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Conversation #7: Digital Inequalities

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Eszter Hargittai

A conversation with Dr. Eszter Hargittai of Northwestern University on teaching, learning, and digital inequalities.

The idea behind introducing the term digital inequality... is that it's really a spectrum of differences even after people go online. So even once people get connected, it's wrong to think of them as all equally accessing all that the internet has to offer, because people will do so in very different ways and in different contexts and with different implications for what benefits they can reap from their access and use.

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Hammer: Hello! Today I’m speaking with Eszter Hargittai. She’s an associate professor of communication studies and faculty associate of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. She received her PhD in sociology from Princeton University and she has done a post doctorate fellowship at the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and National Affairs at Princeton. She’s currently a fellow at Harvard University. Her research focuses on social and policy implication of information technologies, and what we’re particularly interested in talking about today is how they can contribute to or alleviate social inequalities. Dr. Hargittai, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Hargittai: Thank you for having me today.

Hammer: I thought what we could start out talking about digital inequalities and digital divide. You suggest that digital divide is no longer relevant and I wonder if you could just tell us what that means?

Hargittai: Sure! I should actually, probably clarify. I do think that digital divide is still relevant to some a different question. So digital divide additionally refers to basically a binary classification of have or have nots, when it comes to digital media and in particular often applied to the internet. So the idea behind this term has been that some people are online, some people are internet users, and some people are not. And this term tends to suggests that there is basically a binary approach which is good and bad, and when people go online and they cross this divide and there’s no longer a concern. The idea here is that while that is still the case, that some people fall on both sides of the divide, where they’re not all users. The idea behind introducing the term digital inequality, which I did in works done with Paul from Princeton is that it is really a spectrum of differences even after people go online. Once people get connected, it is wrong to think of them as all equally accessing all that the internet has to offer, because people will do so in very different ways and different contacts and with different implications for what benefits they can reap from their access and use.

Hammer: So that, is that what you mean by inequalities then.

Hargittai: Yeah, so that’s the idea behind this term digital inequality is that there’s really a spectrum of differences.

Hammer: Yeah that makes sense. I winder if you could tell me a little bit about how did you get interested in studying this idea to begin with. What lead to this and what was the early research?

Hargittai: I started looking at the social aspects of the internet in the mid 90’s, when I was actually a senior in college. I had just gotten back from a year in Geneva, Switzerland, which was interesting because the web had actually just been worked out there by Tim Berners-Lee of CERN so this was very much the time when things were happening, and Geneva is a very international city, and so I came back to the US to finish college and was thinking of how the web, the internet is making it much easier to access for people, but at the same time internationally lots of people still did not have access. So I end up writing my senior thesis in college about the international unequal access to the internet, and then when I went to graduate school, I started thinking even within the US, we had more users than the other countries, and there were still considerable inequalities, so that’s how I started thinking about to topic.

Hammer: So you're talking about inequalities and the spectrum, I like thinking about that as a spectrum as opposed to this binary we are looking at, but what are some concrete examples? Like what are inequalities, what do they look like to a layperson not studying it?

Hargittai: Sure, so there’s different dimensions in which people differ considerably when it comes to their internet use, so one way to think about it is, that even in terms of technical equipment people would have different kinds or types, right, some people will have the latest gadgetry, they will have high speed internet connection, which is very different from a dial-up connection which still a lot of people have or having older machines running older software right? A lot of things on the web nowadays require all types of plug-ins and different programs and if you don’t have them it's much harder to access them and parts of the web. So that’s one technical aspect and there’s what I’ve called anatomy of use and the idea there’s basically the freedom to use the medium when and where one wants to.

And to give two examples that are quite contrasting, so look at a person who has 24 hour access to the internet at home freely can do whatever she wants versus the person who has to rely on a library connection where the library is only open certain hours of the day, one has to go to the library, one might have to stand in line to get access to the machine, and the machine might be running filtering programs, or there might be people looking over you shoulder. So even though in a really simplistic statistical manner both of these people could be called users, clearly there’s a very serious qualitative difference between the level of autonomy when it comes to using that machine in your home, no filtering, 24 hour versus a location others and ones your depending on hours of operation etc.

