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The Deepening Divide: Inequality in the Information Society

Author: Jan A. G. M. van Dijk
Publisher: Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005
Review Published: December 2006

 REVIEW 1: Alan Zaremba

In the seventies, IBM ran a series of advertisements suggesting that persons beset with problems might purchase computers to reduce the pressures of decision making. A man, apparently an executive of some sort, trudged about an organizational campus looking like a burdened soul. The message in the ad was that his troubles, and yours, could be alleviated with the decision-making assistance of new technology. The intimation was that one could either employ this innovative technology or join the ranks of those left behind to plod, oppressed and out of the loop.

The Deepening Divide: Inequality in the Information Society by Jan A. G. M. van Dijk argues that there is indeed a digital divide and that, as the title suggests, the gap is deepening. The author's self described "core argument" is that "those at the 'wrong' end of the digital divide will become second class and third class citizens or not citizens at all" (17). Like the executives who passed on new technology, van Dijk contends that persons on the wrong end of the divide are, and will be, handicapped.

There are several admirable qualities about the book. The first is that the depiction of the divide is as deep and complex as the author purports the divide itself to be. The author comprehensively describes the gap by dedicating separate chapters to a) motivational, b) material, c) skills, and d) usage factors that create the breach. This multifaceted description challenges the reader to consider the divide as a textured and nuanced phenomenon. The author refers to "full" access to technology as a composite of successive layers (16). Van Dijk describes each layer and consequently creates a richer, high definition picture. This depiction suggests that any simplistic conceptualization of the divide is illusory, limiting, and therefore inadequate. Most persons have a general notion of what is meant by the digital divide. This book is valuable to students of new technology because it carefully and meaningfully explains what creates the divisions.

The Deepening Divide is also clearly focused and structured well. There is nothing equivocal about the perspective or the direction of the author. At no time can readers put the book down and wonder "now where is the author going with this?" The structure of the chapters helps yield this clarity. Each begins with a summarizing introduction which, in most cases, also identifies the subsections within the upcoming chapter.

Third, beyond a depiction of the divide, the author examines the problems associated with the deepening divide. Three chapters are dedicated to describing these problems. In addition, three sections of a fourth chapter also identify problems with a technological divide. Collectively, these chapters reply to the "so what" question that any inquisitive reader would want to see addressed.

Finally, the book concludes with a discussion of what needs to be done to respond to the problems. Many times readers can be frustrated by books that highlight a concern, but do not discuss how to remedy the concern. The last pages of this book discuss potential remedies.

Nevertheless, the book could be stronger. Although the author describes the divide he does not sufficiently persuade readers of his core argument. He does not build a compelling case that those at what he refers to as the "wrong end" are unable to participate in the conversation of our society. The "old" media still exist. The old media are not interactive in the way that the new media can be, but citizens who read books, newspapers, watch CNN, phone their representatives, listen to and participate in "talk radio," join book clubs, and attend universities are not ineluctably reduced to third class citizenship. These persons are not necessarily out of the loop or even in a different loop. An argument could be made that the divide that exists between first and second class citizenry is based less on technology and more on willingness to access and disseminate information from any source. To make his case, the author would have to refute that argument.

Moreover, the book would be more effective if a convincing argument was made that what exists will persist. The title suggests that the divide will continue to deepen. However, factors that affect motivation, skills, and usage will change. The Deepening Divide portrays what is, not necessarily what will be.

It is difficult, of course, to be in the prediction business. Social and technological evolutions can render forecasts ridiculous in retrospect. In 1979, a panel of esteemed professors discussed --no, lamented -- a looming dichotomy in higher education. This program was part of the Eastern Communication Association's annual meetings in Philadelphia. Each panelist was asked to predict how communication technology would affect universities in the future. The panelists contended that there would soon be the elite schools that had computing technology and those that simply would not have access to computers. Inevitably, they argued, faculty at the have-not institutions would be unable to conduct research or study like their colleagues at the have universities. In 1983, an aspiring engineer gave a talk on why the time was now to purchase a personal computer. Audience members thought the idea was folly. "Why would I possibly need my own computer?" was the prevailing sentiment. All innovation -- personal computers, cell phones, laptops, easy passes, even credit cards -- were at one time looked at as frivolous and/or insidiously divisive. Yet education, changing economic factors, comfort with technology, and competitive and social pressures alter the future in a way that renders predictions based on current depictions very risky.

The book could be stronger in other ways as well. Some claims in the text beg for scholarly support. Others include uncomfortable generalizations, and some portions simply require more careful editing. Often I hear students suggest that their products could be better if they only had more time. I wonder if the author would like to make a similar comment or discuss some issues with his editors. The book, unfortunately, is not as polished as it could be.

