UOSM2008: Topic 1 reflection

This post is part of a series published as part of the University of Southampton’s Living and Working on the Web module. To find out more, including links to all of this year’s student blogs, check out the UOSM2008 website.

Having previously explored digital inequalities as part of SOCI3073, it was interesting to explore a wide, more specific array of thoughts on digital differences. Personally, I could not find any factors that impede my digital usage or access to opportunity, hence I chose to look deeper at efforts to provide tools and skills to less digitally privileged users.

Here, Carl Leckstein commented (with a 2012 Guardian piece) that internet access should be considered a human right. Ultimately, I agree with what his reflection concludes – access is essential for today’s way of life and this will only increase globally as technological adoption and provision increases. We must, however, neither ignore concerns nor accept divides as inevitable.

Chloe Cripps’ blog raised an interesting question about MOOCs and how they deliver on their promise of education for all, and researching this led me to Coursera data (Zhenghao et. al., 2015) on who actually uses their services and why. Aleph Molinari’s TEDx talk – as highlighted by Chloe and others – is promising, as his work looks to close digital divides with eco-friendly social hubs and rapid digital literacy education rather than mere infrastructure, as in my example of OLPC.

Elsewhere, on Chloe Cheung’s blog, we discussed more international contrasts after she discussed using Chinese services. This led me to The Verge, where Shannon Liao (2018) explores WeChat’s ubiquity and how China’s government has helped it grow into from messaging into a state ID system. However, as Chloe responded, this hostile approach is not ideal.

We cannot force digital usage upon [communities]. We can only educate them to understand the wider benefits of the Web.

Regretfully, other commitments mean I have been unable to work significantly towards increasing multimedia usage on the blog or participating more frequently in comments and MOOCs, but topic 2 looks right up my street…


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UOSM2008: Exploring digital differences

This post is part of a series published as part of the University of Southampton’s Living and Working on the Web module. To find out more, including links to all of this year’s student blogs, check out the UOSM2008 website.

Task: Evaluate the impact of your “Digital Differences” on how you interact with the Web.

My experiences of digital differences

When we got our first computer, my grandma and I learned digital skills together, despite a 50-year age gap. Now, over a decade later, there are certainly some similarities in how we use the Web – we both play games, get news alerts, and communicate via iMessage and FaceTime. However, my work and studies lean on desktop modes rather than her mobile/tablet preferences, and both for social and security reasons she has long refused to put personal or financial information online.

Structural differences

Whilst the Web utopia promises equality and opportunity for all, to achieve this we must address two interlinked areas of difference: access and skills. Previously we discussed how Marc Prensky’s (2001) concepts tied the latter to age, with digital natives’ early immersion in technology providing intrinsic understanding. Stating the need for networks to reach a “critical mass,” whereby usage is widespread beyond technically-adept early adopters and thus is beneficial for broader society, Jan van Dijk (2013) builds on this by placing users into concentric tiers.


Globally, van Dijk’s proportions are reflected in ITU (2017) figures. Although all but four nations show a year-on-year increase in Web penetration, this figure remains under 25% in 47 nations. Further ITU data (2017) illustrates divides in age and gender in online populations, however growth is evident in mobile and fixed broadband connections in developing regions.

Gender divides in internet usage
Gender divides in internet usage. Source: ITU (2017)

Overcoming or reinforcing differences?

Technologies will naturally be built according to the perceived needs of their users, and if these are primarily towards the centre of this structure, the disparities run the risk of growing ever greater. Gerd Paul & Christian Stegbauer (2005) demonstrate this by looking at the usage and requirements of Germany’s elderly population, concluding that these users require simpler solutions than their younger counterparts and that individual gains from Web adoption can effect non-users detrimentally. Additionally, efforts to spread computing and connectivity have faced criticism for their shortsighted approaches, and discrimination proliferates (e.g. Lisa Nakamura, 2011).



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