Sunday, April 19, 2009

Virtual Inequality summary

Virtual Inequality: Beyond the Digital Divide by Karen Mossberger, Caroline J. Tolbert, and Mary Stansbury redefines the digital divide as being a multi-layered and complex problem: "We propose a broader definition of the problem as consisting of multiple divides: an access divide, a skills divide, an economic opportunity divide, and a democratic divide" (2). The authors acknowledge that there are persistent gaps of access based on race, ethnicity, education, and income: "The data reveal that a 'digital divide' in terms of information technology access is an undeniable reality. Even as more Americans purchase computers and flock online, most of the disparities that emerged during the latter half of the 1990s remain" (35).

When analyzing the skills divide, the authors focus upon two distinct concepts: technological competencies (e.g. using a mouse, typing, and giving instructions to the computer to sort records) and information literacy, which is "the ability to recognize when information can solve a problem or fill a need and to effectively employ information resources" (38). Lurking behind both of these concepts is basic literacy, which the authors also address.

The analysis of the economic opportunity divide is broken into two parts: first, the authors trace the evolution of the economy over the past two decades; second, they discuss their respondents' attitudes and experiences related to the economic opportunity divide. The authors also highlight the interconnectedness of each divide: "The beliefs expressed by survey respondents demonstrate that the problem lies not with limited awareness of technology's benefits, but with issues of access and skill" (61).

The chapter on the democratic divide contains the least developed analysis, because not many studies have been done about it. Nevertheless, the authors pose interesting questions about issues (e.g. online voting) that could develop into potentially large problems in the near future. If government activities and information are moving increasingly online, then the ability to access, use, and debate that information becomes a greater necessity for the existence of a healthy democracy.

The authors synthesize their data and their thoughts into three final recommendations: pay greater attention to skills development in public access sites, experiment with an educational technology subsidy (i.e. a voucher), and increase public investment in lifelong learning.


  1. Would you recommend this book to us? I'm thinking about reading it... Do the solutions they present seem like something we might be able to accomplish in the coming years?

  2. This book sounds similar to the one I read, looking to broaden the understanding of the digital divide as well as the inclusion of social, economic, and other factors in the discussion as well as the possible solutions. Was the book focused in the US or were there examples from other parts of the world? I will be interested to hear your presentation to see whether there are other similarities to Warschauer's book.