To Broadband or Not to Broadband: The Relationship between High-Speed Internet and Knowledge and Participation

Article excerpt

Rapid diffusion of the World Wide Web in past decades has prompted a number of scholars and pundits to inquire about the impact this new technology has on society (Norris, 2001). Researchers have tried to uncover various political and civic consequences of the Internet by focusing mostly on diverse aspects of user characteristics, including time spent online, frequency of Internet use, duration of Internet experience, information processing, and patterns of Internet activities (Bimber, 2001; Kwak, Williams, Joo, & Wang, 2003; Nie & Erbring, 2000; Shah, Kwak, & Holbert, 2001; Tewksbury & Althaus, 2000).

Interestingly, however, there is relatively little empirical research that examines the effects of technological innovations. We agree with others who argue that technological development is crucial in defining the online environment (Norris, 2001) and contend that it is important to analyze social and political influences of technological factors. Current debates--and promises--concerning broadband Internet technologies, we believe, require a careful analysis.

The present study develops two theoretical models that help assess various social and political consequences of technological advances. In particular, we aim to examine the added value of broadband over dial-up connections with respect to various criterion variables, including interpersonal interactions, current affairs knowledge, and public affairs participation. For this goal, we investigated Internet connection technologies that respondents adopted at home and their relationships with the criterion variables by analyzing a telephone survey data set, which was collected in an Internet-rich community via probability sampling techniques.

The Impact of the Internet: New Technology, Old Questions

Scholars have predominantly viewed technological change not as occurring in sudden leaps, but as a gradual and continuous--albeit not predetermined--evolution, which builds upon previous technologies (Winston, 1998). With respect to the issue of the social impact of new technology, however, the perspectives tend to be more nuanced. (1) Scholars have suggested that the social impact may be dependent upon local social circumstances, with technologies helping to bring about different types of changes in different social settings (Hughes, 1983; Winston, 1998). In a similar vein, some have also suggested that social effects shaped by technologies are simultaneously social choices, because pre-existing societal factors come forward in the process (Winston, 1998).

Indeed, the arrival of any new communication technology is met not only with excitement, but also with skepticism, and these different reactions reflect unique social conditions in which the technology was introduced and the interplay between features of the technology and the social setting. Some hail the technology as a great breakthrough, but others raise various concerns. The uneven rate at which technological innovation diffuses across a social system (Rogers, 1995) raises concerns about access (Katz, Rice, & Aspden, 2001), information disparity (McCreadie & Rice, 1999), and knowledge gaps (Tichenor, Donohue & Olien, 1970). Speculations about civic benefits of new media, however, have also been expressed. In his visit to United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville voiced eager optimism for the newest communication tool of the time, mass-circulation newspapers, as a means to promote community connectedness (Ray, 1999). Likewise, Claude Fischer's (1992) historical analysis of the telephone reaffirms information technology's role in building social bonds (also see Marvin, 1988).

The Internet has its own enthusiasts, skeptics, and pessimists (Norris, 2001). Some have viewed it as technologically connected with previous advances but as representing a potential social break (Rheingold, 1993). Some, emphasizing a possibility for unprecedented change, consider high-bandwidth technology a social revolution (Gilder, 2000), while others warn against premature celebration of the benefits of the technology that may never exist (Bowker, 1998). …