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Media Access: Social and Psychological Dimensions of New Technology Use

Editor: Erik Bucy, John Newhagen
Publisher: Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004
Review Published: January 2007

 REVIEW 1: Cheryl Brown
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Erik Bucy and John Newhagen

Media Access: Social and Psychological Dimensions of New Technology Use, edited by Erik Bucy and John Newhagen, comprises a collection of chapters that examines access to new media technologies. The consistent theme running through this book is an expansion of the conceptualization of access to include what the editors call "content access" with the dimensions of social and cognitive access. The authors examine how various dimensions influence people's use (and non-use) of technology, covering psychological aspects like user frustration and personality and social and cultural aspects such as income, class, and cultural background. Issues such as usage gaps and universal usability add to the debate around use and non-use of technology. There is also a focus on how new media are used to access the public sphere.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section, titled "Psychological Dimensions of Media Access," includes fours chapters on psychological dimensions of media access. Chapters two through to four (by Maria Grabe and Rasha Kamhawi, Eric Bucy, Seth Finn, and Appa Rao Korukonda) adopt a very positivistic quantitative approach of hypothesis testing. Grabe and Kamhawi investigate the cognitive ability of news consumers across different education levels to both new and traditional media. They conclude that there is little evidence to support claims that people with lower education are less interested in news and suggest that to the contrary they are more interested. They also note that television is still the easiest way for people to access information and that the web is widening the knowledge gap because of cognitive access inequities.

Co-editor Bucy examines people's experiences with online news, particularly the disorientation that can occur when using hypertext. He focuses on the cognitive and emotional barriers that exist online compared with broadcast media and concludes that the negative emotional impact of interactivity raises questions about unequal access to the online environment.

Finn and Korukonda suggest an expansion of the uses and gratification paradigm in their look at the relationship between personality and use and conclude that there is sufficient statistical evidence that variations in personality traits and gender are linked to diverse attitudes about computers. Whilst I found it interesting to think about the impact of personality on attitude, I did think that the assumption that negative attitudes presumed lack of use to be simplistic. In fact, as other authors suggest in later chapters, non-use is complicated by far more than attitudes.

Katherine Bessiere et al examine a very interesting aspect of computer use -- that of users' frustration -- and draw on literature surrounding frustration and goal theory in an discussion about how this impacts on users, developers, and managers of computer-based environments.

This section provides insight into some of the barriers people face in using new media. The contributors' conclusions about the different emotional and cognitive skills people require in order to not just use new media, but for it to be meaningful are very interesting. This knowledge is particularly useful as it highlights additional constraining factors that people could face once traditional barriers such as having access to technology and skills have been overcome.

The second section of the book, "Social and Cultural Dimensions of Media Access," looks at social and cultural dimensions of access. These chapters are far more qualitative and interpretive in their approach. Viviana Rojas et al draw on Bourdieu in their study of working class families from a well connected area and their use of new information technologies. Their unpacking of the impacts of both social and cultural capital on the families was fascinating and indicated just how complex use and non-use of new media is. Too often, when it comes to looking at the digital divide, research is focused on power imbalances and social asymmetries. Scholars like to look at the haves and have-nots in terms of social demographics. Whilst this may be true, the issue is more complex. I found this chapter very enlightening as the authors manage to pull together a range of perspectives that move beyond this.

One expectation that I felt was not adequately addressed throughout the book was the notion of the reason for access. In Chapter One, Newhagen and Bucy ask the question "Access to what?" For me, purpose is a crucial component of access. If, as is acknowledged in the book, access is complex and multilayered, then access needs to be examined is relation to the variety or need for use. For example, a community center or library may be a perfectly acceptable means of access for a person whose only need is to check weekly job adverts (either in the newspaper or online), whereas a person who is trying to stay in touch with someone in another location requires more frequent, easier access. Perhaps this is because the authors' context -- those of us in developing countries are more likely to question the view that new media are necessary for everyone. After all, as bridges.org put it, for some people the question is as simple as "Can I sell my chicken on the internet?"

That said, Jan Youtie, Philip Shapira, and Greg Laudeman do begin to question the relationship between access and use, and acknowledge that having access to the technology does not necessarily mean it is used. Their case-study looks at the introduction of internet TV on people's computer and internet use. Whilst free access certainly reached some people who otherwise did not have access to information technology, it did not result in much of an increase in local connections or interactions. They suggest that although this is a valuable strategy, it is not a solution for resolving the digital divide and that there are many other social and attitudinal barriers that impact access more than technology itself.

