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Thursday, October 11 • 11:00am - 12:30pm
Mobile Technology and Access: Four material approaches that re-contextualize the digital divide

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The digital divide is a loaded term, which has been exhaustively discussed and defined in several different contexts (Harambam, Aupers, & Houtman, 2013; Ragnedda & Muschert, 2013; Van Dijk, 2006). Originally meant to refer to those who had or didn't have access to the internet (haves vs. have-nots) (Epstein, 2011), the term has developed into a more nuanced concept that encompasses issues of power, capital, and modernization, what Sassi (2005) has called "the strong hypothesis." Mobile technologies particularly complicate the notion of the divide, because they extend the places from which the internet can be accessed, giving us the false perception of ubiquitous, homogeneous, and instant access (Miller, 2007).

Mobile phones have been analyzed as bridging the digital divide (Pearce & Rice, 2013; Rice & Katz, 2003) because they have provided many people in the world with the first internet connection (Horst, 2011). However, although the mobile phone penetration rate has increasingly grown in the developing world (Donner, 2015), internet access is still far from being homogeneous, and it is naïve to pretend that it will ever be. Avoiding a technocratic perspective, this panel analyzes several contexts in which mobile technology access influences and is influenced by culture, mobility, and power. We explore mobile technology access via four interconnected perspectives. We start with a historical perspective by presenting how socio-economic inequalities played a role in the first ten years of development of mobile telephony in Brazil. We explore the historical context in which a politics of privatization and neoliberalism shaped early access to mobile phones in the country, focusing on Rio de Janeiro, the first city to have mobile service in Brazil. Mobile technology access in Brazil originally took place in large urban centers like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and still, urban areas around the world have better connection infrastructure and therefore more users. As a result, we next move to a study of mobile technology access in the rural US, namely Robeson County in North Carolina. We discuss how limited infrastructure and mobile internet access in rural regions impact the physical and communicative mobility of disabled populations within those regions. Mobility is also transnational, and in the next paper we discuss how mobile internet access shapes the migration experiences of Syrian refugees along with the (negative) public perceptions of Syrian refugee access to smartphones. Finally, we expand the focus from mobile and smartphones to natural user interfaces (NUI). These technologies, which may be viewed as part of the infrastructure of the so-called internet of things (Ashton, 2009), have contributed to increase data connection nodes expanding the access to hybrid spaces (De Souza e Silva, 2006). In this paper, we explore NUI as assemblages that encompass the materiality of the interface, cultural norms, power infrastructures, and usability to discuss how these new mobile technologies are influencing access to the internet.


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Donner, J. (2015). After Access: Inclusion, Development, and a More Mobile Internet. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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Harambam, J., Aupers, S., & Houtman, D. (2013). The contentious gap: From digital divide to cultural beliefs about online interactions. Information, Communication & Society, 16(7), 1093-1114.

Horst, H. A. (2011). New Media Practices in Brazil | Free, Social and Inclusive: Appropriation and Resistance of New Media Technologies in Brazil. International Journal of Communication, 5.

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Pearce, K. E., & Rice, R. E. (2013). Digital divides from access to activities: comparing mobile and personal computer internet users. Journal of Communication, 63(4), 721-744.

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Rice, R., & Katz, J. E. (2003). Comparing internet and mobile phone usage: Digital divides of usage, adoption and dropouts. Telecommunications Policy, 27(8/9), 597.

Sassi, S. (2005). Cultural differentiation or social segregation? Four approaches to the digital divide. New Media & Society, 7(5), 684-700.

Van Dijk, J. A. (2006). Digital divide research, achievements and shortcomings. Poetics, 34(4), 221-235.

Thursday October 11, 2018 11:00am - 12:30pm EDT
Sheraton - Salon 7