Reframing Digital Differences Through Capital

In my work, the so-called “digital divide” presents a substantial obstacle, not because of limitations it imposes on me, but its dominance in the public understanding of the different relationships people have toward technology. I think the digital-divide metaphor is pernicious in two ways. First, it posits a binary opposition between those who effectively use networked technologies and those who don’t. Secondly, it applies what Virginia Eubanks  terms a “deficit model” suggesting that those who don’t use network technologies are somehow inferior or deficient compared to those who do. I think it is far more productive to examine how network technologies are used within a variety of contexts and exist within systems of social power.

The term “digital divide” emerged in discussions of telecommunications policy in the 1990s, where simple access to the Internet was considered adequate service. Although many people were unable to access the Internet at the time, the “trickle-down” theory suggested that once prices came down everyone who wanted to use the Internet would. Later conceptualizations of the digital divide emphasized discrete skills and later “literacies.” These conceptualizations nuanced an understanding how some users might be able to use networked technologies more powerfully than others, but put the onus on using these technologies on the individual.

Working with Joseph Straubhaar, Wenhong Chen, and Jeremiah Spence, I have been adapting Bourdieu’s notion of multiple “capitals” - economic, social, and cultural - to describe the gradations in types of use among survey participants. Bourdieu himself once suggested that cultural capital is a subset of “informational capital” and later began to describe a form of “technical capital.” Based on research on Internet users in historically segregated area of  East Austin, Straubhaar began to advance the idea of a “techno-capital” similar to cultural capital - techno-capital encompasses the range of resources an individual can use to exert power in society. I believe that thinking about these issues in terms of techno-capital and the broader habitus can lead to more constructive discussions about who and who isn’t empowered by technology.

By thinking about techno-capital, the “digital divide” doesn’t become a matter of individuals who lacks the means or inclination to learn how to use computers, mobile phones, or any other network device, but becomes a product of the broader society where people live. This conceptualization offers researchers of Internet use a more human, more society-oriented framework for thinking through power differences online.

Image on front page by Steve Rhode and available on Flickr.


This sounds like a project that is long overdue. In the past, the popular interpretation of the digital divide has always seemed to be much more benign and somewhat humorous - a way to describe why grandma can't figure out how to get her pictures to print or why the VCR clock is still blinking 12:00. As research has been focusing on the more insidious connotations (and grandma is now more likely to be as savvy as her grandkids), this might be an opportunity to transform - or discard altogether - this outdated concept.

On a more serious note, I look forward to your project's results. How have you and your colleagues factored access into your data?

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