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The Ubiquity Myth: How Common Misconceptions About The Adoption Of Communication Technologies Contribute To The Digital Divide In America

By Nick Pernisco

Historically, as populations in democratic societies become better educated and informed through quality media, their political systems tend to thrive. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have recently begun to play a large role in the ability of societies to educate and inform their people, with social networking and mobile media currently at the forefront of public awareness. Government and industry both rely on ICTs to connect with constituents and customers, and in the last two decades, many schools have found success by integrating technology into the curriculum and achieving great results with their innovations. The media has been quick to herald these latest innovations in technology as a ubiquitous, society-wide phenomenon with benefits that better all aspects of life for the American population. This notion is inaccurate however, as a large segment of this population still lacks regular internet access at home or work, and therefore has no access to ICTs in their daily lives. This misconception has led to a digital divide where those who do not have regular access to social media, technology in the classroom, and the Internet in general, are being largely ignored by mainstream society. These groups, mainly people living under the federal poverty level and minorities with limited English skills, experience the widespread technology movements and consequently, society, quite differently. Academic performance, literacy rates, job prospects, and participation in the democratic process often suffer for these groups. This in turn further exacerbates the problem, as the underrepresented groups fail to take advantage of business and education opportunities.

The underrepresented groups focused on in this article include people living under the poverty level in the United States – 46 million people, or approximately 15% of all Americans (United States Census Bureau), and people with limited English proficiency – in a 2007 Census Bureau study, nearly five million people reported how well they spoke English as “not at all” (Shin et al.). A recent study by the Pew Research Center indicated that 37% of those earning under $35,000 per year, approximately 17 million people, lack regular Internet access. And while those among this group who do have regular Internet access may feel more connected to the mainstream, the statistics show that companies, organizations, and governments tend to avoid reaching any of the people in either of these groups with information that encourages inclusivity in the mainstream. Thus, while only some members of each group lack regular Internet access, all members of the group suffer the consequences, due to the generalization that the whole group lacks regular access.

Traditional media types such as television, radio, and print media have found a seemingly high level of adoption at all levels in American society – approximately 95% of Americans have regular access to a television in their household (Nielsen). However, of those who have regular access to traditional media, just half routinely accesses a diverse selection of media sources. According to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, there are 58.9 million cable-subscribing households in the United States, only 52% of the total US households cited by the Census Bureau. Therefore, people in underrepresented groups are either forced to, or choose to, obtain their information from the limited coverage on broadcast television news programs and on broadcast radio. Consequently, the information that reaches these groups has been filtered and diluted, with much of the deeper thoughts and diverse points of view omitted for brevity and mass appeal. The significance of the digital divide has increased in recent years, as ICTs have caused an even greater disparity in communication and education than traditional media. A study by the International Telecommunication Union found that only approximately 79% of Americans have regular access to the internet, 16% fewer than those with access to television. And as in the television world, many premium news outlets providing in depth news coverage and analysis are transitioning toward a paid subscription model, forcing lower income groups to rely on free mass appeal content aggregated by providers such as Yahoo! and MSN (Heussner). 

Several studies have shown the benefits of using ICTs in education, especially in regard to the positive effects of children using the Internet at home. One landmark study showed that even when controlling for income level, age, and race, children with regular access to the Internet demonstrated an increase in test scores and reading comprehension, compared to those without regular access (Jackson et al.). Furthermore, the Jackson study found that these increases became more pronounced as the study progressed, when children had had regular home Internet access for at least six months. The study also showed a direct connection between increased Internet sessions and a higher GPA. Given these findings, it follows that children with regular Internet access have a better chance at graduating high school and attending college than those without it. Overall, students in technology-equipped classrooms learn skills that prepare them for success in school and life. Using technology as part of the educational process helps students in “breaking down barriers to collaboration, improving writing and criticism, providing software that differentiates instruction and gives real-time feedback to teachers on student strengths and weaknesses, and allowing teachers to guide students through rich and varied resources“ (Dawson). Having access to the Internet during childhood also provides benefits beyond academia. Children using computers and the Internet to play leisure video games are learning skills they can later transfer to useful adult activities (Subrahmanyam et al). These include spatial skills, iconic (or image representation) skills, and visual attention skills – all of which are used by adults both in work situations and in their personal lives. With most Americans already using the Internet, and specifically social media, in their daily lives, it follows that computer use at an early age is essential in the development of a modern adult; one that can use digital media for work, play, developing relationships, and political engagement. It also follows that those without the use of ICTs as children are at a clear disadvantage as adults.

