Threading Disparities in the Digital Divide

During the course of my research looking at media, consumption and identity amongst black ethnic groups in the New York metropolitan area, salient themes around e-waste, technological access, and tech incubators (or the lack thereof) emerged. My project employs a West African film industry that is popularly called “Nollywood” as it was coined by the West[1]. It is an industry established in Nigeria and also goes by the names, Nigerian movies or Nigerian video films. Through Nollywood, I discovered that its emergence and sustainability is based on three green tactics: recycling, repurposing and bartering. However, Nollywood is excluded from global dialogue that examines e-waste and possible resolutions. As a result, I have been repeatedly asking, “Why is an ecologically sound film industry located within a developing country invisible to developed countries that are concerned with e-waste and discard the most electronics?”

So far, the answer points to the digital divide. In order for this type of question to be part of a broader discourse, I am developing an argument that looks at how developed countries like the United States growing their nations with smart digital communities and tech industries, but do not assist in improvement of developing countries that provide materials to build electronics; and in some cases, do not build communities in their backyard.

The more I dig, the more I am connecting parallels to Africa and urban communities of color. Though I am still investigating, there are three events in my work that may seem random, but connect my interrogations regarding the growing international digital divide between “developed countries” and “developing countries”; and the widening national fissure between “developed cities/communities” and underdeveloped urban communities of color and metro areas of poor, working-classes.


Large sectors of the Nollywood audience occupy some of the lowest economic and social stratums in the world. Most, but not all, are Africans living on the continent or scattered throughout the diaspora[3]. Also, most audience members live in some of the poorest regions on the globe. They face major ecological issues due to non-existent environmental protection and subsist under various forms of social and political duress. Additionally, there are Nollywood spectators who have zero access to internet, satellite, clean water or even reliable electricity. Yet and still, they are active consumers in an indigenous, but global, African film industry.

As well, Nollywood has a distribution system that consists of selling the product, but also a barter/trade structure that is set up within kin, friend and spontaneously organized networks. It is a part of Nollywood distribution that is often overlooked, but I am looking at how this creates multiple layers of green tech practices in Africa. According to Adesanya et al (2009) Nollywood reinvigorated the informal economy throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, and has become a profitable business in the diaspora. With the emergence of the industry there are localized film communities using similar structures that are appearing in places like Haiti.

When I discovered the expansion and depth of the Nollywood effect, I questioned, “How do these populations engage and create a media system that has changed modes of reception and use of media and technology?” This inquiry takes me to my second encounter.

South Africa

Early in 2011, I visited South Africa with a group of female university students who were on an educational tour that looked at the history, as well as, the cultural, political and economic infrastructure of the country. One day on a drive from West Rand to Soweto, I captured on video what I thought to be a picturesque chain of mountains that had lined the highway for miles. I was corrected by our Zulu tour guide from Limpopo who lived in Soweto. They were not edifices that were erected and carved from nature, but toxic, artificial mountains that were formed by years of mining companies dumping excavated earth.

The manmade massifs, some of them covered with nets to catch loose dirt and avalanches of soil are near black communities such as Soweto and are the cause of serious environmental and health issues.  The tour guide explained that the windy climate that occurs in fall blows dust and dirt from the mountains and mixes with the pollutants that are already released by the private-owned mines. During this time of season, visibility is difficult, and there is a rise in respiratory infections, asthma and allergies. I would also later discover that some mine sites implode after too much digging and turn into fiery pits that discharge black smoke for weeks.

Johannesburg view of manmade mines

The mines are mainly white-owned, and are headed by families and corporations of the Apartheid era. The racial composition of the mine ownership is indicative of the imbalance of wealth. In 2011, the same year I visited, the mining industry recorded being responsible for 18 percent of the country’s GDP[4]. Majority of South Africa is black, but minority-majority white population holds the wealth. A bulk of the black population is poor, landless and unemployed. Most that are employed still work menial labor of backbreaking positions that include the miners who are underpaid; hence the 2012 mining strikes.

