DIGITAL AMERICA

Monthly Archives: October 2014

// Posted by Joe on 10/20/2014 (1:26 PM)

Over Fall Break I was in the Dominican Republic with my living and learning class. The Dominican Republic is a small island nation with heavily Christian and conservative population, 2/3 of which lives on less that $2 a day. Driving… Read more

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Over Fall Break I was in the Dominican Republic with my living and learning class. The Dominican Republic is a small island nation with heavily Christian and conservative population, 2/3 of which lives on less that $2 a day. Driving through the streets and entering some of the peoples’ homes with our class, even in the major cities there were almost no web accessible devices, let alone any connections to the digital world. The electricity infrastructure that would be needed to even begin to power these devices was extremely poor as well, as there is at least one major power outage each day. While my situation paled in comparison, I got a small taste of this divide while I was in the Dominican Republic. I was unable to use any mobile cellular data on my phone during the trip as international usage would cost exorbitant amounts. The lack of demand for internet connection in the DR resulted in very small wifi frequency and I found myself disconnected for the majority of the trip. As I was trying to look for certain areas to go in Santo Domingo, or even find directions or my location, what was normally so easy became a difficult task. When I wanted to print copies of the pamphlet that I had made for my team’s presentation, I was unable to since I could not connect to the printer that had taken me hours to find. Clearly the digital divide was prevalent.

I also saw the geographical and demographic aspect aspect of the divide mentioned by Jessica Goodman in the different places within the country. As I visited the nicer areas of the capital city Santo Domingo such as the office of the microfinance company who was hosting us there, not only were the houses and buildings nicer, there were computers and Wi-fi access relatively available, and average connection speeds. When we visited a suburban school and a rural sugar cane plantation, there was not a sign of any sort of connection to the digital world, and electricity was extremely patchy if existent at all. These areas were shockingly within no more than 15 miles from the nicer connected area of the city, yet the difference was astonishing. I found myself thinking about the argument of digital access and literacy as a fundamental human right, and wondering how I could even consider it. When so many people lack the basic water, healthcare, education, and shelter so survive and maintain a decent quality of life, digital access does not even come into the equation.

 

The way the experience team attempted to recreate then digital divide on our own campus was really quite interesting. Since a lot of the focus of what we read about the digital divide was in regard to education I think, they made the experience a race between two teams to complete research and a short essay, with one side having access to phones and computers for easier research and transcribing, while the other having to do research solely with books and having no access to the internet. This was a very clever way to try and recreate the situation of students in lower class situations with no access to the resources that we all have. Since many of the students do not have data plans or smartphones, the book research team was forced to leave their phones in the library room as they did their manual work.

 

 

 

I was on the team that was able to use their smartphones for research and typing prior to being able to make a final transcription on one of the available computers in the library. Even as we were able to use our phones for research and typing, there were still certainly some difficulties we faced with the limitations that we were given. Using our phones it was still difficult to find scholarly articles for research and typing on smartphones was slow and tedious with such a small screen and keyboard. I was truly able to see through this as well as viewing the difficulties of the other group what Jessica Goodman observed at schools in poverty-stricken Newark. The other group was forced to run around campus searching for appropriate research materials under limited time and it clearly put them at a huge disadvantage. Both teams were luckily able to get one of the available computers with a wait, but the group “Access Denied” needed an extra 25 minutes in order to complete the assignment, along with a lot more running and difficulty, as evidenced by the sweat and shortness of breath of the other group as they ran into the room with their manually researched assignment: 


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Experience 3–Books and Blisters

// Posted by Elizabeth on 10/15/2014 (12:56 PM)

I remember being pretty quiet in our class discussion of the digital divide. Perhaps it was because I had just been in a class where we discussed global poverty, or perhaps I had just had a conversation about the Ebola… Read more

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I remember being pretty quiet in our class discussion of the digital divide. Perhaps it was because I had just been in a class where we discussed global poverty, or perhaps I had just had a conversation about the Ebola epidemic in Africa. (Oh, the woes of a Leadership major.) But I distinctly remember being shocked at the fact that there was yet another terrible manifestation of the disparity between rich and poor in the world, and even in American society—and this time that it was one I had never really heard of before. It had left me speechless.

And while our experience last Wednesday afternoon was also disheartening and difficult to wrap my head around, I’m really glad we did it, and I’m thankful to the group that organized it. In essence, the experience was the digital divide in practice. The group divided the class into two teams, each meant to represent a group of students in a high school classroom similar to the ones journalist Jessica Goodman observes in Newark, New Jersey. In her piece “The Digital Divide is Still Leaving Americans Behind,” Goodman describes the term “digital divide” as the gap between people with and without access to the Internet and digital technology, and a divide that can be seen “among distinct regions and demographics.”

