Wednesday, September 22, 2010

OneWebDay Reflections: Tyranny of the Tech Elite

A few weeks ago I attended the Supernova Forum at the University of Pennsylvania. It was great — I got to hear from and talk with so-called thought leaders in business, government, education, and media on topics related to the "network age". While there, I was plagued by a feeling that there was some phenomenon absent from the conversation, but I couldn't identify what it was. Since then, I've reflected and named this phenomenon "The tyranny of the tech elite". This tyranny is a reframing of the idea of digital inclusion. It is somewhat in contrast to the idea of the internet as a democratizer. I'm still struggling with this concept, so take this as a work-in-progress.

(I was going to write this post myself, and have been agonizing over how to do it right. After some research, I found that Joshua Breitbart already wrote much of it for me four years ago. So, in summary...)

The future of us...
The Web is a pretty neat technology. With it, people can do and have done some amazing things.
Generally, we (the educated, technologically savvy, modern-day bourgeoisie...yes, probably you too!) think it's so great that we want everyone to take part in it. So, we talk about technology vis-a-vis marginalized groups like "how do we get them to where we are?" We talk about reducing digital division, and increasing digital inclusion. There are a few assumptions in this: (1) Where we are is good (nay, best, at least for now), (2) They will want/need to be where we are.

Joshua Breitbart has this to say about digital inclusion:
[The phrase "digital inclusion"] carries an implication that people who are offline are being brought into a perfect world. That’s clearly not the case.

What we see in the online world is the result of a land rush where English speaking white men had first crack at the virtual real estate. Digital inclusion is like saying poor people, people of color, and non-English speakers are allowed to shop in white neighborhoods.

This maybe gets to the heart of the tyranny. Access to global networks and technology is a real issue, and it's deeply distressing how closely race, class, gender, and other "traditional" forms of marginalization are correlated with access gaps. However, the digital divide these days isn't so much about people having access to global networks and technology. It's about shaping those global networks and technologies in ways relevant to one's own reality. Defining the future of technology. Some have a much larger hand in creating these definitions for themselves, their neighbors, and their children.

It brings to mind danah boyd's tweetable quote regarding privilege and publicness (at about 30:30 in the video): "...[T]he internet is not automatically a great democratizer." Certain voices get heard farther, louder, and more readily than others, and carry more weight in public discourse. When we observe and analyze how technologies are used, what affects they have, and where we (and our children) are taking them, we do so from a certain perspective, bringing in our own selective focus and our own ideas about which voices to privilege. As it happens, the cultural idea of what "the future" — of technology, of the internet, of us — will be is still left by a wide margin to those privileged voices.

Of course, technology is not novel in this regard. The prevalence of privileged perspectives are as old as hierarchical society (or at least as old as forms of mass media/communication). Marginal or alternative perspectives are always late to the popular discourse. We have to remember that the Web may alter structural inequalities, it does not remove them. This formulation of the digital divide isn't something that can be eliminated by distributing computers and high-speed internet access (though, in some way, that helps).

So...what now?
Joshua Breitbart goes on in his article:
We want to do more than just include people in the online world as it currently exists. We want that new involvement to transorm that world. This is what I hope to imply with the phrase digital expansion. It’s also what I want to imply when I talk about “open internet.”

So how do we achieve digital expansion? I'm not really sure. I half-way agree with Jeff Jarvis that time (and demand) will heal some of these wounds. However, we can't wait around and expect structural inequalities to spontaneously disappear. I have some guesses for first steps (some of these are borrowed loosely from Chicago Digital Access Alliance (CDAA)'s 10-Point Plan for Digital Excellence):
  • Make the internet universally available. This stuff should be a public utility. Or, better yet, a human right. I don't think that access (or lack thereof) to capital should be a determinant in whether one can access the internet or not (capitalism is one of the most frustratingly unacknowledged forms of sanctioned discrimination).
  • Keep (make?) the internet open/neutral. Though, as Breitbart points out, openness on its own is not enough. "Open does not mean equal, it doesn't mean that usage or usefulness is the same for everyone. Access does not equal justice, but it is necessary for justice. Therein lies our work."
  • Be aware of and concerned with social justice issues. They don't go away once you move online. In some ways, they're exacerbated.
  • Invest in people. Digital literacy and fluency are forms of human capital and require public investment. Digital proficiency must be promoted at neighborhood based locations, especially community technology centers, community based organizations and libraries, to strengthen resident understanding of new technologies. And remember that access at an early age is a key factor in raising people who don't just know technology, but are comfortable with it.
  • Build local infrastructure (social and technological). “Price points are one barrier to entry for the poorest community members' use of a network, but so are software design, literacy levels, and misinterpretation of what a community needs from a network,” says Hannah Sassaman, Program Director of the Prometheus Radio Project. Community networks need to be about more than Internet Service Provision — they need to build community-wide Local Area Networks to house information, services, and multimedia on the network itself. Emphasize being a part of a local community and building relationships within that context. Yup, create divides — but divides that are respectful of one another. These will allow diversity to flourish on the Web.

There's a lot more to this conversation (like about how in/effective legislation might be in addressing the issue), but that's a start.

OneWebDay is a global event aimed at giving all people a chance not only to celebrate the Internet, but also to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining the open-networking principles that have made it the success it is. As OneWebDay 2010 approaches, I'll be posting some of my own and other peoples reflections on One Web.

OneWebDay should be local and global simultaneously. It should highlight the ways that people use the web locally, and acknowledge in a non-trivial way that the web they use is the same web that is used the world over—one web.

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