Then there are other domains, there’s also the idea of, the extent to which people in one's networks are also knowledgeable about the internet. Let’s say you have colleagues or friends who are very knowledgeable about the internet, then topics related to using to the internet might come up in everyday conversations and all types of ideas, oh what’s the latest website you should check out for something, or if you run into a concrete problem and you need help fixing it or solving it then if they are knowledgeable people and networks amongst your peers, friends, and colleagues then you can turn to someone. If they aren’t, again then you are less able to perhaps make use of the medium in an optimal way. Then finally, a concept that I have focused on a lot in my work concerns online skills and so the idea here is that people are going to differ considerably on the extent to which they are able to make use to the internet and how much they understand it and how much they are able to do many things.

Hammer: You mean suppose to what you mention first about just having the technology but knowing how to navigate.

Hargittai: Right, exactly. So take people and assume that they all have access which a lot of people do and then if you look at their skills and how they are using their internet and able to use the internet, you will still find quite of bit of variation, and one of the things that I’ve uncovered in my work is that this variation is not randomly distributed in the population. Meaning that people’s characteristics actually predict who’s going to be more likely to have higher learning skills.

Hammer: And I’m assuming I can guess what most of those characteristic skills are, I anticipate them, but what kind of characteristics are you thinking?

Hargittai: So basically what we attempt to find is that a person's social economic status for example or level of education or income predicts level of skills so those from privileged backgrounds come to be better users of the Internet. Also I have found that in some cases, women tend to be less confident in their use of the internet than men, and also find some racial and ethic inequalities as well.

Hammer: It just came to my mind as I was hearing you speak about this. Do you think new technologies like the iPhone, I’m thinking like iPhones and Blackberry’s and those kind of like portable internets, do you think that the popularity of some of things are going to help with inequality or make them even more exaggerated?

Hargittai: Yeah! That’s a very good question! I think it could go in different directions, certainly for now I don’t think it’s going to get rid of the inequalities, partly because these devices themselves are expensive enough and even if some of the devices are not that expensive, certainly the data plans are. So for people who are from less privileged backgrounds, while they're very likely to have phone plan, they're less likely to have a data plan and so if you look at who uses their cell phone for email and web surfing, that is still not equally distributed across the population. Now over time it might although given the current economic situation, I don’t know if it’s about to change very quickly. Again, even with the mobile devices, there are skills involved; there are different applications one can use, right? So I have a very smart phone, Nokia ’95, which I can download all types of applications to, but I need to know how to do that, and I need to know where to find the applications. So for example, my phone runs a program that basically makes my phone into a pedometer, which counts steps as I walk which is helpful, but again I need to find out if that was an option, I need to find where I can get that program, I need to download it. So even if it's free, there are still some skills involved in being able to “get it” and install it.

Hammer: And I think, even understand what application can be in your phone.

Hargittai: Exactly! Absolutely.

Hammer: Before we move on, from these categories you mention earlier. My background is in psychology so the one I find the most fascinating is that whole anatomy of use. The idea, I think, that is really fascinating because I think that one has psychological implications and I was wondering — on NPR this morning coming to school, I just heard this report, I don’t know if you heard it, but the reporter was talking about the response to the stimulus package and that part of the money is going to go to broadband and rural communities and helping rural communities get online and get on the internet and that should help with jobs. Did you hear that?

Hargittai: I did not hear the NPR part but it's interesting because I was just reading the stimulus bill and looking for the section that addresses broadband and I have it right in front of me, section 6001 part B, which refers to things like providing broadband and education, awareness, training, access, equipment and support. So this is actually very much in the bill that recognizes that this isn’t really just a technical issue and back in December, I had to opportunity to go talk to someone people on the transition team, and we pretty much had a discussion about this issue and they seem very interested.

Hammer: And, I mean, I’m certainly not asking us to get political here, but what does your research suggest? I mean is this an important thing to do, because of the NPR report, they were doing both sides and there was one person who said that it is the price that people pay in the rural communities and it is not an effective, not a green way to live and so what does your research suggest?

Hargittai: Well I’m not sure what you are asking exactly, about —

Hammer: I’m sorry, not a clear question. I mean in terms — I’m trying to think of a way to ask it, not as a political question, but as a research question — does your research that you have done suggest that education and accessability for all people regardless of SES and regardless of education levels, would it be beneficial outcome?

