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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Of the Digital Divide, Information Superhighways and the Human Tool

Systematic and automatic is the attitude.
The human is like a little piece (on a mechanism)

Who can find the truth, when all of us are confronted?
This is the way to serve to preachers of lies.
Human tool.

Some of you heavy metal/Goth fans may recognize these lyrics from the song “Human Tool” by the Argentinean band Vampiria.  You can hear it here. 

I thought of this when I read a story in the New York Times about how homeless people had been deployed as human Internet hotspots at a technology conference in Austin, Texas.  You can read about it here.  The gist of it is that a marketing company equipped homeless people with mobile Wi-Fi devices that offered conference-goers Internet access in exchange for donations by the users.  The homeless people were paid $20 per day and given business cards and T-shirts. They were also allowed to keep donations. It was part of a larger “Homeless Hotspot” project that the company hoped to offer in other areas where heavy demand on cellular networks caused problems with access. Most striking is a photo of a 50-something black man wearing a T-shirt that reads “I’m Clarence, a 4G hotspot” along with instructions for how to SMS Clarence for access.

It is not news that there is a national and global digital divide wherein there are inequalities in access to, use of and/or knowledge of the diverse and proliferating resources of the digital world. As much research suggests, these inequalities are often heavily influenced by economic status, race, gender, nationality and culture. Economic and social outsiders often find themselves with little or no access, and even when they do have access, there may be divides in the purpose for use of Internet resources, such as entertainment versus research, for example, and in the sophistication of use, such as retrieval and passive consumption versus interactivity and contribution to media.  Perhaps one of the most commonly conceived of divides is the divide in access to the digital world and the corresponding divide in the means and nature of use.  This is often expressed in discussions of connecting or not connecting because of differential access to equipment or service.  This also has to do with the place of access such as at work or in public spaces versus connecting at home, or connecting via dial up (yes, believe it or not) versus using high-speed services.  This all raises the related discussion of a term that gained prominence back in the 1990’s: the information superhighway.  The information superhighway referred in its most fundamental sense to the physical route for the transfer of data, such as fiber optic cables and other hardwares that were going to connect businesses and households to the Internet. The information superhighway also had more metaphoric import as the transport mechanism for ideas and information.  Whether in its literal or figurative sense, the information superhighway was touted as an amazing new way to bring together people as both consumers and providers of information.

It is becoming quickly apparent, however, that just as in the case of the development of physical superhighways, there are casualties of the construction of information superhighways. Physical superhighways often displaced poor and racial minority neighborhoods even as wealthy and white neighborhoods, often the prime users of the superhighways, were able to preserve their own neighborhoods.  Superhighway entrances and exits were often strategically placed to benefit business centers and wealthier neighborhoods. Superhighways also displaced public transit in some communities.  Take Los Angeles, my hometown (please.  I couldn’t resist the joke.  Really, I love L.A.).  We used to laugh sadly about how even though the highway ran right thorough some neighborhoods we had to practically stand on our heads to get on or off of it anywhere near the neighborhood. My grandmother and mother used to wax nostalgic about the public transit  “red cars” of their youth, a network of rail lines and electric streetcars that connected L.A and nearby communities.  These were just memories by the 1960’s and 70’s when major highways were built. The poor and other people without cars were all but stranded by the new highway transit system that depended on driving.  As a poor child living in L.A. in a household that didn’t have a car for many years, I was going, perhaps both literally and figuratively, nowhere.  The superhighways availed me nothing.

Like the physical superhighways, the information superhighway is going right by and right over some people and some neighborhoods. Homeless people as Internet hotspots makes the point in a weird, cynical, dystopic way.  It sort of reminds me of the old, old pre-digital days when people sometimes had to hold the television antenna in order to insure reception for everyone else watching.  You only hoped that you would get a turn watching and not holding.  But with the digital divide being what it is, the homeless people featured in the article are little more than human tools—I don’t know that they are going to get a turn as users of the services they are providing for others. They are collectively, in this regard, maybe more like Atlas holding up the heavens.