The Role of Culture in Technology Adoption in the U.S.: Results of the African American and Latino Technology Readiness Survey


There is an ongoing debate about the differences in the use of technology across ethnic and racial lines in the United States, but little comprehensive information exists on the subject.  The extent to which certain groups, notably African Americans and Latinos, have less access to computers and the Internet than whites has implications for government policy-makers, corporations and associations.

As local, state and federal government agencies provide more services online, an issue arises about having equal access to various services such as renewing a vehicle registration or filing a tax return.  Public schools are increasingly expecting students to use technology for word processing and research, putting so students without access at home are at a disadvantage.  Companies and associations are finding increasing opportunities in the growing areas of e-services and e-learning, and would like to leverage these new business models as appropriate with African American and Latino customers.

This research examines the differences in technology use in the U.S. between African Americans, Latinos and whites.  More importantly, it looks at the causes behind differences, including socio-economic factors, cultural beliefs about technology, affordability and skill levels.

About this Survey

The African American and Latino Technology Readiness Survey is a joint effort between Rockbridge and Dr. Terri Albert, Assistant Professor at the University of Hartford, Hartford, Connecticut.

A total of 200 African Americans and 200 Latinos were interviewed by telephone during April 2002.  African Americans were sampled by random-digit-dialing within the census tracts where they are most geographically concentrated, effectively covering 65% of the African American population in the U.S.  This sample is appropriate for the study goals since it examines issues within predominantly African American communities; however, it does not represent the 35% of more assimilated African Americans who live in areas where they are less concentrated.

Latinos were sampled from a list of Spanish surnamed residents.  They were given the option of being interviewed in either Spanish or English, but 63% prefer to speak Spanish over English (compared to 37% who prefer English or both languages equally).  Findings vary markedly by degree of assimilation into American culture, one definition being language preference.  Throughout, results are sometimes reported separately for English-speakers Latinos who prefer to speak English or English/ and Spanish equally, and Spanish-speakers Latinos who prefer to speak Spanish over English.

The responses from this survey are compared to those of 407 whites[1] surveyed in December in the 2002 National Technology Readiness Survey (NTRS).  The NTRS is an annual tracking study co-sponsored by Rockbridge Associates, Inc. and the University of Maryland Center for e-Service, R. H. Smith School of Business, College Park, Md.  In 2002, the NTRS included a nationally representative sample of 501 U.S. Adults.

Adoption of Information Technologies

Whites have the greatest access to computers and the internet while Latinos have the least.  For instance, 73% of whites have a computer at home, compared with 58% of African Americans and 49% of Latinos.[2]  Among Latinos, there is a wide gap based on language preference – 67% of English-speakers have computers, compared to 38% of those who prefer Spanish.

The same pattern occurs with Internet access – 63% of whites have Internet access at home, compared to 54% of African Americans and only 41% of Latinos (see figure on next page).  The incidence of English-speaking Latinos mirrors that of whites (64%), while the incidence is only 26% for Spanish-speaking Latinos.  The workplace is an important source of access, particularly since it may be the only way to get online for those lacking home access.  African Americans and whites have about the same rate of access at work (38% and 40% respectively), while a smaller share of Latinos – 27% – have Internet access at work.

Accounting for access at either home or work, over two-thirds of whites and African Americans have access in to at least one of these venues, compared with only half of Latinos.  English-speaking Latinos also have relatively high access, while only a third of Spanish-speaking Latinos have access.

Besides home or work, many people manage to use the Internet from a source outside home or work.  While this may be a portable device, the predominant forms of access outside home and work venues are the homes of friends and relatives, and public libraries.  African Americans are the most likely to use the Internet outside home or work, with 41% having gone online outside these established venues in the past year.  Only a third of whites (34%) and a fifth of Latinos (19%) access the Internet in other locales.

While there are disparities in the incidence of Internet access, there is more parity in whether or not the access is through a high speed connection such as a cable modem or DSL.  Among those online at home, an equal share of whites and African Americans – 29% – have a high speed connection; the share of online Latinos with a high speed connection is a little less at 23% (28% for English-speaking and 15% for Spanish-speaking).  With the exception of less assimilated Latinos, gaps in the speed of access are not markedly pronounced once people get online.

Another way of comparing technology adoption is by the behaviors conducted by these groups once they are online, particularly in the areas of e-services and e-government.  Generally, whites who are online are most likely to conduct a range of behaviors, particularly e-commerce.  For example, 52% of whites indicate they purchased an item costing $10 to $100 in a 12 month period, compared to 35% of both African Americans and HispanicsLatinos.[3]  Whites are also more likely to use the Internet for general bill paying, online banking, visiting organizational websites, researching health information and visiting local government sites.   English-speaking Latinos are more similar to whites in their e-purchasing incidence.