Hargittai: So, the research is very much in the beginning stages in terms of long-term outcomes, so it is really hard to say. Partly, I mean I don’t have a problem with getting somewhat political here, the last five years there has been very little data collected nationally on Internet users. So basically 2003 was the last time that the current population survey collected information about internet uses and the last report that came out from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, called "The Nation Online," seem to suggests that we have solved the problem of inequity, and the four reports before that one were called "Falling Through the Net," and if you looked thorough the statistics, it was certainly not the case that suddenly everyone was online, you could really see a rhetorical shift. And for four years we had absolutely no data being collected on this, so we really couldn’t track it. There has been other sorts of data collection going on. The Internet and American Life project collects helpful data as do some others out there but nothing like the current populations survey, which is through the census bureau. And then in 2007 they had another supplement that some of us were very enthusiastic about but then saw what it was and it was basically just a few questions asking pretty much no more than “do you use the internet” which is not things that allow us to answers these questions of what are the actually beneficial outcomes and who is benefiting and how exactly. So one of my hopes is that we will again see better data collection in this round so that we answer some of these very important questions. But for sure, rural areas have been disadvantaged, and in this country we have for a long time had all sorts of substitutes in terms of the postal system thought to make sure that rural areas are not left behind, so I think an argument can definitely be made that there should be some substitutes that make sure that people there also can access the internet.

Hammer: And I guess that leads me to the real question, and then I would like to shift and talk about implications of this for education. So what are, of the work you have done and of the research you have done, and that you are currently doing, what is the "so what" question? Why should we worry about these inequities and what are the implications of the inequities, you know — what do you see as implications there?

Hargittai: Sure! So the concern is that as I said, it is not random as to who uses the internet well, and who doesn’t, and also I guess what I haven’t said yet is that I have also looked at for example there are different types of things people do online, and this again isn’t random, so people who are more privileged in position tend to use the internet for more things, and one could argue that the more things you use it for, the better potential outcomes of it, right? So there are very, again very qualitative differences in how one can use the internet. One can just check sports scores all the time, one could also do tough things such as learning new skills that may be relevant for jobs, understanding finance better, reading up on health issues, I mean there are a lot of potentially beneficial uses. Its not enough to say, oh well, if enough people are not motivated to do that you can’t make them because people, a lot of people just don’t understand what’s out there, and there’s so much material out there and there’s also a lot of incorrect material out there that definitely requires some level of education for people to be able to make sense of it or for everyone to make sense of it and to locate the right sources, to locate the most relevant sources. To find the tools that are of interest and so for this I think it is absolutely essential that we have education awareness training as part of the deployment of the technology because it's not simply the technological problem, so you just can’t fix it with a technical solution, and again the problem is that from the data that we do have it seems like people who are already in more privileged positions are the ones more likely to use it for more things, and the potential is that those who are less privileged might fall behind even more, and that’s really not what we want to see.

Hammer: And you mention the education part, so I’m going to kind of go with that. What do you, and as I know that this is not your research area per se or what you really work for but as you think about this, how can this or how do you think this digital inequity has affected college classrooms or can affect college classrooms? Whether teachers or students?

Hargittai: Sure, I mean again, people in college, even though you are controlling for a level of education at some level, they still come from very different backgrounds and so you would want to make sure people are on a similar page and those who come from more privileged schools or more privileged families don’t sort of run away and leave the others behind in terms of their online skills and abilities. So a lot of college classes require all sorts of searching for information, I mean that’s always been the case, it’s just a lot of this has moved to the web. So you want to make sure students know how to access good information and how to make sense of it, how to understand it, how to find the right tools, and some will argue even the idea of everyone having opportunities for everyone to make their own voices heard, so one of the enthusiastic encouraging aspects of the web, especially in most recent years, is this participatory aspect. But again we find that it is not equally distributed, that certain people are more likely to be posting their own content and that way certain people are going to be more likely to influence conversations and so again for that purpose you want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to be part of those conversations.

Hammer: And by there, I am assuming you mean like blogs or those kinds of things.

Hargittai: Sure! I mean anything from posting a video, to having your own blog, posting your own writing, to commenting and to voting on content out there, all sorts of things!

Hammer: I wonder if you could tell me what do you teach? And how has this, you know this knowledge that you have about research and about the area that you study, has it influenced your teaching or your interaction with students?

