Digital inequalities: Expanding the notion of technical access from the perspective of autonomy and accessibility

TitleDigital inequalities: Expanding the notion of technical access from the perspective of autonomy and accessibility
Publication TypeConference Paper
Author(s)Man, C. C. - W.
Affiliation (1st Author)Center for Communication Research City University of Hong Kong
Section or WGDigital Divide Working Group
DateWed 26 June
Slot CodeDIVW2a
Slot Code (Keyword)DIVW2a
Time of Session11:00-12:30
Session Title Global and national communication orders
Submission ID6164

As Castells (2001) suggests, the lack of the Internet use becomes a social problem when the society’s major functionsand social groups are increasingly organized around the Internet. Recent studies of digital divide have tried to move “beyond the binary nature of technical access” to the so-called “second-level digital divide” (i.e. skillsdivide) (Hargittai, 2002). These researchers assume that inequality in Internet skillshas replaced the access to the Internet as a new social problem. However, in light of the emerging new access technologies such as smartphones, fast mobile data network, tablet computers and outdoor Wi-Finetwork, I contend that it is still important and meaningful to consider technical access as a major determinant of any other “levels” or forms of digital divide. The notion of access to technology has to be expanded to consider user autonomy and accessibility of the technology as important aspects that determine the extent to which a user integrates Internet use into his or her daily life. When the Internet technology is accessible, one has the “freedom touse the medium for one's preferred activities (Hargittai, 2002).” These two factors together affect the effectiveness and quality of Internet use and arekey enabling factors of learning and improving Internet skills. In response to the call by Hargittai(2002) to take the “quality of Internet use” into account, I have tried tointroduce three new dimensions to reflect the quality of Internet use, namely access locations, connection modes, and ownership of access devices. When an individual can access the Internet at different places at higher speed using various equipment that are available, he or she will have a better Internet experience by having purposes achieved more creatively and more efficiently. Based on a survey of 502 individual respondents in Hong Kong, to assess how access location, connection modes, Internet device ownership contribute to the dimensions of Internet activities engaged, a set of logistic regressions is carried out. The three dimensions of Internet use quality and the length of use experience explain Internet skills which in turn positively affect online shopping and work/study. However, Internet skills fail to explain other types of Internet activities engaged. Internet device ownership also positively explains the use of online entertainment and securities trading. Internet access location is positively related to online communication and work/study. The pursuit of personal hobbiesand political discussions are better explained by other individual characteristics than by Internet use variables. The results suggest that variables ofuser autonomy are useful in explaining various types of Internet activities engaged. The analyses therefore demonstrate that there is a boundary of the Internet variables in relating the technology to behaviors. Merely having the access to technology or the skills to use it is not an all-encompassing explanation for technology use behavior. My findings echoe Warschauer’s (2003) criticism on the technologically deterministic notion of digital divide as a barrier to technical access. The way the Internet is used and which specific online activities are used would depend on thenature of the online activities and contextual factors.

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