Stratification & the Digital Revolution
The social and economic advantages that accompany new advances in information technology have been quite uneven, causing what has come to be known as the "digital divide." This paper looks at the digital revolution in relation to social stratification in the United States. Its central aim is to examine what has come to be known as the "digital divide" by summarizing research findings from various studies on the demographics of Internet use. The paper also identifies types of digital divides, such as the rural digital divide, and explains some of the problems the United States faces in overcoming these divides. After briefly explaining the technological difficulties of narrowing the digital divide, the paper looks at the role of education in contributing to the solution.
Keywords Broadband; Community Technology Centres (CTCs); Consumer Federation of America (CFA); Consumers Union (CU); Digital Divide; Digital Subscriber Lines (DSLs); Information and Communication Technology (ICT); Internet Service Providers (ISPs); National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA); Rural Utilities Service (RUS); Web 2.0
The Digital Revolution
In recent decades, the widespread use of computers and the Internet has caused a transition from the industrial revolution to the digital revolution. However, research indicates that the spread of information and communication technology (ICT), and the inevitable social and economic advantages that accompany ICT, have been quite uneven, causing what has come to be known as the "digital divide." The term "digital divide" was first used by the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in a series it published, Falling Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion; the term was created to express the uneven diffusion of ICT in our information age (Hawkins, 2005, p. 172). Upon researching the spread of ICT, the NTIA quickly realized that socioeconomic stratification in the United States heavily influenced the distribution of ICT. In other words, in large cities such as New York, where ICT infrastructures most quickly became fully developed, there was nevertheless a divide between those who had access to the technology and those who did not. A lot of the early research was intent on establishing what percentage of which specific groups were or were not using the new technology and why they were or were not using it.
Paul C. Gorski and Christine Clark (2003) note that the term digital divide is traditionally used to describe computer and Internet access inequalities between people belonging to groups with social or cultural identifiers such as race, sex, socioeconomic class, and disability status, among other identifying factors, and this has created terms specifying those groups. The authors cite the example that the term "racial digital divide" is used to discuss discrepancies in rates of ICT access between racial groups. The authors also point out that studies show white Americans and Asian Americans have much higher rates of ICT access than African Americans or Latino Americans (Gorski & Clark, 2003, p. 29). Chris Taylor (2000) observes that the term "digital divide" has become "mired in the blurry realm of cliché, applied variously to women, the disabled, seniors, ethnic minorities, rural and inner-city populations" (p. 5). However, they also warn us that "the underlying threat is real." Taylor notes that ICT has advanced so rapidly that "a new upper class—composed largely of the same white, affluent, college-educated males that made up the old upper class —has spurted ahead of the rest of society, mostly because they have the time and money necessary to acquire and understand the tools of the digital revolution" (Taylor et al., 2000, 6).
Gorski and Clark argue that perceiving the digital divide as only a series of gaps in rates of physical access to computers and the Internet may fail to represent the full context and reasons for the divide. The authors advise that readers seek out what may be more deeply lying "educational, social, cultural, political, and economic ramifications". Also, the authors observe that a narrow conceptualization of the divide—meaning to perceive the divide as merely one of Internet access—"serves the interests of privileged groups who can continue to critique access rates instead of thinking critically and reflectively about their personal and collective roles in cycling and recycling old inequities in a new cyber-form" (Gorski & Clark, 2003, 4).
Gorski and Clark's and Taylor's observations point out what is probably the main reason that the question of access to ICT has become so important. As the technology has entered American culture, it has quickly become apparent that affluence is attached to distributing and using the technology. ICT is quickly becoming—or probably already is—a powerful new carrier of what were pre-existing inequities in American society, meaning the digital trend may be propagating "old inequities in a new cyber-form." This also indicates that those who do not have access will be increasingly disadvantaged as the Internet, email, and other web-based technologies solidify within the affluent levels of American society and become an important feature in the nation's market economy. One chief executive of a consulting company, during congressional testimony in 2001, warned that the Internet was quickly becoming so pervasive in society that not having access to ICT, or not knowing how to use it, would soon be much the same as being illiterate in the traditional sense. Just as knowing how to read and write allowed upward socioeconomic mobility for many Americans in previous centuries—and not knowing how to read or write excluded many other Americans—ICT literacy or illiteracy may be a defining factor in the twenty-first century. The congressional witness also emphasized that there are millions of adults who are about to suddenly find themselves functionally illiterate in the new economy, and that this should be considered an issue of profound importance (cited in "The Digital Divide," 2001, 6). Taylor reinforces this point when he writes that the dangers of the digital divide are not "merely an apocalyptic vision." He points out that while a digitally illiterate class stands in line at the bank, a new "digital class" already does its banking, stock trading, or other financial transactions—including tax-free online shopping—advantageously over broadband Internet connections.
The term "broadband" (high-speed data transfer) leads to yet another aspect of the digital divide to be explored more fully below and that is the various technologies that determine the speed of data transfer and how these technologies relate to the geography and demographics of the United States. Not only may there be a digital divide based on race and social class, but there may also be a digital divide between households with high-speed broadband Internet access and those who only have access to the Internet through modems hooked up to standard telephone lines. Thus, the type of ICT infrastructure itself may also create yet another kind of digital divide. In any case, the various types of digital divides in the United States cause Taylor to conclude that "taken all together, these tiny, day-to-day advantages potentially add up to a class gap of Dickensian proportions" (2000, 7).
The Demographic Digital Divide
Although it is important to recognize the possibility of an expanding digital divide comprised of the information "haves” and "have nots", some studies show that the digital divide is actually decreasing with time. This makes sense from the standpoint of market economics. Perhaps possession of ICT is working much the same way owning a car or a television worked in previous periods of American history. The rich first possessed these things, but today there is a television in nearly every American home. As the cost of computers decreases and as more second-hand computers enter the market, ICT may be trickling down to the less economically privileged classes. A 2001 study carried out by researchers in Boston revealed that fully one-third of all Internet subscribers in the United States had been online for less than a year. Interestingly, the study found that "about 60 percent of those newcomers were women and many of them were from the lower and lower-middle economic classes, which reflects that Internet usage is quickly crossing gender, class, and ethnic barriers" ("The Digital Divide," 2001, 21). The previously mentioned US Department of Commerce study on the digital divide, "Falling Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion," confirms this finding. The government study found that the gap in Internet usage is closing between the overall population and minority groups. According to the study, in a twenty-month period "Internet usage among Hispanics in the US nearly doubled, from 12.6 percent of the population to 23.6 percent" ("The Digital Divide," 2001, 23). By 2013, just 15 percent of American adults aged eighteen years and older did not use the Internet, with 7 percent of nonusers reporting lack of infrastructure to connect to the Internet, 19 percent citing the expense of owning a computer or Internet access, 32 percent citing their technological illiteracy as a barrier to their access and reporting fear and frustration at trying to access the Internet; and 34 percent dismissing Internet...
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