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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

Cheryl Brown's review of Media Access raises several poignant issues that are worth exploring in greater depth. Brown accurately summarizes our perspective that the skills and motivation required for access to content is a far more pressing issue in current discussions about the digital divide than the affordability and availability of computer hardware. Although this observation has been made by other authors, Media Access is the first volume we know of that takes a comprehensive, multi-methodological approach to the various dimensions of access -- social, psychological, technological, and economic -- and ties them together with the unifying theme of maximizing user participation.

Brown is correct to situate Media Access as part of an emerging literature that spans numerous disciplinary domains. The contributions represent the work of scholars across an array of fields, including communication and journalism studies, information science, human-computer interaction, public policy, and political science. The conceptual and methodological approaches are as varied as the contributors and encompass social explanations based on large-scale survey data, cultural explanations derived from in-depth interviews and ethnographic methods, and psychological explanations inferred from experimental research.

Our intent in gathering this unique collection of studies by leading researchers was not only to investigate questions about ICT adoption and diffusion but also to better understand the cognitive and emotional barriers to processing new media content. This, combined with cultural analysis of the social factors within different user communities that signal the importance and human value of new information technologies, hold up as the book's primary contributions.

On the question of social access to technology, it is generally accepted that citizens on the higher end of the socioeconomic scale who live in networked communities enjoy a comparative advantage in terms of social, educational, economic, and political opportunities over those in underdeveloped and economically depressed areas. Yet, media access may still vary widely within a particular region or community -- East Palo Alto, California, a depressed community in the heart of Silicon Valley, being a prime example. Over time, we contend that media access will be a more vexing issue than discussions about the digital divide generally acknowledge because full access requires a level of motivation, technical competence, cognitive ability, and social support that is proving difficult for many citizens, even of advanced industrialized nations, to achieve.

Thus, the reason for access that Brown suggests is not adequately addressed throughout the book is opportunity -- in all its various guises.

Applied to different spheres of influence, media access may enable those groups best positioned to benefit from technology to apply information and experiences gleaned from the mediated world to important aspects of their lives. At the top of the heap are the "digerati" -- members of a digital or cyber elite who are distinguished not so much by their financial position as by the technical and cognitive resources they wield to secure advantages over members of the information underclass. Lower in the socio-techno hierarchy are those who do not have the skills and motivation to effectively navigate complex information spaces and who may regard networked or online experiences as off-putting and irrelevant.

The prospect of a society bifurcated by information technology -- one group running computers, the other largely oblivious to their influence -- stands in sharp contrast to the very notion of an egalitarian, opportunity-filled society at the core of our liberal democratic ideals.

The contributors to Media Access recognize this important fact and compare social and cognitive access to networked technologies both between and within varying socioeconomic groups, identifying factors associated with effectual ICT use beyond demographic explanations and hardware solutions. Underlying our thinking about access is the assumption that any complete model of media access should consider the interaction between social and psychological factors in information technology use. Toward this end, chapters in the book develop expanded definitions and conceptual understandings of access to offer new perspectives on policy discussions, stimulate further research, and facilitate media participation among those being left behind.

In the brief period this book has been in print, the mere idea of the Internet as "new technology" has come into question. Advances in information and communication technologies seem to be developing at a continuous roil rather than diffusing in discrete (e.g., 30-year), measurable cycles. The only constant is not just change, but acceleration. With increasingly efficient nano technologies, the curve underlying Moore's law about the dramatic nonlinear increase in processing capacity just doesn't seem to want to find an asymptote, it just keeps climbing.

Our strategy of highlighting the social and psychological barriers to full media access only seems more justified since the volume was published. The old thinking about new technologies, captured by the "technics-out-of-control" motif elaborated by Langdon Winner and others (notably Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein), held that advanced technologies get dumped into a social milieu unprepared or sufficiently protected to accept them. However, in the current environment -- at a consumer level, at least -- we may be seeing a considerable segment of society actually anticipating affordances before the engineers can roll the new products out for public view.

This response was written during that height of the 2006 holiday buying frenzy, which was dominated by two product lines: portable music playback devices and multimedia gaming systems. The almost instant popularity of the Sony Walkman in the late 1970s suggests that users had the idea of compact playback figured out decades before the digital revolution. Now, with the iPod and other mp3 players, it seems as if the engineers are finally conquering the portable playback challenge. This is also true for gaming technology. As a sonar technician in the U.S. Navy in the mid-1960s, I (Newhagen) had the opportunity to try out what was then the first generation of digital fire control computers. During night watches in the North Atlantic, we used to amuse ourselves with a crude two-player baseball game normally employed as a training device. Of course, today's offerings would blow these early computer systems out of the water. Nonetheless, we should give credit to user communities that recognize the unheralded potential of even primitive technologies to serve multiple uses and adapt information devices to serve their own needs.

Despite the continuous introduction of seemingly "new" ICTs, we question whether current technologies represent a dramatic advance in user affordances, or whether they are just competing to satisfy consumers' needs more completely. Although current design implementations are often unfathomable or overly complex, a point Don Norman convincingly argues in The Invisible Computer, today's consumer technologies seem to be playing a game of catch-up with user expectations, not the other way around. If so, this may mark an important shift in the study of the interaction between humans and technology away from the latter in favor of the former. Cheryl Brown's review rightly points out that different users have different needs and, therefore, different expectations. Indeed, this is just the point -- developing meaningful theories about information technology use necessitates that we conceptually foreground the user rather than the ever-evolving hardware.

Elaboration of these and other issues can be found in the first edition of Media Access. An expanded and updated second edition, which seems justified given the critical attention our volume has received on this site as well as in the pages of New Media & Society, the Review of Communication (where it was ranked among the "Editor's Top 10 Media Choices" for 2001-04), and the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, may be forthcoming.

More broadly, the challenges, opportunities, and potential hazards posed by society's growing dependence on networked technologies demands that researchers keep pace with new developments at the interface and continue to raise important questions about our ability to maintain an egalitarian ethos in cyberspace and beyond.

Erik Bucy and John Newhagen

<ebucy@indiana.edu >

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