Concerns about inequalities deriving from the penetration of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) have only recently become a widely debated issue in industrial societies. Until the 1980s the diffusion of ICT was mainly considered a matter of technological innovation regarding selected fields and limited territorial areas (such as the military and academic centers in the U.S.). Gradually, scholars started to point to the rise of an information society based on the production of information as the crucial resource to manage coordination and control of increasingly interconnected organizational systems (Masuda, 1981; Beniger, 1986; Toffler, 1990). The expression offered an alternative to the otherwise negative definitions used by scholars since the 1970s to identify changes occurring in Western democratic societies (‘post-capitalism’, ‘post-industrialism’, ‘post-materialism’, etc.) (Touraine, 1969; Bell, 1973). The debate over the information society, enthusiastically greeted by some authors (Negroponte, 1995) and critically observed by others (Castells, 1996, 2001; May, 2002; Mattelart, 2003), witnessed since the mid-1990s widespread success in public and political debates (Thomas, 1996). In front of the fast and capillary diffusion of ICTs virtually to all sectors of private and public life, most Western countries’ governments and international organizations have inserted within their policy agendas a reference to the unavoidability, if not desirability, of a radical shift to the new information age. The rhetoric accompanying those discourses often presents the expansion of the ICT sector?and especially the Internet?as offering citizens returns at both the individual and collective level, in the form of greater access to goods and services, increased levels of social and civic participation, and wider economic and working opportunities for all. Presented as a crucial means to participate in the new global information society, ICTs become recognized as a resource that should be fairly distributed among citizens, albeit on the basis of different arguments (ranging from social equity to economic efficiency or global development concerns), often leading to opposite conclusions on the scope for redistributive interventions (Strover, 2003; Selwyn, 2007).
The first framing of the issue of digital inequalities was in terms of a digital divide indicating the distance between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in access to ICTs, mainly with reference to the Internet (NTIA, 1999). At the territorial level the analysis focused on the wide gap existing between most industrialized and Third World countries in access to ICTs (global digital divide), although it was also applied at the sub-national level (with reference to the disadvantages of peripheral or rural areas): in both cases existing gaps were mainly explained with reference to the unequal spatial distribution of socio-economic wealth between centers and peripheries. The measurement of social digital divides (i.e., gaps between the different social groups) was mainly considered within countries, because of the peculiarities of different socio-institutional contexts.
The widely registered existence of unequal access to ICTs was differently interpreted. We can draw an ideal type, analytically distinguishing three positions on the debate, ranging from a more to a less optimistic view, and consequently drawing an increasingly active role for policy intervention: (a) ICT diffusion may particularly favor disadvantaged groups; (b) ICT distribution becomes increasingly even with their diffusion; and (c) ICT diffusion follows and reinforces existing inequalities.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Matthew Effect: An expression introduced by sociologist R. Merton (with reference to the Evangelist’s sentence “unto everyone that hath shall be given”) to indicate a process of social accumulation, and lately also applied to the debate on inequalities and ICTs. Refers to a mechanisms of accumulation of advantages, in science as in other occupational spheres, when certain individuals or groups repeatedly receive resources and rewards, enriching them at an accelerating rate and leading in the medium-long term to stratification and élite formation.
Information Society: Expression used by scholars since the 1970s, but gaining popularity 20 years later, identifying in the expansion and ubiquity of information and communication technologies in contemporary societies the rise of a new age centered on information and thus influenced by the network morphology (along which information flows) in the organization of time and space as well as other social spheres, from the local to the global level.
Knowledge Gaps Thesis: The position arguing that, in the penetration of mass media within a social system, the segments of a population with higher socioeconomic status will retrieve information faster than those with a lower socioeconomic status; as a result of this positive feedback, with time the knowledge gap between the two social segments will increase rather than decrease. Originally applied to the diffusion of the TV, it has recently been revived by the stratification thesis in the case of ICTs.
Cyberfeminism: Feminist movement interpreting the evolution of cybernetics as allowing the development of a culture in which inequalities are eradicated and traditional gender relations and stereotypes are defied (for instance, through the experimentation with gender identities or the creation of sisterhood networks on the Internet), empowering women and marking a shift away from their traditional symbolic representation as technologically ignorant.
Stratification Thesis: The position arguing that inequalities in access to information and communication technologies are mainly linked to the relatively stable hierarchies positioning individuals and groups within a social system, allowing some of them more privileged position than others. In contrast to the normalization thesis , this position takes back the knowledge gaps stance, stressing the crucial role of information as a source of power in contemporary society to explain access to information as a new source of social, economic, and political differentiation.
Normalization Thesis: The position arguing that inequalities in access to information and communication technologies are mainly linked to a first stage of penetration of the technology—the normal path—but gradually decreasing in the later stages when the technology is adopted widely across society because it becomes cheaper, easier, and more effective; in contrast to the stratification thesis , this view posits an optimistic scenario where also less privileged social groups can fully participate in the information society .
Leap-Frog Hypothesis: An optimistic view of the potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in enhancing a fairer global development, referring to the fact that poor countries investing in the latest ICTs may develop into an information society , skipping some of the difficult stages (in terms of political, economic, social problems) faced by the more developed countries that heavily invested in older ICTs.
Mobilization Hypothesis: An optimistic view fn the potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in terms of enhancing social and political inclusion, which tends to consider ICTs as an intrinsically ‘democratic’ means that may help citizens actually marginalized from their political system to get informed, organize, or engage in public life.