Hargittai: It certainly influences in a sense that I am very conscience of, the fact they aren’t all per se when it comes to the Internet, so I think a lot instructors might go into the classroom thinking that all of the students know a lot about the ITM and sort of take that for granted and I think that problematic because they don’t and the class I tend to teach to undergrad, the classes has to do with the Internet so it fits very directly, right, so if you have an Internet society less can very organically fit in somewhat skills relating things. But even when it’s not specifically the topic of the day, I will often take a few moments to show them tricks and tips and I think some of it you can do as part of, say if they are working, writing a paper, then I will take some time to show them things like google scholar or but also just how you for an example use domain names and things like that and how do you search more specifically and things that they don’t actually necessarily know, so it’s worth taking the time to explain.

Hammer: It’s almost like, a felt it was like a stereotype, another type of stereotype that we tend to have about students. Oh they know all this.
Hargittai: It is a stereotype and it’s actually, to me it is interesting. Those who teach on the classroom and interact with 18-19 year olds should know better because, I know, I think they kind of give away their ignorance on occasion pretty explicitly if you are paying attention, so but it might require instructors to pay a careful attention to tat right? To, again and not walk in there with assumption that they know everything. They know a few things extremely well, like some things they use a lot.

Hammer: Text! They know how to text.

Hargittai: They know how to text, they spend a lot of them spend a lot of time on Face book, yes, but a lot of other things they don’t know that could be total beneficial to them.

Hammer: Well probably they have those critical thinking skills components behind them in terms of evaluating the content.

Hargittai: Exactly!

Hammer: This is kind of making me think of the recent articles on digital natives and are they really digital natives and have you in your work kind of countered that idea that students are digital natives and faculty are not in different areas here?

Hargittai: I mean I think in some dimensions there is some difference, I think it is a little complicated as to where you are actually draw the line. There’s certain areas where it is different to grow up with it from the start but I think this often gets translated maybe even because the semantics of its actual native as oppose to say immigrant which I don’t really like those terms because the native does seem to imply that, Oh well they just know it. And why I think there are different ways in which they might relate to technology because it sort of takes it for granted that it is part of everyday life and most interactions, that doesn’t mean they get it at all. Right? So it is important to recognize that there are different ways in which it might matter that they have grown up with it more than others. And also who know there are older people who are extremely fluent with the technology so I don’t think it is required to have grown up wit it for a lot of things.

Hammer: Another stereotype there?

Hargittai: Yeah another stereotype!

Hammer: I wonder before as we wrap up, I have one more question. I wonder if there is any last tips or advice you would want to give faculty members who are listening to this podcast, who might just be interested and being sensitive to this issue in their classroom? Do you have any tips or advice you might want to offer?

Hargittai: Um again I just wouldn’t walk into the classroom assuming that all students know everything. I think also teachers do often know things that students don’t know about it. I think it’s worst be explicit about these things and having discussion about them instead of assuming away in any direction actually, but also teachers can approach it in a way that there are curious to hear the prospective of the students right? And by getting the prospective of the students for example having the discussion of what are their favorite tools or websites. Teachers can learn but also that way realize is that what is that of what the students know and what are the areas they maybe lacking. But basically that basic assumption I think constructors need to share that if they have that.

Hammer: Thank you, thank you so much! My last question I have for you and this is again broadening back out from the classroom, but I just think about your work in general, at having social implications and political implications and educational implications and you know really is just a part of this modern life and I just wonder if you can think of any other phenomenal that has happen historical that you can compare, that we can compare to the Internet. Can you think of any other historical tools or techniques that kind of came along with have shifted our ________?

Hargittai: I mean, I think historically there are all sorts of tools that have shifted parodies in various ways, whether it is communication media or other for example industrial innovations, I mean anything, you know for example automobiles had a very significant influence library term on urban life and suburban life. So I think there are all sorts, depending on how one looks at it. Again even if we just keep it within the round of communication media, it’s interesting what kinds of shifts we saw. I mean I think what I important to think about is not to assume that the technology will have anyone particular type of affect that to understand that technologies enables all sorts of thing, but it’s often up to social factors rather it’s government or businesses or the users to shape what comes of those technologies and how we tempt to adopt them and how they end u influencing different things, so depending on these factors, their factors ca go in all sorts of different directions.

Hammer: Well, Dr. Hargittai I think you so much for speaking with me today, I think your work is very interesting and I wish you luck on all your data collection.

Hargittai: Thanks you very much!

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