“The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” –William Gibson

The unequal access to cutting edge technologies and the disparities present in technologies’ distribution across lines of class, race, and geography is commonly referred to as the ‘digital divide’. As a social justice issue, it has taken on a life of its own as the focus of academic writing, social justice work, and technophobic handwringing.

Mindflowers has written on the digital divide and its implications to ethics, societies, and religions here:

Between voices who descry grave trends of injustice and even future threats of technocratic oppression of people of a lower ‘silicon quotient’ and those who ascribe to a evenly distributed tech-future as though it is assured by divine teleological mandate, I wish to very briefly bring the prescient issues to the fore with justice and human dignity as highest values. 

Andy Carvin who previously helmed the Digital Divide Network, a community of over 10,ooo social justice activists engaged in solutions to closing the digital gap, wrote a piece in 2006 titled “The Gap” where he argues that at that time in America the digital divide was a rarely addressed issue and threat to America’s “economic competitiveness, our civil rights, and our national creed of equal opportunity (Carvin).”

What I do like about Carvin is his focus on how disparities of technology access effect communities along ethnic and racial distinctions in America–this should be a concern to all Americans who desire an environment of opportunity, mutual sharing, and justice. There is a truth to the maxim that any chain is only as strong as its weakest link and each community and nation would do well to encourage young brain power and talents to tackle the pressing questions and challenges that face us all.

Carvin includes table which breaks down the distribution of internet users.
(U.S. Bureau of Census, Current Population Survey supplements, Sept. 2001, Oct 2003)
The biggest gap of internet users was between High School dropouts and graduates of advanced degrees.
The next largest indictator of internet use gap was family income.
Next indictator of gap was ‘race/ethnicity’. In 2003, 65.1% of Whites were online where only 38.2% of Hispanics were.

What I believe this table can be interpreted as messaging is that the digital divide is just one of many symptoms of a class struggle in America where there exist, to borrow Kozol’s language, savage inequalities in terms of race. To speak of the digital divide, one must face the larger realities of white privilege and patterns of European marginalization that still occur as holdovers from centuries of imperial agenda.

Enter Ejovi Nuwere, author of “Hacker Cracker”, culture analyst, entrepenuer, advisor to the Japan Times and CEO of the Land Rush Group, an online content monetizing, marketing, and content partnering site. Nuwere has called the digital divide a ‘myth’. The divide he says is part of a larger system of inequities which boils down to an issue not of technology, but finance and economy.

Nuwere brings a couple of excellent points to the table and I’ll start with one that can slip by some…

1) Technologies of the contemporary Western consumerist culture are not always seen as or experienced as a boon to other communities and cultures. Nuwere hints at this writing, “If there is a digital divide then there is also a banking and investing divide, an expensive pets and watches divide and an aviation hobbyist divide (Nuwere).” Justice minded people who are concerned with increasing the level of compassion and human dignity in the world have always faced the challenge of falling into a ‘prescriptive stance’. This can happen where outsiders wishing to aid and support another community may overtime actually create more problems than they ‘solve’. This has been the modus operandi of many ‘liberal’ social justice movements in the past. Many movements know are better addressing white privilege, arrogance, salvation through ‘progress’ narratives, and service/missions tasks that mimic colonial strategies.
What people do not need is for good hearted but naive activists to begin distributing “Stuff White People Like” around the world. I remember clearly a story told to me about a very poor rural school: the teachers were given wish list by an organization for new supplies with a generous amount of funds available. The teachers came back requesting chalk and slateboards. For their community, this was what the wise determined would best serve their classes at the time. In addressing the ‘digital divide’, we must be mindful that the devices so desired on American college campuses are not equally valuable to others. A commitment to deep relationship and humble partnership is

2) Nuwere brings a helpful critique to examining the digital divide in not only its origin and character as a symptom of larger injustices, but in its solution. Simply put, justice seekers cannot just throw computers at the problem.  The disparity called ‘digital divide’ has much more to do with race, class, and broader economic systems than ‘who has an iPhone or not?’. Nuwere writes that solutions to the digital divide must include equal emphasis on business, infrastructure, and longterm community investment.
While information technologies have a huge impact on community, connection, and commerce, other technologies such as roads, and reliable sustainable public transit. The internet superhighway allows distances to be eliminated in many ways, but it is also integral that our nation’s working forces have fast, cheap, and non-pollutive public transit to get to their workplace. 
While up-to-date computers and high level computer skills are essential in our high schools, it is equally important that there are jobs waiting to hire our black and latina students as they exit high school. I am excited to work towards the day where urban and disenfranchised schools are tech hubs with career programs supported by businesses in the sci/tech sector with Green Tech/Urban Renewal jobs and internships at the ready for graduates. 

Bringing the lenses of social hegemonies and structures of power withholding including class, race, and gender are absolutely necessary in examining the digital divide. The reason for that is that strictly speaking, the digital divide can be shown to be shrinking in many ways but that does not necessarily reflect other markers of a healthy democracy or just civic environment.

Take for example the Department of Commerce’s 2004 report “A Nation Online: Entering The Broadband Age”. Standing alone, it could serve as a source of great hope for the state of our nation’s leveling of ‘gaps’. One must consider however that the bottom line “who’s online” does not mean that other gaps are closing. Economically, not much needs to change for the poor since information technology is notorious for plummeting prices in second generation gadgets.

