In the Internet’s early years, some observers believed that the new technology would reduce social inequality in at least two ways. First, by reducing the price of information, it would make information more available, and therefore level the playing field. Second, because young people appeared to have the inside track in mastering and using the new technologies (and because youth is negatively associated with wealth and uncorrelated with other indicators of socioeconomic status), some felt that the advantage of the young would likewise reduce certain kinds of inequality in access to and use of information. By contrast, other more jaded observers predicted that the well to do and well educated would use their resources to extract more benefit from the Web than for their less prosperous and well schooled neighbors, reproducing or even exacerbating inequality rather than moderating it.
In his Lunch ‘n Learn seminar on December 2, Paul DiMaggio addressed three issues. First, what is the status of the digital divide? Which divides (i.e. inequality in access to the Internet between which groups) have persisted and which have moderated over time, and why? Second, once people go on-line, how does social inequality shape their experience, how they use the Internet and what they get out of it? Third, what difference does it make? What evidence addresses the question of whether access to and use of the internet does (or does not) improve people’s life chances and ability to participate in their communities?
DiMaggio first became interested in these questions in 1994 at a meeting at the Smithsonian when he saw an early graphical display on a Mosaic browser. With a colleague, he raised money from the National Science Foundation to perform an early social survey on internet use. Over time, he got more and more interested in the topic.
The internet diffused rapidly, from 10% penetration in 1994 to 60% in 2002 when it finally began to level off. In 2000, many people had computers but were not yet connected. By 2004, many more were using computers and almost all of them were connected to the net. The good news, says DiMaggio, is that the gender gap has declined, the age gap has shrunk, except for the very oldest Americans, and regional differences have diminished. But not all of the news is good.
DiMaggio offered four conclusions. First, inequality and access by socioeconomic status and race persists and will continue to persist absent some set of public policies. About a quarter of all Americans remain unconnected. The persistent effects of education and income, the least advantaged participate at low rates, and will probably continue to do so in the future. Policy efforts to bridge the digital divide often use the justification that Internet access improves opportunities for capital enhancing activities and for more active social participation. Such efforts have intensified lately with substantial stimulus efforts to extend connectivity to disadvantaged areas.
Second, there is much inequality among users that will be difficult to eliminate, though there is enormous merit in policies to extend connectivity. It may surprise some that experienced users are much more effective in making productive use of their online experiences. As DiMaggio puts it, “It’s not just what you have. It’s what you do with it.” Socio-economic status continues to correlate highly with new adoption. Advantaged groups drop out less, and later adopters drop out more. Simply put, those with higher education and income tend to have skills in navigation and search (as well as more advanced hardware, software, and internet connections, and a more effective support network) that help them to use technology more and more effectively, to get and stay ahead, although there is some evidence that their advantage is declining in the wake of the broader diffusion of the use of the internet.
Third, there is a growing body of evidence that points to a strong correlation between use of the internet and income, quality of work life, and people’s ability to function well as consumers. Higher schooling, for example, correlates highly with greater use of the internet for capital enhancing efforts (uses that help people enhance their attractiveness to employers or participate more effectively in their communities) rather than for recreation. In at least one respect, access to the internet reduces market disadvantages. And so, women and minorities can now obtain more favorable deals on cars by shopping online.
Finally, more of a caution. DiMaggio points out that it has become increasingly difficult to draw conclusions about internet use because the nature of the internet itself changes so quickly. For example, many now access net services through handheld devices, creating havoc for survey takers who may naively ask from what location people usually access the net.
Paul DiMaggio is the A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs. A graduate of Swarthmore College, he received his Ph.D. in Sociology from Harvard and taught for 12 years at Yale (in the Sociology Department and School of management) before coming to Princeton in 1992. At Princeton, he has been Chair and Director of Graduate Studies of the Sociology Department, co-founder and research director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, Director of the Center for the Study of Social Organization, and a member of the Executive Committee for the Center for Information Technology Policy.
A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and David Riesman Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, DiMaggio has written extensively about culture, information technology, and social inequality.
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Posted by Lorene Lavora