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The Digital Divide: It -- Just -- Won't -- DIE

[Editor's Note: Today's blog post is by guest author R. Michelle Green, the Principal for her company, Client Solutions. She is a combination geek girl, personal organizer, and career coach. She has studied what makes some individuals embrace or avoid information technology. (She’s definitely one of the former.) Michelle helps others improve their use of technology in their personal or professional life. Today, Michelle tackles Internet usage in the USA.]

By R. Michelle Green

When I began studying technology and social policy, I wanted to know how the willingness to embrace technology affected people’s lives, personally and professionally. I worried that the digital divide that I observed in 1999 (when many of my friends didn’t even have email addresses, and I had for years) would disproportionately affect the social, economic and career outcomes for minorities, for the disadvantaged, and for low income Americans. I wasn’t the only one concerned. “Speed of technological diffusion is selective, both socially and functionally... [it] is a critical source of inequality in our society,” said Manuel Castells, quoted in a Consumers Union article published in 2000.

Well, it’s a decade later, and those worries were silly, right? Computers are everywhere, access to broadband is as easy as carrying your laptop or tablet to the local coffee shop. And for many of us, the internet is ever with us, courtesy of our smartphones. In fact, a January 2011, the Pew Internet & American Life project reported on their English language survey of American mobile device usage. The report said that English-speaking Latinos and blacks (87% of each group) have mobile phones, a greater (and statistically significant) percentage than whites (80%). Moreover, these minorities use more phone applications, with greater frequency, than whites: 70% of non-whites text, for example, versus 50% of whites. Only a third of whites use their phones to access the internet; 46% of blacks and 51% of English-speaking Latinos do. Over a third of non-whites access social networking sites online, compared to less than 20% of white mobile users. Nearly 50% of minorities have used their phone to record a video, compared to only 29% of whites. The list goes on. Hey, People of Color, you’re finally ahead! Woo Hoo!

Not so fast.

Based on additional analyses from Pew, this greater use of mobile devices is largely instead of, not concomitant with, laptop and desktop use. Many professional uses of computers (resume building, spreadsheet analysis, database use, or some forms of content creation come to my mind) are more difficult on a phone. One could infer from the data that minorities use their phones more for entertainment than economic or career advancement. To be fair: non-white users (60% for blacks, for example) also reported more positive attitudes toward civic engagement and political connection than whites (41%). Minority Americans reported a greater willingness to use social networks for neighborhood and community connection than whites. And for readers of this blog – it also means that these populations are more prone to inappropriate use of their private information than whites – they use mobile devices more, more exclusively, and with more intrusive sites.


Many Black Americans celebrate a little known holiday called Juneteenth. On the nineteenth of June, 1865, Black Texan slaves learned that they were free, 2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Essentially, lack of information kept them in chains. This incident is particularly poignant today. We’ve got an incalculable amount of information at our fingertips, but is it knowledge? Is the problem no longer access, but evaluating and using all that data to advantage? Do demographic differences in adoption and use of smartphones matter? Will ubiquitous mobile-adapted access to the internet reproduce, improve, or worsen current social inequalities? (somebody stop me, I’m running out of question marks.) Looking forward to your thoughts on the subject.


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