To hear FCC chairman Julius Genachowski tell it, there is no national, social, economic or educational divide which cannot be bridged by an enhanced broadband infrastructure. With the government's new National Broadband Plan (backed by $7.2 billion from the 2009 'stimulus' bill), private businesses are now receiving grants to improve America's broadband infrastructure to community 'anchor institutions' like public schools, hospitals and libraries. On Broadband.gov, Genachowski explains that this expansion is needed to increase “opportunity”...“innovation.”...and provide a “platform for solutions to many of the major challenges facing our nation.” In contemplating what these exciting buzzwords actually mean within this context, I am struck by the fact that perhaps all of this utopian rhetoric infused within the discourse on broadband expansion might actually highlight an aspect of the digital divide which is wider and more impactful than the most talked about ones centering around race, rural communities and urban schools. This type of rhetoric is solidifying a shift in responsibility from the government acting in a role as regulator, to one in which they are a financially generous corporate facilitator, helping them to expand broadband access with very little regulatory framework guiding them towards doing so in the most equitable and efficient manner. With this in mind, the question becomes, what happens when the government's role shifts to that of regulating a public utility (which might have been broadband's future), to becoming a pitchman for a type of public affectivity?
Essentially what this rhetoric about potential is engendering is a feeling in the subject. A feeling of hope in broadband's ability to improve both individual and communal status through its inclusion in the 'anchor institutions.' The emphasis on community in this rhetoric invests transformative qualities in affective encounters with one's neighbor. Doing this shifts the focus from government responsibility to local community affective engagement centered around broadband access. This accomplishes two things, first, it reorients our affective interactions, and resulting physical impulses, toward consumptive capitalism. Sarah Ahmed notes the overlap between affect and capital when she writes that “emotions work as a form of capital” (120). And secondly, this hopeful rhetoric of potentiality promotes fear about being left out of the ever expanding broadband network. Amit Rai reminds just of this link when writing that “hope is another contagion of fear” (316). So what happens when digital divides are are filled-in with the rhetoric of affect? What unrecognized divides does this rhetoric conceal? Do we need the government at all, or are our local communities sources of salvation?
Ahmed, Sarah. “Affective Economies.” In Social Text. Vol. 22. No. 2. Summer 2004. pp. 117-139.
Rai, Amit S. “Here We Accrete Durations: Toward a Practice of Intervals in the Perceptual Mode of Power.” In Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death. Duke University Press: Durham. 2008.