Digital Divide: Scholarship and Activism


I started working on the digital divide in Brazil in 1996 and in Texas in 1999. At the time, it was seen almost exclusively as a question of public access: wiring up schools, libraries, etc. In the U.S., that masked over a major strategic mistake in the 1996 Telecom Act, to NOT treat Internet access as we had the telephone, guaranteeing access at home for almost all, treating it as a responsibility of telecom providers. We gambled instead on competition fixing the problem. What we got was a stable duopoly (one cable operator and one telco per locality) with no interest in doing anything not profitable. Competition has finally gotten better with mobile phones, lowering the price of phones and data plans, so many minority youth now almost exclusively access the Internet through their own smartphones, which are good for consuming media but not so good in enabling much production of media, unlike a laptop, for example. Furthermore, those less advantaged youth tend to be positioned by advertising as consumers of games, music, video, etc. rather than producers of knowledge, games, music, etc. So we have a continuing political economic problem now mixed with the reduced technological affordances of the lowest cost means of access and consumption.

Like many, I have seen in my work that addressing the access issues, while necessary, are not sufficient. Like Van Djik, Hargittai and others, I find that we have to think about education, training, capabilities, attitudes of current and potential users. A poor kid with only a smart phone can still do a lot with it, if s/he has a good sense of its possibilities, of how to write, design, photograph, and of the cultural background in art, design, writing--cultural capital, in a word, that will enable them to do all they can with what they have. If the default position many find themselves in is as a consumer of others' entertainment, then increasing their awareness, skills, and general knowledge can help people break out of that position. I find that the most theoretically robust way to understand these problems and needs is via Bourdieu. The great advantage of his sociological approach is that it links structural problems, like the limits placed by social class, to cultural and individual issues, like lack of interest, skill, etc. 

Bourdieu breaks social class down into several concepts that help us understand how to understand digital divides. Individual social class breaks down in several kinds of capital that people acquire and uses, or not. Economic capital initially comes from wealthy parents. Social capital likewise comes from parents, neighborhoods, peer groups, clubs, schools; things linked to family wealth, but somewhat open to people working to acquire it. Cultural capital seems the most open, since it comes first from families and peers, but then from schooling. But a child who shows up a school with no knowledge of English, no reading skills, no general knowledge from being read to, no exposure to the world from travel, etc. risks being tracked by the school into  a status that reproduces or even worsens their current class position--like many immigrant Latino kids who get tracked into remedial or even special education courses. Linguistic capital is so important that many, including my own current and former students, are focusing on it as a separate major capital, looking at how much it affects both young and old as they immigrate to the U.S. In interviews done by my students and me since 1999, we have also noticed the rise of a new form of capital, what we are calling techno-capital, experience with and knowledge of how to use information tech, also starting for many at home, but for many of the least advantaged, late in elementary or middle school, where they meet computers for the first time.

For Bourdieu, capital is specific to fields of competition for resources. People are often unaware of the existence of a field or of its importance, even though they are competing in it, all unknowing. Many immigrants or those among the poorest in the U.S. don't realize the ever increasing importance of the field of education, or cultural capital, for example. I have interviewed Latino parents, for example, bursting with pride that their child graduated from high school, but unaware that current U.S. society requires college or post-high school technical training to really get ahead; to have the cultural capital to survive an interview or the skills necessary to get the interview. 

So it is too with the field of technology, where almost all of us are in competition to use various technologies to make our work or personal lives more efficient,  effective, or pleasurable. To take a historical example, most Americans never realized that for most of the Twentieth Century, they had a huge global advantage in the field of technology access and use simply from the earlier U.S. policy of making sure every home had a telephone. Letting your fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages may seem quaintly anachronistic now, but it gave most Americans a huge advantage of efficiency at both work and home over most of rest of the world until well into the 1970s. Now, due to opposite policy choices, we are 18th in broadband access in the world (according to OECD rankings) and sinking further yearly. And within the U.S., many people don't have the current access, knowledge/cultural and techno-capital or skill/techno-capital to know that they are falling behind in fields of competition that they not even know they are in. 

So I find that the digital divide has made me more of an activist than I was before, as I see a need to lobby and educate people to demand better policies for access, education and skills training; to help both government and non-profit efforts to give better access; to educate people about the fields of competition and power they find themselves engaged in, witting or not; to help innovate in organizations to reach disadvantaged youth with skills and knowledge so they might actually become part of the so-called digital MIllennial generation. The digital divide has also affected my scholarship.While I still mostly focus on global media, I find myself putting more and more time into research and work with grad and undergrad students about the digital divide, as you can see in the title of my recent book, co-edited and co-written with several generations of UT graduate students, Inequity in the Technopolis: Race, Class, Gender and the Digital Divide in Austin.

Image on front page by Free Press Pics and available on Flickr

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