The Contemporary US Digital Divide: From Initial Access to Technology Maintenance

Gonzales, Amy
Information, Communication & Society

As US Internet penetration rates have climbed, digital divide researchers have largely shifted attention to differences in Internet skills. Interviews with 72 low-income US residents from both a large metropolitan city and a medium-sized Midwestern town, however, reveal that many people still struggle to maintain physical access, supporting technology maintenance theory. Technology maintenance theory argues that although most of the US poor now use digital technology, access is unstable and characterized by frequent periods of disconnection. As a result, low-income users must work to maintain access, often experiencing cycles of dependable instability. In these interviews, nearly all used the Internet, but technology maintenance practices were widespread, including negotiation of temporarily disconnected service, broken hardware, and logistic limitations on public access. As a result, participants had limited access to health information and employment, and biased attitudes toward technology. That is, in some cases, negative attitudes toward Internet adoption reflected a rational response to disconnection rather than cultural norms or fears of the Internet, as suggested by previous research. Findings support and extend the theory of technology maintenance by emphasizing a shift in the US digital divide from issues of ownership to issues of sustainability; they also provide insight into the interrelated nature of access and attitudes toward technology. This new theoretical approach complements other theoretical approaches to the digital divide that foreground a contextualized understanding of digital disparities as embedded within a history of broad social disparities.