A few exceptions to the pattern include the following:

  • African Americans are more likely to have taken a course online (18% in the past year, compared to 9% of whites and 12% of Latinos).
  • Latinos are more likely to have paid a credit card bill online (26%, compared to 20% of whites and 14% of African Americans).  This incidence is higher for both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking Latinos.

What is the future for Internet access among these groups?  No attempts are made here to forecast long range penetration, but based on future plans stated in the survey, it would appear that the gaps in home access are closing more rapidly with African Americans than with Latinos.  The share of those without access at home who plan to get it in the next year is 30% for whites and 31% for African Americans, but only 24% for Latinos.  (Projecting this forward a year, this would mean that access for whites would grow from 63% to 74%, for African Americans from 54% to 68%, and for Latinos from 41% to 55%).

Reasons for Lack of Technology

Each of these groups has different reasons for lacking a computer at home.  The most striking difference is that affordability stands out as an issue for African Americans, while lack of interest stands out for Latinos.  Specifically:

  • Whites without computers are divided in the feeling that technology is not affordable or that they lack interest.
  • For African Americans, the top reason is that technology is not affordable, although other factors include a lack of interest, lack of knowledge and access outside the home.
  • For Latinos, the dominant reason, cited by half, is a lack of interest.  However, a third cite affordability as an issue.

It is now possible to purchase a powerful computer for less than $500, but this still seems to be an issue for many, particularly in minority groups.  One has to consider purchasing power, the cost of upgrades, the cost of peripherals and software, and perceived financial stability.  African Americans and Latinos earn less than whites, as validated in the survey.  They are also less certain about the future.  For example, while 63% of whites feel they will be more financially secure in the next year, only 52% of African Americans and 41% of Latinos feel this way.[4]  (Only 25% of Spanish-speaking Latinos agree.)

  • There is a huge difference of opinion about whether the government should take responsibility for subsidizing people who cannot afford computers.  Only a third of whites (32%) agree with this statement, compared to two-thirds of African Americans and Latinos (66% and 69% respectively).  Spanish-speaking Latinos are more likely to agree with this, but even those who are speak English-speaking are more likely than whites to feel government should play a role.

Even if everyone is provided with computers, there will still be issues related to experience and training.  This is particularly an issue among Latinos who lack computers at home or work, since 63% have no experience using them.  In contrast, 45% of African Americans and 36% of whites that lack computers at home or work have no experience.  A related issue for Latinos is that most of those without computers prefer to speak Spanish over English.  Consequently, these Latinos are more likely to have arrived from countries with lower computer penetration than the United States, and language barriers may pose problems in obtaining training in the U.S.

Finally, it should be observed that neither African Americans, Latinos nor whites should be considered monolithic groups.  Each represents a wide spectrum of individuals in terms of educational attainment, income and cultural background.  As already noted, there are major differences in technology adoption among Latinos based on their acculturation.  Differences between groups are also less pronounced when accounting for socio-economic variables.

To illustrate, among individuals with at least a 4-year college degree, the incidence with Internet access is less pronouncedmore balanced (82% for whites, 80% for African Americans and 72% for Latinos.)  But to illustrate that cultural and racial factors still have an influence, among those with a high school degree, there is still a notable gap (55% for whites, 42% for African Americans and 27% for Latinos.)

Beliefs about Technology

This study provides in-depth information on beliefs about technology, shedding light on the psychological factors that advance or slow adoption of information technologies.  Mirroring the NTRS, the African American and Latino Technology Readiness Survey captures beliefs on a series of 36 standardized statements developed by Rockbridge and Professor A. Parasuraman, University of Miami.  These statements can be combined into a single index that measures “technology readiness,” or the overall propensity to adopt new technologies at home and at work.  The average in the U.S. population is 100 and has not changed over the four periods that this has been tracked.[5]

These groups are equal in their overall level of technology readiness – the index is 99 for Whites, 102 for African Americans and 102 for Latinos, with no statistically significant differences.   However, the groups differ on the components of technology readiness, with variations in how innovative, optimistic, comfortable and secure they are about technology.  Specifically:

  • African Americans tend to exceed others in how innovative and optimistic they are about technology.  For example, 42% believe they are among the first to try new technologies, compared to only 26% of whites and 31% of Latinos.  At the same time, they also harbor more feelings that make them hesitant to try new technologies.  For example, 74% believe that new technologies may have health and safety risks, compared to only 64% of whites and 58% of Latinos. These conflicting beliefs are characteristic of a segment of the population that our research defines as “Pioneers,” individuals who are fairly techno-ready, are motivated to try new technologies, but are simultaneously held back by an inherent discomfort and insecurity.  Indeed, 35% of African Americans are Pioneers, which is significantly higher than for the share of whites (22%).  The key to introducing technology to Pioneers is to offer support and reassurance to overcome technology resistance. 
  • Latinos tend to see less benefit to technology than do whites and African Americans.  For example, only 44% feel that new technology is beneficial by allowing people to do business outside normal business hours, compared to a majority of whites (60%) and African Americans (62%).  However, Latinos have fewer inhibitions about adopting new technology.  The only exception to this is a reservation about conducting financial business on-line (61% do not consider it safe, compared with 52% of whites and 54% of African Americans).   Their lack of intensity of either positive or negative feelings about technology is characteristic of a segment we call “Skeptics,” individuals who have low psychological barriers to adoption but few motivations.  Latinos have the highest incidence of Skeptics – 36% – compared to 26% of whites and 15% of African Americans.  This tendency is consistent with the previously noted finding that a major reason for not having computers is a lack of interest.  The key to introducing technology to Skeptics is to prove to them that it has benefits.
  • The Skeptic persona is most applicable to Spanish-speaking Latinos; 43% are Skeptics compared to 26% of those who are English-speaking.  In contrast, the English-speaking Latinos have a higher concentration of Explorers and Pioneers.  One factor in Latino Skepticism may be the fact that many are immigrants from developing countries where there is less prevalence of computers and self-service technologies.  Therefore, they have little experience that would allow them to form strong opinions of technology.

It is important to note that the Technology Readiness Index and the technology segments presented here are not indicators of technical competence.  For example, an individual could be a “Laggard,” but fully trained and skilled in using computers.   It is also important to note that each group is diverse, so race or ethnicity is not a sole determinant of techno-readiness.  For example, 12% to 20% of each group is represented by the most tech-savvy segment, Explorersthe most tech-savvy segment, Explorers, represents 12% to 20% of each group.

Summing it up, the different beliefs imply different strategies for closing gaps across racial and ethnic groups.  Clearly, technology is adopted more by whites than African Americans and Latinos, and the gaps among Latinos are primarily among those who are less assimilated and do not speak English as fluently.  African Americans are interested in new technology in general, but may need help in overcoming obstacles.  This includes reassurance about its safety, sound technical support and training.  Latinos, in contrast, need to be shown the benefits of technologies like the Internet and must be presented with clear evidence of how it can benefit their lives.  Many Latinos lack experience with computers and therefore have not been able to see the benefits firsthand.

One might argue why we should even attempt to close a gap among consumers who are disinterested in technology, but this must be weighed against the possibility that social benefits might be gained if a larger share of these groups used computers and the Internet.  For example, a computer-literate labor force may be more competitive in world markets; as another example, governments can service serve constituents more efficiently with self-service over the Internet.  And finally, as with many new technologies, Skeptics of any culture are often grateful if shown the benefits of a new technology, since their reasons for not using them are disinterest, not resistance.

Finally, it should be noted that race and ethnicity are not the only factors contributing to technology gaps.  Many whites lack technology due to affordability or disinterest.   To ensure that all groups receive the full benefits of new technologies and e-services, it is important to evaluate issues among other special groups such as low income Americans and senior citizens.

[1] They consider themselves to be “white,” as opposed to “African American,” “Hispanic,” “Asian,” or “Another Background.”

[2] This sample represents the two-thirds of African Americans living in the areas where they are most concentrated, so the penetration may be higher among those living in neighborhoods with fewer African Americans.  The 2002 NTRS includes a representative sample of 44 African Americans from all areas, and the incidence is 50%, suggesting a gap would still exist with a more comprehensive sampling approach.

[3] Even though the question is framed in a 12 month time period, this could be attributed to seasonal differences in when the surveys were fielded; whites were asked the question in December, while the other groups were asked in April.

[4] This could be partly due to economic changes over the four months from when whites were surveyed (December 2002) and when the other groups were surveyed (April 2003).

[5] For a full explanation of the theory of technology readiness and description of technology segments, see Techno-Ready Marketing: How and Why Your Customers Adopt Technology, A. Parasuraman and Charles L. Colby, Free Press, NY, 2001.