What is missing? How technology maintenance is overlooked in representative surveys of digital inequalities

International Communication Association. Washington, D. C.

Abstract: As ownership and use of information and communication technology (ICT) begin to peak (Pew, 2018), especially in highly industrialized countries, inequality in material access takes new forms (ITU, 2017). Low-income populations may struggle with technology maintenance, the process of constantly seeking and re-establishing digital access, because their technology is disproportionately cheap, broken, borrowed and dependably unstable, cycling through periods of regular disruption (Gonzales, 2014, 2016). Researchers and policy makers rarely focus on these gradations in material access, which may in part be due to a lack of data. To explore this idea, we aggregate and summarize findings from a content analysis of 268 surveys that reference ICT access and use. Findings reveal few measures of technology maintenance processes. We then report results from two pilot surveys that include measures of maintenance in a student and a non-student sample. Those findings reveal that poor device quality and instability correspond with lower academic achievement, greater stress, and worse quality of life, though traditional access measures have no relationship with these outcome measures. We conclude with recommendations for researchers with an understanding that representative data on technology maintenance is a necessary step in designing appropriate policy solutions.

Glenna Read