Gold, diamonds and platinum are top minerals extracted from South African soil. More specifically, the country provides 67 percent of world’s production of platinum which is not only staggering, but platinum is critical in making flat screen televisions, laptop screens and smart phone screens. However, the wealth has not seen much of the black population that still live in poverty and in dismal living conditions. In fact, the wealth gap post-Apartheid is said to have expanded because whites maintained economic power, while blacks garnered politically power; however, political agency has not translated into economic muscle.

South Africa's environmental issues made me begin to think about how Africa provides a bulk of the raw materials needed to produce electronics of tech industries in developing countries, but is excluded from being key players in global technologies.


The last incident takes me to the city in which I currently live and the site of my research, Newark. In 2008, I begin to see obvious signs of gentrification when the New Jersey hockey team, the Devils, was established as the sports team at the newly built, Prudential Center Arena. On hockey night, downtown Newark would become an occupation camp. Every type of law enforcement would escort drunken groups of hockey fans safely the arena, while other parts of the city were neglected.

In the latter part of 2011, Panasonic announced that it would be relocating its North American headquarters from Secaucus, New Jersey to prime real estate that is located in the urban hub of downtown Newark. In this move, Panasonic will receive a $102.4 million tax incentive for a fifteen-year lease.

In an interview with Panasonic Chairman and CEO Joe Taylor, he disclosed that the tax incentive was not the most attractive offer to stay in New Jersey, but the company wanted to maintain its employees.Also, Taylor mentioned that he is pushing for Panasonic to be “the world’s number one green electronics corporation in the world” (Taylor, 2012). Taylor did not provide insight on how many people from Newark would be afforded job opportunities in a city with high unemployment, nor did he specify what types of positions would be offered. Certainly, companies need maintenance people, receptionists, cashiers and food managers like the jobs that are teeming from the development of the Prudential Center and New Jersey Performing Arts Center, but Panasonic needs upper level managers from the city to provide insight in the dynamics of the metropolis.

Also, it seems ironic that Taylor announced the Panasonic mission of being “green” in a city that is green at being green. Newark is technologically and digitally deficient in many critical areas; though the FBI moved its headquarters from New York to Newark after 9/11. The digital blueprint of the average Newark resident is largely embedded into mobile phone usage, drone surveillance and the thousands of semi-working cameras that have been installed around the city.  Public broadband and Wi-Fi (whether free or at a fee) is difficult to access anywhere in the city. In downtown Newark there is one public library with a handful of computers for the community and about eight at the library on Rutgers University campus in Newark. Other options are Starbucks, Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s.

To date, there are technically six Starbucks in the whole city of Newark, but only three that are somewhat accessible to the public. Two are in downtown hotels and one is on the campus of Rutgers-Newark. All of them have limited, special hours of operation. The remaining three are at the Newark airport. You would have to purchase a flight ticket and be in a terminal in order to get to them.

In essence, there are more Starbucks available to people who fly out of the city than in the city proper. What is profusely problematic out of this whole scenario is that Newark is the largest city in the state. To put this situation in perspective, there is the same amount of Starbucks available in the small municipality of Compton than in Newark; however, Compton has stores that are open longer. Therefore, you can have a better chance of patronizing a Starbucks and have access to their Wi-Fi in Compton than in Newark.

In Newark, there are a few Subway eateries splattered here and there; however, there are a plethora of Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s where you will notice students from local schools perched on the hard uninviting seats when the libraries close. But there lies a grave problem in communities of color and poor communities with their relationships with fast food chains. Rivas (2013) accurately points to fast foods as being huge contributors to soaring obesity rates in America and rapidly increasing health issues with our young, especially those in urban areas.

In whole, Newark is dismally outfitted in technology and it is questionable if the current major working-class community of color will have entry or access to projects such as the green mission of Panasonic. The multinational company represents a changing Newark that has excluded the majority voice.

In 1967 Newark riots spurred the exodus of whites who were already leaving a city that was becoming blacker and browner. Regardless, much of the property ownership; particularly in commercial real estate was not sold, nor was it developed. As a result, almost half of downtown Newark remains as vacant lots for over 40 years.

