Digital Divide in a High Tech City

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Ilya Zaslavsky

In the diverse environment of large cities, poverty enclaves neighbor clusters of innovation and high tech industry, and communities on both sides of the digital divide are interspersed though hardly mixed. A conceptual understanding of this digital divide, both its statistical patterns and psychological and social-demographic underpinnings, leads us to defining the unique challenges and generating solutions that must necessarily differ from approaches more typical to the rest of the country.


Additional authors:

Laura D. Stanley,
Research Coordinator/Ethnographer
UCSD Civic Collaborative
Meredith L. Dowling
Director of Community Development
San Diego Regional Technology Alliance

As two recent studies in San Diego illustrate, the portrait of San Diego’s digital divide drastically differs from the statistical snapshot outlined in the nation-wide “Falling through the Net” surveys [1]. Not only are rates of computer ownership and Internet access 20-25% higher in San Diego than in the nation, but social and demographic characteristics of San Diego households necessarily modify our perceptions of the factors undermining digital inclusion. With general rates of computer ownership so high, the focus of analysis shifts to: (1) actual computer and Internet use patterns (for email, education, work-related activities, job search, banking, news, etc.) which become an increasingly important differentiating factor; (2) the “transition group” of recent computer and Internet newbies and wannabees overcoming a variety of social and psychological barriers to computer literacy, and (3) using the potential of high tech neighbors to support computer literacy training and otherwise ease inclusion for low income communities in the Digital Age. This new focus suggests that specific digital inclusion strategies appropriate for San Diego must differ from the rest of the country.

A comprehensive analysis of digital divide and inclusion in San Diego county was made possible by two surveys that used complementary methodological approaches. The study by the San Diego Regional Technology Alliance ( used phone interviews of 1000 randomly sampled residents of San Diego county to generate a statistical snapshot of digital divide in San Diego [2], and explain computer and Internet ownership and usage patterns based on demographic, ethnic, education, income and other characteristics of households (the survey is accessible via the Sociology Workbench (, an online system for analysis of user-supplied sociological surveys). The survey showed, for example, that lack of both general education and knowledge about technology, especially among respondents from single parent homes, were among the prevalent factors of computer illiteracy. Ethnic differences remained strong, with African American (52% accessing Internet from home) and, especially, Hispanic (41%) households at a clear disadvantage. At the same time, an increase in household income appeared to eliminate the digital divide for African Americans, while it had less impact for the Hispanic population.

The psychological underpinnings of these and other conclusions could only be uncovered through in-depth interviews undertaken within the UCSD Civic Collaborative ( survey [3]. This study selected respondents from among computer novices or prospective computer users in low-income neighborhoods and asked them to articulate and explain their resistances to this technology. This research explores how individual psychosocial resistances to computer and Internet use (among them: being “too old to learn”, “fear of breaking the machine”, peer expectations in a low income and not computer-savvy surrounding, low value of educational success within a particular sub-culture, etc.), are often multiplied by lack of awareness about what computers and the Internet have to offer, and how they can be accessed. The study also found that, while only a small fraction of population use Computer Technology Centers, these community-based centers support a hands-on acquaintance with computers in a comfortable adult learning environment that makes the transition to computer literacy easier for many adult users. This study concludes that the digital divide in San Diego is characterized by more of a perceptual than a material disconnect.


These surveys identify several general strategies for bridging the digital divide in a large high tech city:
(1) providing public access to the Internet at Community Technology Centers. While the proportion of computer users served by such centers is relatively small, these centers focus on creating a supportive environment for adult learners and easing their transition to computer literacy, emphasizing efficient and productive uses of computers and the Internet;
(2) building mutually-beneficial relationships between technology companies and Community Technology Centers. Initial investments of equipment and networking, as well as continued technological support through RTA’s Digital Connections and similar programs, pay off in workforce and community development;
(3) better understanding of the psychosocial components that perpetuate the remaining digital divide through a combination of methodologically different but complementary surveys, and “returning” survey results and conclusions to communities via easy-to-use online analysis techniques, as well as descriptions of best practices and lessons learned.
(4) increasing community awareness about the unique services CTCs offer residents for digital inclusion thus pre-emptively addressing individual concerns about the cost, ease of access, and relevancy of computer literacy to their lives.

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