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From the 'Digital Divide' to `Digital Inequality': Studying Internet Use As Penetration Increases

Working Paper #15, Summer 2001

Paul DiMaggio and Eszter Hargittai

The authors of this paper contend that as Internet penetration increases, students of inequality of access to the new information technologies should shift their attention from the "digital divide" - inequality between "haves" and "have-nots" differentiated by dichotomous measures of access to or use of the new technologies - to digital inequality, by which we refer not just to differences in access, but also to inequality among persons with formal access to the Internet. After reviewing data on Internet penetration, the paper describes five dimensions of digital inequality - in equipment, autonomy of use, skill, social support, and the purposes for which the technology is employed - that deserve additional attention. In each case, hypotheses are developed to guide research, with the goal of developing a testable model of the relationship between individual characteristics, dimensions of inequality, and positive outcomes of technology use. Finally, because the rapidity of organizational as well as technical change means that it is difficult to presume that current patterns of inequality will persist into the future, the authors call on students of digital inequality to study institutional issues in order to understand patterns of inequality as evolving consequences of interactions among firms' strategic choices, consumers' responses, and government policies.

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