Urban Myths of the Digital Divide: An Exploration of Connectivity, Breadth Of Use, and Interest Across Detroit Neighborhoods
47 Pages Posted: 15 Mar 2018 Last revised: 27 Aug 2019
Date Written: March 15, 2018
This paper presents the results of a mixed-methods study that researched the degree that residents of Detroit, Michigan, neighborhoods are (dis)connected to the Internet and what differences connections make in these urban communities. This study revisits previous findings suggesting that marginalized communities are truly under-connected, that people in these communities are uninterested in or afraid of using the Internet, and that once online low-income urban communities tend to use the Internet for entertainment and leisure purposes. Expectations going into the field were that much larger proportion of Detroit residents would be offline than the national average. An emerging urban myth of a disconnected Detroit being uninterested and not valuing the Internet shaped our assumptions. The findings contradicted these expectations about urban populations in distressed areas being dramatically under-connected, uninterested in the Internet, and if and when going online, being primarily interested in entertainment. This research examines Internet access in urban settings to gauge characteristics of the urban digital divide, and the factors facilitating and constraining use and adoption. The study combined focus groups with a telephone survey conducted from November through December 2017 of 525 individuals in three Detroit neighborhoods, Cody-Rouge, Milwaukee Junction and 7/8 Mile and Woodward. Three focus groups were conducted with altogether 30 residents, who represented community stakeholders, adult residents, and youth. The findings identify key digital divides within neighborhoods, namely a divide between those with an ISP contract and those dependent on mobile phones to access the Internet. Further, these findings illuminate a common pattern of Internet use in the city that helps explain the relative lack of Internet access across its households. These patterns are driven largely by device limitations, as compared to interest in or need for information and work-related activities. In other words, Detroiters want to do more work and information seeking activities but have restraints because all they have is a cell phone to work with. The findings of this study provide the basis for a set of recommendations for narrowing the digital divide across Detroit and other urban areas by countering the developing myths about Internet use and adoption and basing policy initiatives on the realities of urban interest and patterns of connectivity to, and use of, the Internet. The recommendations supported by this study include focusing government and civil society efforts on the provision of affordable Internet infrastructures in all neighborhoods of Detroit. Improvised and mobile-only access helps, but it is not equivalent to access over devices that enable people to read and write and produce more complex or extended content. Technical initiatives, subsidies and other schemes for providing lower cost ISP subscriptions and devices should be supported. Awareness raising campaigns should focus on the issues critical to users, such as efficiencies that can be realized in everyday life and work, and how to reduce and manage the costs, while also nudging individuals to help one another in access to the Internet.
Keywords: digital divide, urban communities, policy
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