vol. 25 no. 4, December, 2020

Book Reviews

van Dijk, Jan. The digital divide. Polity, 2020. vi, 184 p. ISBN 978-1509-534456. €20.40.

The digital divide is a newest book, in which a Dutch researcher Jan van Dijk summarizes his work on digital inequalities. The book spans the period of some 25-30 years, since the first studies and surveys about access to new media started appearing in the 1990s. However, the book focuses on the theoretical developments based on research data and on growing understanding of the complexity of the digital divide, rather than on the history of research.

The structure of the book is consistent with the theoretical propositions of the author who is considered a godfather of the digital divide theory by others working in this area as well as one of the developers of the concepts of the network society. The digitial divide builds on both theories showing the growing threats that digital divide poses to the network society when a significant part of its population is left behind and is excluded not only from deriving the benefits from digital technologies, but from wider participation in civic society, politics, economics, and education.

The first two chapters provide a general overview of the development of the concept of digital divide and research that explored its different manifestations as well as the present status of the theory. The author introduces broader theoretical perspectives that have contributed to the understanding of digital inequalities and the empirical research that tested its propositions and moved them ahead in the direction of understanding its increasing complexity. The second chapter is closed by a graphic model integrating the positional and personal categories, resources available to people, and technical properties of technologies with the levels and stages of the digital divide. The outcomes of participation in the network society are considered a major cause of changing positional categories and resources of its members.

The next five chapters explore the stages of the digital divide in greater detail. They concentrate in turn on motivation and attitudes towards digital technologies of the members of society and their relation to attaining physical access to them. The author presents several theoretical approaches to conceptualising motivation of using digital technologies. The factors affecting motivation and attitudes are disussed and linked to the categories of non-users, ex-users, regular and frequent users. Physical access is presented as a complex phenomena, depending not only on the infrastructure, but on the economic and market factors and technical characteristics of digital technologies and services. The author emphatically demonstrated that if the gap in basic access can be diminished, the overall equality of physical access becomes almost unatainable due to absolute and especially relational inequalities of different social groups. The more powerful ones will always have access to more and newer equipment, more expensive services, and more diverse applications.

The focus of many modern digital society policies and strategies, digital skills, are also treated as a complex and composite concept. The author chooses the term of 'skills' instead of 'competence' or 'literacy' due to its more instrumental connotations. He then explores the causes that affect unequal attainment of these skill among different people: resources, positional and personal categories, and technical characteristics of technlogies. The most interesting aspect of digital skills inequality is disclosed through structuring those into media-related and content-related skills and comparing those to the framework of the twenty-first century skills.

The usage inequality is explored on the great global scale assessing the differences between the countries, where the positional inequality categories are most visible. The usage between different social groups inside the countries also reveal the influence of personal catagories and relational inequalities. My interest when reading this chapter was directed at the measures that help to identify the usage gap. I find it more problematic and it was interesting to see that the existing instruments reveal the same inequalities as the measures of access and digital skills. The outcomes of the usage are the most complex to measure. In the chapter, the author divides the outcomes into the positive (benefits) and negative ones. The positive outcomes include economic, social, political and civic, cultural and personal categories. Though each group is defined rather strictly, I still find them overlapping. However, I wondered why negative outcomes were defined in very different terms, namely, exessive use, cybercrime and abuse, loss of security and privacy. Though I can understand that these are the big problems in the network society, but defining positive and negative outcomes in terms so different, seemed to reveal some deficiency in the methodological approach to this manifestation of the digital divide. Though some partial doubt can be raised about some measures used in exploring the gap in other stages, but they are in principle very sound from the point of view of methodological approach, while outcome category still needs some elaboration.

In the eighth chapter, Jan van Dijk arrives to an unfortunate but logical conclusion that digital technologies do not eradicate, but actually increase inequality in society. The more networked the society becomes, the deeper and wider the digital divide emerges from the empirical data. The consequencies of this tendency are explored in different areas of life with the emphasis on the negative consequencies for persons and groups. It is evident that the author thinks that the situation is dangerous for the whole society, but does not try to predict the future scenarios that can emerge from it. Instead he focuses on the perspectives that suggest mitigation of problem with increasing digital divide in various spheres: technological, economic, educational, social, and persuasive. He also compares the existing approaches to the digital divide in different groups of countries. None of these approaches seems to address adequately the core issue of reducing economic and social inequality. Thus, the suggested solutions to bridging the digital divide seem quite utopian, though if followed by all the addressed actors, they could be increasing benefits derived from the use of technology by all rather than selected few.

The book has a status of a textbook. And it is a perfect textbook in terms of a logical and coherent structure, readable text accessible to any novice in the field, clear cut and easily understood models and graphs. It lacks some features of a textbook, such as the recommendations for further reading or questions for reflection. At the same time, it is closer to a research monograph, as it reveals research evidence on one subject - the manifestation of digital inequalities in modern network society. Though the evidence has been produced by many scholars in different countries, the scaffolding theoretical framework and models have been created by van Dijk and significant part of presented data was generated in his research project. Thus, the book has a broad appeal to different parts of academic audience: students studying the condition of network society in social and technical science areas, but also scholars looking for a serious and thoughtful summary of research on the subject of digital inequalities. I would suggest that the audience in dire need of reading this book are policy makers and governmental officials, especially, those planning investement in infrastructure, education and digital services. However, this audience usually relies on short-term consultants' reports and gut feelings, which for some strange reason favour anything but the real needs of people.

Elena Maceviciute

University of Borås
November, 2020

How to cite this review

Maceviciute, E. (2020). Review of:van Dijk, Jan. The digital divide. Polity, 2020. Information Research, 25(3), review no. R704 [Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs704.html]

Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.