Digital Inequality: From Unequal Access to Differentiated Use
The Internet boosts immeasurably our collective capacity to archive information, search through large quantities of it quickly, and retrieve it rapidly. It is said that the Internet will expand access to education, good jobs, and better health and that it will create new deliberative spaces for political discussion and provide citizens with direct access to government. Insofar as such claims are plausible, Internet access is an important resource, and inequality in Internet access is a significant concern for social scientists who study inequality. This chapter reviews what we know about inequality in access to and use of new digital technologies. Until recently most research has focused on inequality in access (the "digital divide"), measured in a variety of ways. We agree that inequality of access is important, because it is likely to reinforce inequality in opportunities for economic mobility and social participation. At the same time we argue that a more thorough understanding of digital inequality requires placing Internet access in a broader theoretical context and asking a wider range of questions about the impact of information technologies and informational goods on social inequality. This chapter is structured around five key issues: 1. The digital divide. Who has access to the Internet, who does not have access, and how has access changed? This is the topic about which information is currently most abundant. 2. Is access to and use of the Internet more or less unequal than access to and use of other forms of information technology? Even if access to and use of the Internet is profoundly unequal, the Internet's spread may represent a net increase in equality over the pre-Web media landscape. The implications of the new digital technologies for inequality in access to information can be understood only in the context of a comparative analysis of the impact of inequality on access to and use of all the major communication media-not just the Internet but broadcast media, newspapers and magazines, telephones, and even word of mouth. If publishers stopped printing newspapers and put all the news online, would inequality in information about politics and world affairs diminish, become greater, or stay the same? 3. Among the increasing number of Internet users, how do such factors as gender, race, and socioeconomic status shape inequality in ease, effectiveness, and quality of use? What mechanisms account for links between individual attributes and technological outcomes? We place great importance on understanding socially structured variation in the ability of persons with formal access to the Internet to use it to enhance their access to valuable information resources. In particular, we are interested in the impact of social inequality on where, how easily, and with how much autonomy people can go online; the quality of the hardware and connection that users have at their disposal; how skilled users are at finding information; how effectively they can draw on social support in solving problems that they encounter in their efforts to do so; and how productively they use their Internet access to enhance their economic life chances and capacity for social and political participation. 4. Does access to and use of the Internet affect people's life chances? From the standpoint of public policy, the digital divide is only a problem insofar as going online shapes Internet users' life chances and capacity for civic engagement. What do we know about the effects of Internet access and use on such things as educational achievement and attainment, labor force participation, earnings, and voting? To what extent, if at all, do returns vary for different types of users? If there are no effects, or if the benefits for use are restricted to the already advantaged, then the case for government intervention to reduce inequality in access to digital technologies is correspondingly weaker.1 5. How might the changing technology, regulatory environment, and industrial organization of the Internet render obsolete the findings reported here? Because the Internet is a relatively new technology-browsers have been available for only about a decade and the Web was not fully privatized until the mid-1990s-we cannot assume that the results of research undertaken in past years will be replicated even a few years hence. The Internet is a moving target, with many economic and political interests vying to control its ultimate configuration. How might institutional changes-in economic control, in the codes that drive the technology, or in government regulatory and legislative actions-alter observed patterns of inequality in access and use? We begin with a brief account of the origins and spread of Internet technology. Next, in order to place this chapter in a broader perspective, we review earlier attempts to address the relationship between technological change and social inequality. Finally, we review the literature on each of the five main questions and, where the research is lacking, develop an agenda for the work that needs to be done.