Much has changed since the mid-1990s when ‘digital divide’ research began and computer ownership and Internet access meant sitting before a desktop machine with a wire plugged into a wall. Today, being connected to the Internet often means having a “smart phone” (e.g., a phone that enables users to access the Internet).
Ten years ago, Howard Rheingold (2002) accurately predicted the ‘next social revolution’ in computing would be the advent of mobile technologies, and this development has had important implications for race, racism and Internet studies.
Mobile phones enabled with Internet access are approaching ubiquity and with that, bridging some of the divides noted in an earlier era. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (a rich resource of data), cell phone and wireless laptop Internet use have each grown more prevalent between 2009-2010. African-Americans and English-speaking Latinos continue to be among the most active users of the mobile web, for example:
- Mobile phone ownership is higher among African-Americans and Latinos (87%) than among whites (80%)
- African-American and Latino mobile phone owners take advantage of a much greater range of their phones’ features compared with white mobile phone users
- Among Latinos, 29% of mobile-phone users surf the Internet on their device, compared to 12% of mobile-phone-owning whites.
So what does all this research tell us about race and technology? It’s still way too early to know how these patterns might shift again, but it seems clear that early predictions about “digital divides” between technological “haves” and “have nots” – especially along stark racial lines – were overstating what the evidence suggested. It also seems very likely that many of those dire early reports about “minorities left behind” were engaging in the disabling rhetoric of racism’s low expectations. As African Americans and Latinos lead the adoption of mobile technology here in the U.S. is among the more fascinating developments as it overturns those expectations.
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