Reproduction of Inequality through Information Technology

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Lynette Kvasny
Penn State University

Discussions of the digital divide typically emphasize the gaps in access to information technology. These gaps are described in terms of distinct social groups, which are often based on ethnicity, geographic location and socio-economic status. While these discussions are critical for understanding the diffusion of information technology, these lines of inquiry do not extend critical attention to social inequalities that are deeper than descriptions of who has and who lacks access, and how various social groups use information technology. We use the term digital inequality to represent the pattern of reproduction that maintains historical social hierarchies through access to and use of new information technologies.


The digital divide and its associated difficulties did not suddenly appear in contemporary society. Entire communities in the US, particularly in the inner cities, are not only economically, but also historically disadvantaged. From this perspective, the digital divide cannot be explained as a technological artifact, but rather as a contemporary source of inequality. Attention must also be paid to the broader economic, institutional, social and cultural inequalities that exist in our society.


Information technology is often conceptualized from a tools perspective that focuses on technical apparatus such as computing hardware, software, data, and communication facilities. However, different actors will use these technical apparatus in different manners, in different times, and in different places (Kling, 1999). This highlights the relevance of the social and cultural context of use. Social and cultural contexts provide “legitimate” purposes, reasons and support for using the technical apparatus. Consequently these contexts also provide a grounds for dividing practices which create categories such as “haves” and “have nots”, the digerati and the people of no account (PONO) . One ramification of these dividing practices is the creation of a penal society where judges of digital competence are everywhere – in government, in workplaces, in schools, in peer social groups, and even in homes – and those lacking digital skills become censored from an ever-growing number of societal institutions that provide entrée to improved life chances. Thus information technology becomes institutionalized as digital skills and technical prowess proliferate and become taken-for-granted.The institutionalization of information technology occurs largely through discourse. A discourse is a group of statements that provide a language for talking about a particular topic at a particular historical moment (Foucault, 1979). Discourse is more than just linguistic systems or texts that produce meaningful and regulated statements. Discourse constructs the topic. It defines and produces the objects of our knowledge. It governs the way that a topic can be meaningfully talked about and reasoned about. So, for instance, when analyzing statements about the presence of a digital divide, historically underserved communities are inserted into the information technology discourse as “have nots”. There will always be groups of people that do not to use information technology, but the power of discourse named, defined, and created the subject of a “have not”. This discourse is disseminated, and our thoughts about the digital divide are structured in a manner that maintains existing inequality. Non-users of information technology become a subject to be singled out for conversion (i.e. technology training) and punishment (i.e. penalized by labor force for not having technical skills). Underlying this discourse are deterministic tendencies and pro-innovation biases that often lead us to believe that people ought to adopt information technology since it is good for them. Consequently, we create institutional structures such as community technology centers to facilitate the desired behavior. While the availability of local access and training facilities enables participation by those who might otherwise not have access, it also makes it much easier to blame non-participants for their situation, and to threaten them with economic sanctions and social exclusion. However, this shows a type of historical amnesia whereby we have selectively forgotten about the poor state of the public school system, the relative lack of employment opportunities, and the limited availability of affordable daycare that also beset these communities. For some, these past lived experiences create existential wounds and emotional scars which can lead to nihilism, a disease of the soul where there is little hope for the future and little motivation for struggle (West, 1994). Nihilism can lead actors to self-exclude, which reproduces inequality by leaving information technology exclusively in the hands of the majority . For others, these past lived experiences are surmountable and they do in fact become engaged with information technology. However they tend to participate at a disadvantage because, as prior research demonstrates, their information technology use is often structured by institutional, social, cultural and economic factors (Kvasny, 2002; Lentz, Straubhaar, LaPastina, Main, & Taylor, 2000), (Rojas, Roychowdhury, Okur, Straubhaar, & Estrada-Ortiz, 2001). We know, but often do not take into account, that people are not treated as equals in the institutional spheres that affect their life-chances: in their education, in their work, in their consumption opportunities, in their access to social services, in their domestic relations, and so forth. These same inequalities structure information technology use. In the hands of historically underserved communities, information technology is often seen as a vehicle for social inclusion and "catching up". In the hands of the majority, the communicative resources provided by information technology border on monopoly because it is flexible in its application, it allows for great ideological plasticity, and it lends itself to established institutional purposes. Thus, the increased diffusion of information technology does not necessarily imply greater democracy and social equality. To the contrary, we argue that increased information technology access and use in historically underserved communities facilitates positive social change as well as perpetuates the status quo.


In this situation, it is incorrect to think of solutions and more appropriate to think of actions that can break this reproductive cycle. We know from organizational studies that information technology has beneficial and detrimental, intended and unintended consequences (Kling, 1998), (Kling, 1999), (Sawyer & Eschenfelder, 2002). Therefore, attempting to provide information technology solutions to age-old problems is somewhat misguided. The implications for designing systems for historically underserved communities are twofold. First, we contend that serious discussion of the digital divide must begin with problems of longstanding inequalities in access to life chances rather than simply access to information technology. The digital divide policy, for the most part, has been largely confined to the issues that the “have nots” pose for the government and big business, and how the “have nots” are to be included and integrated into the information society. The implication is that majority institutions such as corporations and governments define what it means to be a member of the information society, and everybody must simply fit in. What this standpoint fails to acknowledge is that the digital divide is rooted in historic inequalities, which are constitutive elements of American culture.Second, the designers of the hardware, software, content and information technology training programs must take the unique characteristics of this audience into consideration. While people consume similar information technologies, they do so in culturally informed ways. Thus, consumption of information technology is patterned along lines of ethnicity, social class and gender (Schement, 1998), (Schement & Forbes, 2000). Information technology, if it is to be used effectively in historically underserved communities, has to be engineered for users with different technology skills, different levels and types of literacy, and lower cost thresholds than today’s “typical” consumer. The challenges are in how information technology is communicated, and how it is positioned so that potential users understand what they can do with it. And as our interactions with technology increase, the social implications of design become critically important. Given access to the information technology, the guiding question should be: How can information technology be used to redress and remove these historical patterns of inequality?

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