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Social context of digital inequality

During the 1990s, researchers began discussing the presence of the ‘digital divide,’ a distinction of people who do and do not have Internet access. The digital divide concept stems from a comparative perspective of social and information inequality and depends on the idea that there are benefits associated with Internet access. In this respect, concepts such as ‘digital divide’ promote dreams of an internet-utopia in which everybody participates and where deepest aspirations are fulfilled. From a scholarly point of view, technological deterministic ideas that suggest that internet triggers important benefits in a causal connection, are heavily criticized. Theoretical arguments even suggest that relative differences between social categories, that were already unequal in terms of traditional resources, are amplified (van Dijk, 2006; Witte & Mannon, 2010).

Digital divide research has shifted from a binary distinction of access to digital skills and usage. Skills and usage are now central in policies that aim at narrowing social exclusion. The question of who actually benefits from being online certain ways, however, suffers heavily from a lack of theoretical development. Understanding how Internet use is linked to offline (dis)advantage is one of the most complex aspects of digital inequality research. Two important problems are:

Research assumes potential outcomes of Internet use by measuring digital skills or online activities (e.g., Hargittai & Hinnant, 2008; Helsper & Eynon, 2013; van Deursen & van Dijk, 2011, 2014, 2015). These measurements suggest a Matthew effect; capital-enhancing activities are more likely than less beneficial activities when it comes to facilitating opportunities for users (van Deursen & van Dijk, 2014). However, while a link between online activities and outcomes is assumed, there is little empirical evidence that variations in skills and usage result in different outcomes in several areas of society (van Deursen & Helsper, 2015). Those emphasizing the importance of the digital divide insufficiently distinguish supposed kind of new inequality from old inequalities. The result is that the causes and effects of differential access to the Internet is not articulated nor clarified.

2.   Criticism on a technological deterministic perspective of the digital divide mainly derives from a lack of emphasis on the social context in which the internet functions. In spite of calls for theoretical works that explore the mechanisms that shape digital inequality, attempts to study these mechanisms are very scarce. Most of the research has remained at a descriptive level, emphasizing the demographics of gender, age, income, and education. Scholars agree that we should start by studying digital divides in context (Tsatsou, 2012), a position influenced by socio-constructivist and critical theses on society and technology. The role of social actors in the shaping, development and spread of the Internet should be the focus. Society's ideas, values, dispositions, practices, and processes matter for how the internet is used, adopted and integrated in particular socio-cultural milieus.

The proposed project is highly innovative in two ways. (1) It fully integrates traditional and digital inequality by studying the Internet using field experiments in a natural social context (hereby departing from the common survey approaches that are typical in digital inequality research). (2). Innovative human-media interaction developments at our University enable us to automatically model behaviour and interaction when Internet technology is used. Both characteristics combined provide a unique and highly necessary approach to study the links between traditional and digital inequality. In the project, we will use human-media interaction technology as a method of data collection to investigate inequality among families from different socio-economic backgrounds. The detailed behavioural models that will be derived will provide us with explanations for why some are better able to turn internet use into offline benefits than others. This approach places the study of the drivers of digital inequalities in concrete socio-spatial contexts in order to assess the role of socio-cultural factors, hereby basically touching the core idea behind the university’s Tech4people initiatives.

Taking part in the project are communication scientists, sociologists and human-media interaction researchers internationally renowned for their work on digital inequality and analysing (observable and measurable) patterns in human-media interactions. The integration of disciplines enables the use of computers, tablets and smartphones as tools in a methodology for conducting digital inequality research. This way, the ‘big data’ gathered allow us to draft patterns of technology use that increase our understanding of how people fail or succeed in employing technologies in daily life and how this affects their social position.

Running projects: 
Digital skills to Outcomes
Skils uses outcomes238x194

21st-century Digital Skills

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