The Next Digital Divide: Mobile?

Nice thing about being at a school that has a significant portion of social science and humanities academics: I frequently now hear speakers that go beyond technology, or at the very least look at it from a different angle.

Princeton sociology professor Paul DiMaggio’s presentation at Rutgers was exactly that. Titled Digital Inequality, his talk described research (done with his students) that attempted to answer important questions about the digital divide:

  • Does the digital divide exist? What differences exist between different groups, and did the magnitude of the difference change over time?
  • Does it matter? In other words, what is the impact of technology access on people’s economic and social status?
  • Will it continue, or is the gap likely to be closed at some point?

Paul described a series of interesting (and often innovative) quantitative analysis studies that answered these questions (yes, and slightly mitigated; yes, potentially significant; and no, it is likely to persist). Squeezing all these studies in one hour left many details out (I guess I could read the papers…) but made a fascinating and informative talk.

Of course, as the digital divide refers to differences in access to “information technology”, the studies so far referred to PC/computer and (later) Internet access. That raised the questions: what is the next barrier to create the digital divide? In other words, after every child has a laptop and free Internet access (or something), where will be the new divide?

One possible answer is mobile devices and services – the mobile web. Cara Wallis told us last week that even low-income (local) immigrants in China invest more than they can afford in their mobile device, but nevertheless, low-income populations worldwide are still likely to be locked out of getting advanced mobile devices and access to expansive ($20-$30 a month in the US) mobile access plans.

So, I am pretty sure the digital divide exists and will deepen in the domain of mobile computing. However, what about Paul’s second question: does it matter? Does that fact that I can look up the nearest and most recommended Chinese restaurant, wherever I am; or listen to NPR stations from California on the NJ Transit impact my economic or social status? My colleague (and chair of our Communication department) Jim Katz hints that at least social status can be gained.

Of course, an alternative viewpoint could say that mobile devices can actually be cheap and available enough to actually reduce the barriers and mitigate the digital divide. It’s true, a good portion of the population in developing countries holds a cell phone, but those are yet to do anything beyond text messaging and voice.

Next time on A& the socio-digital divide (Naaman’s additional factor in the future of the digital divide).

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  1. Pingback: A Permanent Divide: Articulation of Social Networks? › The Ayman and Naaman Show

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