isn't Working,' Los Angeles Times, A1, A24.

U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunication and Information Administration. 1995. Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the 'Have-Nots' in Rural and Urban America. Available at: http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fallingthru.html. Accessed on April 27, 2005.

U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunication and Information Administration. 1998. Falling Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide. Available at: http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/net2/falling.html. Accessed on April 27, 2005.

U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunication and Information Administration. 1999. Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide. Available at: http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fttn99. Accessed on April 27, 2005.

U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunication and Information Administration. 2002. A Nation Online: How Americans are Expanding Their Use of the Internet. Available at: http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/dn/anationonline2.pdf. Accessed on April 27, 2005.

Warschauer, M. 2003. Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Williams, R. 1992. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.

Michelle Rodino:
Michelle Rodino is Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati. Her research explores the relationship between new media, gender, and labor. Michelle's work has appeared in Feminist Media Studies, Workplace: A Journal of Academic Labor, and the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.  <michelle.rodino@uc.edu>

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