Companies have quickly adopted social media as a way to connect with consumers. They use services such as Facebook, Twitter, Groupon, and Yelp to offer consumers special discounts and promotions for new products, and to form bonds with potential customers (Tomlin). The main goal for companies is to reach consumers who are ready to spend money on their products, and social media marketing is giving companies the ability to reach these consumers online. Companies have long excluded less profitable groups of consumers from their marketing efforts in order to focus on the groups offering the highest potential profit. For media companies that rely on advertising revenue to exist, there has been little incentive to create programming targeting these less profitable groups, as advertisers prefer more affluent audiences. As a result, seniors, minorities with limited English skills, and those living under the poverty line have continually been the most underrepresented groups in marketing campaigns, and thus also the most underrepresented groups in media programming (Media Awareness Network). With today’s emerging social media focus, groups without regular Internet access are again being underrepresented in both online content and in online marketing efforts. This means that even though some members of the underrepresented groups have regular access to the Internet and social media, they are not actually being served, as the media companies still mostly disregard their needs. The fact that media companies targeting underrepresented groups have few, if any, incentives to launch social media campaigns only exacerbates the problem; it reinforces the beliefs of those without regular Internet access that they do not need such access to participate fully in society (Sinclair).

In the workplace, workers with technology skills have more opportunities and receive higher pay than those without that training (Murthy et al). The rising investment in information technology by companies and governments has increased demand for skilled workers, and lowered demand for unskilled workers, creating a large income inequality. Unskilled workers with little technology training are among the groups with the highest levels of unemployment and rates of receiving government assistance. A 2005 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that through both high and low unemployment cycles, the unemployment level of unskilled workers averaged two to four percent higher than that of skilled workers (Mukoyama et al.). Furthermore, unskilled workers often have fewer resources to insure themselves from shock, as they have lower savings and constrained borrowing ability, factors that necessitate a turn to government assistance in a crisis. And in the current economy, with mounting fiscal deficits at the local, state, and national level, the unemployed are being threatened with cuts to public welfare assistance (Jacobs et al.). The unemployed become further isolated from the mainstream as they cancel services such as cable television and Internet access in order to save money. This pushes many of the unemployed further out of the political debate to help their job prospects, leaving them even more powerless to remedy their economic situation.

Further exacerbating the problem for unemployed, low skill workers is the fact that many employers only list available high skill jobs on the Internet; either on career websites such as Monster.com and Career Builder, or on social networks such as LinkedIn - far from reach of those without Internet access (Stamper). This means that low skill workers miss out on the opportunities to apply for high skill jobs, even those that offer training to workers without the requisite skills. Instead, they are left to apply for jobs advertised offline and requiring only broad basic skills, increasing competition for too few jobs from the many people who want them. This results in the unemployed remaining unemployed longer, especially at a time when the country focuses on increasing high-tech jobs as the manufacturing and construction industries falter.

The political world has also recently embraced social media, and is using it as a way for politicians and political groups to engage with constituents – to the benefit of those connected to these networks. Political candidates, as well as elected government officials, are now connecting with the public using technologies such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. This would not be a problem in itself if the messages sent through these networks were also sent through traditional outlets, ensuring receipt by all rather than the select. But often, social media is the only conduit for these messages, leaving those without access out of the conversation. In an age when presidential candidates announce their candidacy on Facebook (Kucinich), or present their platforms on their own YouTube channels (Martinez), being technologically proficient and having access to the Internet are becoming critical factors for participation in the democratic process in America.

A comprehensive example of the political social media phenomenon is the 2008 presidential election. Candidate Barack Obama used his website to present his platform to voters, Twitter to send messages to his supporters, and YouTube to transmit videotaped messages and campaign ads (Hendricks). The reasons for this major shift in electioneering were three-fold. First, at that time, social media was being used mostly by people under 30, a portion of the population overwhelmingly liberal, and so in Obama’s target audience. These younger and more educated voters spent more time using social media than traditional media such as television and radio – staples of traditional political campaigns. Using social media ensured that Obama would be reaching the audience most ready to hear, and act on, his messages. The second reason for using social media to connect with voters was the substantially lower cost, as compared with traditional media advertising or grassroots campaigning. For example, the cost of airing an advertisement on a local television channel is much greater than creating and posting the advertisement on YouTube. Additionally, a YouTube video, which is available on demand for viewing at any time and from anywhere, is capable of reaching a larger audience than a local television advertisement airing once. This means that for an underfunded Candidate Obama, who was competing against very deep political pockets, social media was a way to spread a message further for less money. Thirdly, social media allowed candidates to quickly spread their messages. This ensured Candidate Obama more rapid and relevant communication with donors and constituents.