Linda Jackson et al examine the socio-psychological characteristics that influence internet use among low-income families. Their mixed methodological approach provides both baseline information as well as the story behind it. They offer some interesting insights into the nature of internet use and the attitudes behind this use. The relationship between unfavourable attitudes to the internet and low internet use were only really strong in the first three months of home internet access. It was also interesting that they found no relationship between income, gender, and internet use. This is an area where there is much contradictory data still emerging with other researchers concluding that women and low income groups use new technologies less and for different purposes.

This second section offers a very nice balance of methodological approaches that provide both baseline data on which to draw conclusions as well as insights into how access impacted individuals.

The third and last section, "Media Access to the Public Sphere," examines media access and the public sphere. Johnette McCrery and John Newhagen draw on Habermas' ideas of the public sphere to frame their research and note that new technologies have enabled the public sphere to evolve beyond the limits of physical space into a virtual one. They talk about the concept of perceived political efficacy, people's participation in the process, and how the virtual space can be sustained. Richard Hofstetter examines the skills and motivations of people participating in political talk radio (which he reconceptualizes as a new technology). He examines the way the medium is used and then highlights a range of motivations of people who use it. Interestingly, talk radio is quite an interactive medium, especially when compared to other mass media. He concludes that this media involves quite a high level of analytical and reasoning skills (which builds nicely on the earlier chapters about cognitive ability).

Jan van Dijk outlines a cumulative model of access, whereby different kinds of access are experienced at successive stages and are conditional on one another. Mental access (motivation) is required first. Once this has been achieved, a person can mobilize material access (hardware). This will lead to skills access (which incorporates strategic, instrumental, and informational access). Only then is access to full usage obtained. He highlights that there are several digital divides and that data from the US and Netherlands indicates that this gap is continuously widening. However, he cautions that whilst the gap in possession of ICTs closes we need to ensure that inequalities in skills and usage do not continue to widen. He talks about the usage gap and stresses that whilst society has different practical uses of ICTs we need to keep improving usage opportunities for all by designing and producing applications and content that are attractive to a wider range of people.

Lastly, Ben Shneiderman focuses on a similar concept by moving beyond the concept of universal access to universal usability. He sets out a research agenda that involves accommodating a broader range of situations which involve considering technological variety, user diversity, and differences in user knowledge.

The premise of this book is part of an emerging literature that spans many disciplinary domains. Researchers with backgrounds in literacy studies (Warschauer 2003), social informatics (Kling 2000), information systems (Kvasny 2002), and education (Burbules and Callister 2000) have argued for a more expansive or "thicker" conception of access beyond technology. Whilst this book doesn't offer any revolutionary new understandings in the conceptualization of access, it does offer empirical evidence with regards to these dimensions. The book presents a variety of research approaches and epistemologies across the chapters and whilst the sites of inquiry are varied, the authors maintain a connection with each other through references to other chapters and a consistent theme of presenting access as more than just technology.

In conclusion, I found Media Access: Social and Psychological Dimensions of New Technology Use to be a useful comparison of the way people think about and use different types of media. It should be of interest to people who are interested in the different impacts of traditional and new media. It concurs with other disciplines in its conceptualizations of access as being beyond technology and captures the ideas around social and psychological dimensions in a very accessible and comprehensive manner. There is certainly something in this book for anyone involved in researching new technologies and I hope that people beyond the field of media studies will try to link their research with that presented in this book. Access to new technologies is a multi disciplinary field and research in this area will really thrive when researchers take cognisance of the approaches and inquires from a full range of fields.

Burbules, N. and T. Callister. (2000). "Watch It: The Risks and Promises of Information Technology for Education. Westview. Colorado." Retrieved 1 June, 2006, from http://edrev.asu.edu/reviews/rev107.htm.

Kling, R. (2000). "Learning About Information Technologies and Social Change: The Contribution of Social Informatics." The Information Society 16(2): 217-232.

Kvasny, L. (2002). A Conceptual Framework for Examining Digital Inequality. Eighth America's conference on Information Systems, Retrieved 1 June 2006, from http://aisel.isworld.org/article_by_author.asp?Author_ID=4221.

Warschauer, M. (2003). Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide. Massachusetts, The MIT Press, Retrieved 1 June 2006, from http://www.gse.uci.edu/faculty/markw/tsi.html.

Cheryl Brown:
Cheryl Brown works at the Centre for Educational Technology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. She has just completed an investigation into access to and use of ICTs for teaching and learning amongst academic staff and students in higher education in the Western Cape, South Africa. She is currently enrolled in her PhD with the Department of Information Systems at the University of Cape Town. Her research examines how higher education students' different meanings of ICT are affected by their access, social conditions, and the educational context in which they use technology.  <cbrown@ched.uct.ac.za>

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