In the early days of the Internet, there was a lot of talk about “access” to technology. Alongside that was a lot of concern that only people who are white and rich had access to technology, while people who were poor and/or black or brown (and sometimes women) didn’t have access to technology. This concern about who had technology and who didn’t got called “the digital divide” and lots of research got done on it.
In an initial study conducted by the Census Bureau under the direction of the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, African-Americans were found to have lower rates than whites in both computer equipment ownership and telephone service (“Falling Through the Net,” NTIA, 1995). Even though the original report was subtitled, “A Survey of ‘Have Nots’ in Rural and Urban America,” the findings about race are what made headlines.
The finding about differences in computer ownership between whites and blacks was widely reported and quickly became known as ‘the digital divide.’ It also sparked an entire subfield of research within Internet studies relating to race. The initial focus on computer ownership shifted in subsequent versions of the study to Internet access and the second report included “digital divide” in the title (“Falling Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide,” NTIA, 1998).
These initial “divides” in ownership and access have largely vanished now (for example: Leggon, 2006, ““Gender, Race/Ethnicity and the Digital Divide,” in edited by Mary Frank Fox, Deborah G. Johnson, and Sue V. Rosser, (eds.) Women, Gender and Technology, University of Illinois Press, 2006). Still some researchers subsequently identified “second level divides” that focused on the relationship between skills, “Internet literacy” and Internet usage (Hargittai, “Second-Level Digital Divide: Differences in People’s Online Skills,” First Monday 7(4), 2002).
The rhetoric of “digital divides” has also been heavily critiqued by some scholars as a “disabling rhetoric” that marginalizes people of color as technological innovators (e.g., Anna Everett, (2004) ‘On Cyberfeminism and Cyberwomanism: High-Tech Mediations of Feminism’s Discontents’, Signs 30(1):1278-86; Michelle Wright, (2005) ‘Finding a Place in Cyberspace: Black Women, Technology and Identity,’ Frontiers 26(1):48-59).
Selwyn (“Apart from technology: Understanding people’s non-use of information and communication technologies in everyday life,” Technology in Society, 25 (1), 99-116.) contends that digital divide formulations rely on the assumption that Internet access and usage is desirable for everyone, when in fact, people might not be using the Internet because they don’t see a social beneﬁt in doing so. Brock (2006) extends this argument to race and explains that slower Internet adoption rates among Blacks may have more to do with the lack of culturally relevant content online for Blacks rather than any lack of “Internet literacy.”
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