Obama’s success in adopting social media as a central strategy to his campaign has encouraged more candidates to use this technique for both its cost effectiveness and its appeal with younger and more educated voters. Unfortunately, this shift has left the people without regular Internet access out of the conversation. While those using social media can contact candidates directly, interact with their staff and other supporters, and suggest issues for candidates to focus on, those not using social media must use less effective traditional means. And not everyone who has access to the Internet can experience the full benefits of these new social interactions. For example, the effectiveness of political messages on YouTube, a high-bandwidth site best experienced using broadband connections, is greatly decreased for people using slower dial-up connections. Watching fewer videos translates to being exposed to fewer messages and missing out on crucial information. Only 67% of Americans use broadband Internet, with the rest using dial-up Internet service or no Internet service at all (Horrigan). As a literal illustration of how the voices of the poor and those with limited language skills go unheard, when televised presidential debates ask the public to share their voices by submitting a YouTube video question for consideration, those without computers and broadband Internet connections are unable to participate. Instead, candidates see videos submitted by middle and upper class citizens with access to equipment for recording and uploading videos to YouTube. These people, along with the media outlets that host the debates and field the questions to candidates, control the dialogue and help set the political agenda for everyone.

Political activists also increasingly use social media outlets to disseminate information and to organize groups for rallies and protests (Kanalley). The organized events help garner attention to issues the organizers care about, helping to put pressure on politicians and government agencies. However, people not using Twitter and Facebook to connect with like-minded groups are unable to organize and rally so easily for causes important to them, such as decreases in funding for social welfare programs, homelessness, and poverty. The focus on social media by politicians and the mass media may be one of the reasons these issues almost never reach the forefront of the political debate. This helps further aggravate the problems that go unaddressed, as limited funding and political will is used instead for the problems brought forth by the well connected. This phenomenon could also help explain low voter turnout among the poorest Americans. According to the US Census Bureau, only 55.87% of Americans at the lowest income levels are registered to vote, and even fewer, 38.45%, actually cast votes (Sabato et al.). Those at the middle income and high income levels turn out at the voting booths at 60.41% and 74.94% respectively. Although many factors play a role in voter registration and voter turnout, easy access to quality information about the candidates and issues is certainly one of them.

Though a large percentage of the population does not have regular access to the Internet at home or work, a new trend in mobile technology is helping to bridge this divide, especially among the younger generations. Smart phones – mobile phones with high-speed access to the Internet and social media have emerged as a potential game changer in the digital divide. A 2009 study showed that 27% of teens used mobile phones to access the Internet, but the percentage rose to 41% for teens living in low income homes (Brown, et al.). Due to its relatively low cost – one company in Los Angeles advertises unlimited phone service, texting, and Internet access for $40 per month – the technology is gaining momentum as a replacement for more costly home phone and Internet service (MetroPCS, August 9, 2011). In fact, smartphones with Internet access are quickly replacing desktop and laptop computers, due to their ability to hold data, run programs, and stay organized (Arthur). Those who have the capability to access the Internet on the small screen are more attuned to mainstream ideas and trends, which helps to narrow the digital gap that otherwise exists in poorer communities, especially among teens. The advances made possible by smartphones are promising; however there is more that must be done to reach adoption rates of ICTs that will make a major difference to underrepresented communities.

The issue of bridging the digital divide in America is extremely complex, and thus the possible solutions to the problem are equally difficult, and require a multifaceted approach. The big picture solution of raising Internet access and usage among the poor and otherwise underrepresented members of society first requires taking into account some smaller details. Specifically, the two main issues of cost and training must be addressed in order to reach a high adoption rate of modern ICTs in low income households. In regards to cost, high levels of adoption for phones with Internet access will only be realized by lowering the cost of entry for everyone in this group. One way to achieve this is to have government subsidize Internet service for low income households (Hilbert). Once the Internet is available to all homes in America, Internet users must then know how to sort through and use the information they’re receiving. This means that digital literacy and media literacy are also very important issues that need to be addressed in order to bridge the digital divide (Clarke et al.). Teachers could provide these skills to students in order to prepare them for digital citizenry, and the students would in turn help educate their parents with these skills. The result of these changes would be a more informed and participatory citizenry, which over time may help to bridge the digital divide and provide better solutions to other social problems.

In summary, ICTs have gained in prominence and importance over the past decade. New trends in communication like social media have found ways to improve our relationships with companies and government, and they have helped improve educational outcomes for millions of students. However, although these technologies have helped improve the lives of millions of Americans, they are as not ubiquitous as the technologies’ proponents purport them to be. The difference between the perception of ubiquity and the actual adoption rate of these technologies has indeed created a divide among those with regular access to them and those without that regular access. This divide has left millions of Americans, nearly 16% of them, with little or no voice in the evolution of business, government, education, and digital communication. And though the advent of smartphones has helped bridge the divide to some degree, the cost of entry still curbs participation by those using that technology. Private industry and government involvement can help increase access to the Internet and quality new media outlets by the nation’s poorest citizens, while digital literacy and media literacy programs would help people learn to understand and use the information. Ultimately however, it will be the degree of willingness by content creators to reach out to this underrepresented population, which will decide just how involved in mainstream society they become.

 

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