Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Redefining the Digital Divide

In “Redefining the Digital Divide,” Mossberger, Tolbert and Stansbury try to redirect the conversation of the digital divide by examining aspects other than access to technology. Mossberger et al believe that by concentrating primarily on access to technology, most studies have been unable to pinpoint both the causes and potential solutions to the divide. In their study, the authors define the divide as being four different, but interlocking, divides: the access divide, the skills divide, an economic divide, and a democratic divide (2).

This chapter, which is the first of a book, traces the public discussion of the digital divide and the various ways it has been studied. After the Internet became a public utility, as opposed to a military and academic tool, it was quickly recognized that some were being left behind. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the first federal law to include internet access in addition to telephone service; this helped to establish the problem as one of access. However, the authors argue throughout this chapter—and the rest of the book—that the problem is much wider. Access, they argue, is not important unless people have the skills to use, evaluate, and understand both the technical, social, economic, and political dimensions of the technology.

The authors note that in both research and programs created to address the digital divide, the emphasis has been almost solely on access, not on information literacy, the role of technology in society, the potential uses of technology for the economically disadvantaged, or how technology functions within our system of government. In 2001 the E-Rate program provided almost $2.25 billion dollars for infrastructure, while only $110 million was spent on all programs that focused on skills development (3). The majority of funding for projects on the digital divide comes from the federal government, and during the Bush administration, there was increasing debate on whether the digital divide would heal itself.

One of the ways this study differs from others done in the past was their methodology. The question set was broader, addressing all four aspects of the divide as defined by the authors. Samples focused on residents of low income areas, and “low income” was defined as $30,000 or less. For the surveys the divides were broken down as such:

Access divide: interest in a computer, location of access, and frequency of use
Skills divide: technical competence and information literacy
Economic opportunity divide: beliefs about the connections between technology and economic
Democratic divide: attitudes toward the use of technology in political activity

To analyze their results, the authors use multivariate regression, which allows them to analyze different variables and explain their role in the digital divide. The authors have a commitment to presenting their information in ways that is understandable to those without a backgrounds in statistics. The authors conclude by outlining their plan for the rest of the book and providing rough sketches of each chapters, including the policy suggestions they put forward towards the end.


  1. Hmmm...interesting that the study cites a democratic divide. I feel like the readings from the prior weeks demonstrated pretty clearly that the digital divide breaks down along race and class lines, and that has been known for a relatively long time. Thus if democratic participation and involvement have been moved online anyway, is that an exclusionary act of race and classism?

  2. This chapter gives a great overview and I like their categories, particularly the democratic divide. Thinking about how the democratic divide intersects with and/or builds upon economic opportunity divides, I go back to the comment of the man from the San Diego Urban League (I think) in the video during our first week, when he said that computers could be the new force for achieving civil rights. I also thought of President Obama and his reliance on technology and particularly the Blackberry. I agree that by moving democratic participation online, our society is in danger of excluding some folks even more. I don't think the civil rights promise of the computer has been realized, if it ever in fact existed.