Consider the following excerpt.
    We should not underestimate the problems many senior, disabled, low educated people and manual workers have in performing even the simplest operations on keyboards ... For example, I have a brother who is a manual laborer in a floral greenhouse. He learned to use a computer at the age of 42. His first experience was that his fingers were too fat to manage the keyboard without numerous errors and he was too slow in double clicking. These kinds of problems are much more common than a large part of the readership of this book might think. (75-76)
I agree that no reader should underestimate problems people have with using a keyboard. But if senior, disabled, low educated, and manual workers have more problems than other groups -- as is implied in the excerpt -- some evidence should be provided for the claim. The reference to the sibling is puzzling. The size of the sibling's fingers is not related to education level, age at which he became familiar with computers, or choice of occupation. The author refers to the brother to exemplify the point that demographic factors affect technological use, but the brother's problem is not related to his demographics -- unless finger size is somehow considered a demographic category [1]. The brother may be a member of some of the groups referred to, but his problem is unrelated. Other parts of this excerpt are confusing and could be disturbing to some readers. Instead, it would have been helpful if terms were more carefully defined. For example, what is meant by "disabled" workers? Certainly all persons with disabilities do not have problems with technology. The inclusion of "seniors" in the grouping might have been reconsidered. Will "seniors" always have more problems with technology or is the point that contemporary seniors are experiencing problems because they have happened on the new technology recently? If the latter, then the problem is temporary and the reference does not further the case that the divide will inevitably increase.

Later in the same chapter, the following appears: "It is common knowledge that senior and female respondents are more modest in reporting the level of their skills than younger and male respondents" (79). This does not seem to be what we consider "common knowledge" but rather knowledge gleaned from research studies. The report of these studies should be identified. Even if the claim is the residual of studies that are commonly referred to, it would be good for readers to see the citations and read the studies if they were so inclined. Gaps in logic reflecting poor editing appear elsewhere. On page 43, we read, "The people with a lack of motivation to gain access to computers and networks should not be accused of being backward. Instead, the finger should be pointed at the current flaws of the technology concerned: lack of user friendliness, usefulness, attractiveness, affordability and safety" (emphasis added). Maybe so. However, this claim requires support. To support it, 1988 and 1999 works by David Norman are cited. Even a 1999 book can not provide meaningful support for an argument in a 2005 publication pertaining to "current" flaws of new technology and how these flaws will contribute to a deepening technological divide [2]. Another simple but revealing editing problem is found on page 39: "All social classes and cultural groups reject computers and the internet in general when their use contradicts the moral and cultural values of particular class or group members, parents in particular" (emphasis added). It would seem to me that a rereading of this sentence, even once, would make it clear that the pronoun does not have a clear antecedent and that the absence of a clear antecedent renders the sentence indecipherable.

Regardless of their esoteric content, books should be written so that any intelligent and concerned person can access the information. A good litmus test for any book or journal article should be this: "Could persons who are not in the field, but who are intelligent, knowledgeable, and interested in the subject matter read the material comfortably?" This book would be a struggle to read even if readers were interested. It is structured very well, but more energy needs to be spent on careful writing so it could be read by persons who can be part of the conversation, but will not be if they find the writing inaccessible. To be careless with our writing is to create a scholarship divide, one that divorces academics from a population that could contribute to the discourse.

The strength of this book is that it could, in fact, stimulate a robust conversation among academics and practitioners in politics, business, education, medicine, law, and business. In sum, Jan A. G. M. van Dijk has written a meaningful book. It describes in detail the many facets of the current digital divide. Its value will be greater for those who study the history of technology, than for those who wish to predict the effects of technology on future generations.

  1. Unlikely, even when discussing digital divides. Even if the brother's problem was related to his demographics, his situation is not necessarily representative of all persons who have similar demographics and consequently it would not adequately support the authorís contention.

  2. The author is not contending that there will always be "current" flaws in technology that affect the motivation to gain access. Rather, as he reasserts on pages 206 and 207, "the technology is to blame, not so-called laggards or backward people who have not yet discovered the miracles of technology. There is still a lot of improvement needed in the maturing information and communication technologies."

Alan Zaremba:
Alan Zaremba is the Academic Director for programs in Corporate and Organizational Communication at Northeastern University. He is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies. His most recent books are Organizational Communication: Foundations of Business and Collaboration and Speaking Professionally: A Concise Guide. Both are published by Thomson South-Western.  <a.zaremba@neu.edu>

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