Digital Inequality

by Brian Murphy, Charles Wang, Sonia Navani, and Ashley DeSouza

The U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration popularized the term “digital divide” to describe the disparity in access to technology between the rich and the poor. (Warschauer, 2003) In her article, Hargittai argues that the “digital divide” has evolved into “digital inequality” that must consider “different aspects of the divide, focusing on such details as quality of equipment, autonomy of use, the presence of social support networks” and “experience and user skills.”  Hargittai suggests that it is this combination of things that propels some into a group of ICT “haves” and relegates others to a group of ICT “have-nots.”  The challenge with a gap determined by a complex collection of skills and experiences is that those at the bottom fall further and further behind, leading to “an increased gap among groups over time.” (Hargittai, p. 938)

Online job searches provides an interesting example of how technological progress can actually highlight challenges for those on the lower end of the gap.

There is an assumption that the shift of employment classifieds from print to online spaces makes it easier for the unemployed to find opportunities. (Lucas, 2012) However,  a recent report cites 28% of Americans are not online and low levels of digital literacy are starting to emerge as a major barrier to employment for some (US Dept of Commerce, 2011). Sharon Moore is one of many examples of someone whose lack of digital literacy got in the way of finding a good job.

Aiming to find a job that could offer reasonable stability and benefits, Sharon attempted to apply online for a state job. After starting the 26-page online application, the system timed her out and requested her to start over. She did not and described the experience as ‘daunting’ (Solman, 2012). Not only was Sharon required to provide an extensive amount of information online, she was required to do so at a certain pace. Sharon was shut out of a stable job opportunity, due in no small part to her digital illiteracy. It’s not just hard to get a job anymore. Online job recruitment systems have actually made it even more difficult for those with low digital literacy to simply get to the starting point to be considered for jobs at all.

The trouble with the digital divide, as Hargittai notes, is that while those on the low end of the gap see minimal increases year-over-year, those on the high end of the gap see accelerating returns (Hargittai, p. 938).  This widening inequality is apparent when contrasting the story of Sharon and her challenges to the high availability of training opportunities at top tier technology firms.  Judd Antin, for example, noted that he spent his early weeks at Facebook participating in a coding bootcamp that helped him strengthen his programming skills and learn more about Facebook’s technology stack.  While loosely relevant to his actual job, the experience was more about helping Judd (and Facebook employees at large) continue to build breadth and depth in areas of importance to the company. The value of this institutional support is significant, as Hargittai points out: “When faced with a difficulty, it makes a difference to have access to knowledgeable networks that help in finding a solution.” (Hargittai, p. 940) Such programs serve to further accelerate the sophistication of high end ICT users and stretch the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Addressing digital inequalities is a shared burden that requires contribution and collaboration from many sectors.  The good news is that programs to help transfer skills from those in technologically privileged positions to those lacking access, training or support have begun to emerge.  The national non-profit YearUp[1] provides an interesting example of how those at the top of the gap can help those seeking to escape the bottom. YearUp provides a year of technology training to high-performing students from underserved areas directly after high school graduation that prepares them for internships and jobs at sponsoring corporations.  Corporations such as Salesforce, Google and PayPal help finance the program and, in turn, have direct access to a new source of students capable of filling ICT-focused roles upon graduation.  Once those students are placed, they can then take advantage of communities and training in these technology companies to further accelerate their growth.

YearUp’s model has succeeded for urban youth, but also demonstrates the complexity of digital inequality.  Sharon, who has divergent needs and is in a different employment stage, may require alternative solutions to accelerate her digital education.  It’s clear that digital inequality is an emerging problem that needs continued thought and attention. In particular, the evidence suggests these digital inequalities must be considered as an important dimension of larger social inequalities.


[1] Hargittai, Eszter. 2008. “The Digital Reproduction of Inequality.” Pp. 936–944 in Social Stratification, edited by David Grusky. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

[2] Robinson, Laura. 2009. “A Taste for the Necessary.” Information, Communication & Society 12(4):488–507.

[3] Warschauer, M. (2003). Demystifying the digital divide. Scientific American, 289, p. 42-47.

[4] Lucas, How Online Job Searches Worsen the Job Crisis. CBS Money Watch (October 8, 2012)

 [5] US Department of Commerce, Fact Sheet: Digital Literacy (May 13, 2011)

[6] Solman, Is Applying for Jobs Online Not an Effective Way to Find Work?  (Sept 25, 2012)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>