Today, the migrants and the children of those migrants are reclaiming the city. Like Richard Meier, a native Newarker whose family was part of the white flight of the late 60s, early 70s described Newark as a “black canvas” to build upon. Meier is an architect who is part of a collective of developers that are building a 15 million square feet development called, SoMA (South of Market Street) to attract a “diverse” community in the downtown area (Jones, 2012; Heyman, 2012). The project has resulted in the closing of locally-owned businesses, some of them who were to be subjects of my research.

But there is a trend that I am seeing in urban communities of color and the poor. There are either non-existent tech initiatives, or digital projects that exclude these communities or campaigns that totally fail. In Chicago, the mayor started a diversity tech council, but prior to Rahm Emmanuel there was an iniative in place that was not utilized by the communities targeted. In Oakland, just 42 miles from Silicon Valley, the number of tech start ups from that community by African-Americans and Latinos are low.

Though all three incidents occur miles from each and at random moments, they have been brewing in my journey of collecting data and are intertwining around the digital divide.

I see some parallels that I will be investigating in future research, but I am still thinking about how can these distinct areas thread the digital divide, and important perspectives do not get lost in the coding.


Adesanya, A., Mba, E., McCall, J. C., & Haynes, J. (2009, May 15). The Nollywood Debate: Government and the Development of African's. Nollywood and Beyond. Transnational Dimensions of an African Video Industry . Mainz, Germany: University of Mainz, Department of Anthropology and African Studies.

Chamber of Mines. (2012). Facts and Figures. Retrieved March 26, 2013, from Buillion:

City of Chicago. (2009). Digirtal Excellence Action Commission. Retrieved March 29, 2013, from City of Chicago:

Dulthiers, V., & Kermeliotis, T. (2012, August 23). Inside Africa: Veteran director reveals secrets of Nollywood's success. Retrieved December 29, 2012, from

Heyman, M. (2012, February 10). Viewing Newark as a 'Blank Canvas' . Retrieved March 29, 2013, from Wall Street Journal Online:

Jones, D. (2012, March 27). CBRE seeks anchor tenant for proposed 40-story downtown Newark office tower. Retrieved March 29, 2013, from The Real Deal New York City Real Estate News:

Marwick, A. E. (2013, February 1). Job Talk: Status Update: Celebrity and Attention in Web 2.0. New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA.

Rich, S. (2013, January 16). Chicago Mayor Appoints First Ever Diversity Tech Council . Retrieved March 28, 2013, from

Taylor, J. (2012, September 12). Panasonic CEO Says Tax Incentives Kept Headquarters in New Jersey. (J. Schneider, Interviewer)

[1] This name came from a 2002 news story by New York Times journalist who traveled to Surulere district in Lagos to track the movies that were beginning to crop up in New York.

[2] This is not the origin of Nigerian movies, but marks the explosion of the industry. Scholars date Nollywood circa late 1980s. Research shows that what is considered Nollwood today very likely started in the neighboring state of Ghana, but Nigeria had a better tech infrastructure and population to grow the film industry. Nigerians have the most televisions in any country in the Sub-Saharan and is the most populous nation on the continent. (cite Barber and that other doc about Ghanaian movies)

[3] In my research, I have documented Asian and white populations engaging in Nollywood text. Also, the operating definition for the African diaspora is someone who traces all or a part of their lineage in Africa.

[4] According to the Chambers of Mines report, ”the mining sector accounted for 8.8 percent of GDP directly on a nominal basis”, but the GDP is 18% if “indirect multipliers and induced affects” are added (Chamber of Mines, 2012, p. 4).



This is some really interesting and very important work. I really like the way that you are considering the material and the digital. I had not heard of Nollywood until this post and am interested in finding out how it develops. Your post reminds me of one that Kris Purzycki wrote last week, where he studies video games and empathy. One game he addresses, phone story, takes you through the life cycle of a phone, from mining the metals in Africa, to selling the phones at an apple store, to recycling those goods. One thing he mentions is that, even when westerners play the game, they still don't get it. He is looking at ways to design games that build empathy. However, if we aren't considering how this works in our own back yard, how are we every going to be able to cross the digital divide and consider how our love of tech is literally changing the landscape of other countries?

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