Sonia Arrinson, director at the Center for Technology Studies complexified the closing digital divide, writing in a 2002 CNET News article, “Technology is not a silver bullet that will solve all social and economic problems (Arrison).” She writes that technology unaccompanied by education is powerless to effect the real change that marginalized communities need. “Unless people can read and understand what they find on the Internet…computers…won’t be of much use (Arrison).”

I would counter Arrison by saying that it is most likely that literacy will most likely become unnecessary in the near future as all text will be able to be rendered into speech and more and more online content will be immersive, interactive, and video enabled. What is important for knowledgable and impactful internet use is not literacy per se, but critical thinking skills, the ability to make connections between ideas, form concise questions and search phrases, and skeptically ingest huge amounts of varying narratives. These are the skills that will be necessary for our young people to become informed voters and active participants in civic discourse and the global economy.   

While I will emphasize and rely on the class, race, and gender critique of Nuwere (and many others alongside him) I would be at fault to not raise to light the great advantages even simple technologies can bring to disadvantaged communities.

In terms of gender analysis, Cherie Blair recently wrote of the current exacerbated gap of access to technology experienced by the world’s women. Blair writes, “Women are 23 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone than men in Africa, 24 percent less likely in the Middle East, and 37 percent less likely in South Asia (Blair).” In her article, she adds that women who have gained access to cell phones in areas without landline report feeling safer, more independent, are more likely to encourage their daughters to go to higher education, and 41% report increases to their income (Blair).

How could it be that a cell phone achieve financial success to these women in often rural and agricultural areas? As all information technology, cell phone diminish distance which means that more women have access to larger “marketplace”. Women are able to check up-to-the-minute costs for various products, goods, and harvested commodities while also enabling direct sales to wholesalers cutting out reliance on money absorbing small dealers (Blair).

The good news is this: “it took about a half century for the late-nineteenth-century invention of the telephone to reach significant levels of usage…In comparison, the late-twentieth-century adoption of the cell phone took only a decade (Kurzweil).”

That exponential growth of cell phone use has to do with the technology itself–not reliant on landlines placed in huge expanses of rural and rough terrain, and the feature of information technologies’ quickly diminishing prices.

This trend of quickening distribution of technologies across communities once distanced because of geography and/or economics has no signs of slowing, given the historical trends of price reduction and ease of dispersal into any location. Ray Kurzweil, futurist, inventor, and advisor to governmental agencies and private corporations sees great hopes for technologies like cell phones to get into the hands of more women the world over.

To nay-sayers who say that the digital divide is worsening, he responds, “I know that people keep saying that, but how can that possibly be true? The number of humans is growing only very slowly. The number of digitally connected humans, no matter how you measure it, is growing rapidly (Kurzweil).”

In connection to the earlier point made of education being a key component to righting previous societal injustices, Kurzweil writes “Access to education will no longer be restricted by the lack of availability of trained teachers in each town and village (Kurzweil).” All that a ‘village’ would need would be one individual with access to the internet to facilitate a top-notch education by any standard. Before, individuals would need months of training, travel to a teacher’s school, and numerous teaching aids including expensive books and materials. All that is now available through a low-cost WiFi connection and bottom shelf laptop.

It is exciting to see projects such as Google Fiber bringing fast broadband access to more areas of America. I am currently watching with hopes that my hometown of Duluth Minnesota be chosen as a launching site.

As justice minded activists, we can be encouraged by statistics and trends of cell phone and internet distribution, but we must never forget that some of the most basic technologies can make the biggest leaps towards human dignity and betterment of health and life. These include technologies to bring potable water to people, septic, sewer, and lavatory technologies, and not to mention shoes and mosquito netting.

We look to see our fellow brothers and sisters as of March 29, 2010 still in dire predicaments:
millions of women spend hours each day just collecting clean water and 2.6 billion people lack basic sanitation, a leading cause in preventable sickness and death. http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats

And as we do, we need not be overcome by the sadness or immensity of it all. There is no time for shirking in the face of great challenge, and the cost of trepidation or worse apathy is the loss of our own humanity.

We can look to the technologies around us as opportunities to enrich the lives of all people, starting with the most in need first.

I return to the quote from William Gibson from the top of this article:
“The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.”
I take that not to mean the distribution of ‘futuristic’ technologies.
I take that to mean that the future goes the way of the courageous of spirit.
Only those of compassionate and daring hearts will write the stories and create the legacies of our future generations.
To begin the revolution one does not require silicon at all. One need only to say ‘yes’ to hope and begin enacting their highest values.

Andy Carvin:

Al Franken Supporting Google Fiber for The Twin Ports:
Works Cited:

Arrison, Sonia. “What Digital Divide?” http://news.cnet.com/2010-1071-858537.html

Blair, Cherie. “How Cell Phones Change Lives” http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-03-24/how-cell-phones-change-lives/?cid=hp:beastoriginalsR6

Carvin, Andy. “There is A Digital Divide” Technology and Society David Haugen and Susan Musser eds. (New York: Thomson Gale. 2007)

Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Penguin Books. 2005) 

Nuwere, Ejovi. “There is No Digital Divide” Technology and Society David Haugen and Susan Musser eds. (New York: Thomson Gale. 2007)