To recreate this divide among our class, the organizers of the experience gave us an assignment. We were instructed to answer the question, “Does digital copyrighting perpetuate inequality?” in an essay of 250 words or less. We were asked to use only reliable sources and to provide a reference list for our completed work. We were given a little over half an hour to complete the project in our groups of four. The final parameter: each group had restricted access to digital technology. Group A had limited access—these students were allowed to use a smartphone with a notes app and Internet access and a library computer in a specified section to type up their completed work. Group B, my group, was given no access—we were forbidden from using laptops, smartphones and the Internet in general, and could only use the library computers in the same specified section to type and print our finished essay.

Needless to say, the task was daunting. We were forced to rely on the help of a librarian to complete our research, and even as knowledgeable as she was, she relied on her computer and the digital card catalog to look up sources that might be helpful to us. My group ended up jogging across campus to the law library to find books on copyrighting and inequality—we got blisters, endured several dirty looks from law students and lost one of our teammates among the shelves of thick law textbooks. When we finally located the books we were looking for, we had about ten minutes to skim hundreds of pages of texts, find relevant information to write about and run back to the other library to type it up and print it out. It was inconvenient, stressful and generally unpleasant. I’m not sure what the “essay” that we eventually turned in really said, but I’d be surprised if it received a passing grade from any honest high school teacher.

And yet, again, I’m grateful that I had this experience. Perhaps I’m a more hands-on learner than I’ve ever thought, or maybe I just couldn’t imagine the real difficulties of restricted access to technology because I’ve never experienced them.

Displaying 20141008_135102.jpg      Displaying 20141008_140538.jpg

Above: As we begin our trek to the law library…this is before we started running. Below: Struggling to skim the books for relevant information to answer our essay question with 10 minutes remaining.

As Mark Poster discusses in his book Information Please: Culture and Politics in the Age of Digital Machines: “People object to having not enough information, to a lack of access to information, to exclusion from sources of information, to the unequal distribution of information. The assumption in this position is that information correlates directly with life chances. The more information one has, the better one can live” (Poster 153-54). This activity really put Poster’s theoretical work into more concrete terms, and certainly convinced me that the “assumption” of a direct relationship between opportunity and information delineated here is an accurate one. A continuation of this point would be that the tools needed to access Poster’s “information,” like the computers that house the digital card catalog in the library, also allow people to live better, and in this case learn and work more easily.

Thinking back again to our first class discussion of the digital divide, I recall that I struggled to clearly articulate my objection to Vinton Cerf’s article “Internet Access is Not a Human Right.” I also remember that in reading the article, I was particularly challenged by his attempt to articulate the difference between a human right and a “tool” to fulfill a human right. The author creates a metaphor: “For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse.” And yet I remained confused…if you need the horse to make a living, meaning that you’re jobless and maybe even starving and homeless without one, how is it not a part of the equation? Can you just dismiss the horse, the Internet or any other “tool” as unnecessary, or declare that it should not be made available to all people, with a discussion of language? This seems to me like a loophole, and it seems to be missing the point.

.As this experience demonstrated, equal access to the Internet and to other digital technologies creates, or inhibits, equal opportunity. It seems like Americans would agree that education is a right we’re granted as citizens, but if you need access to the Internet and digital technology to make the most of your education and to even complete your assignments at the most basic level, doesn’t it follow that digital “tools” are an essential component to your “right” to education?

My blisters have (almost) healed, but I’m sure that I won’t quickly forget this experience with the digital divide. I’m actually almost thankful that I was in the “Access Denied” group. Being subjected to the frustrating effects of the digital divide has left me more able to articulate my thoughts about the problem—and very confident that in today’s high-tech world, digital access is certainly a civil right, and one that remains unfulfilled for many Americans.

The end of our experience–we discuss our mistakes while Brendan struggles to type our muddled assignment


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The Great Divide – Experience #3

// Posted by Nicola on 10/15/2014 (12:37 PM)

Divisions exist in many facets of society, whether it is racial, economic or political. However, I had never truly considered the digital divide to fall into the same category. Nor did it occur to me that the effects of… Read more

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Divisions exist in many facets of society, whether it is racial, economic or political. However, I had never truly considered the digital divide to fall into the same category. Nor did it occur to me that the effects of this divide were so far reaching and could potentially inhibit a large portion of the population from engaging with society itself.

Given this extremely significant component of the digital age, I was eager to see what was in stall for the group experience. Assigned to group ‘A’ I was told to simply bring in a charged smartphone. Easy. I am very familiar with my iPhone – I use it to text, call, log on to various social media sites, take photos and so on. I was thus relieved that I would have access to my phone as opposed to members of group ‘B’ who were unable to use theirs whatsoever. However, as the rules of the experience were outlined my initial confidence began to falter. I have never used it to complete an assignment. I, like many other students with the means to afford laptops, solely rely on them to submit any written task (no matter how lengthy).  Consequently, I soon discovered the difficulty of completing the set task.

While I was able to research the question of digital copyrighting quite easily on my phone, several unexpected factors hindered the speed at which I could work. For instance, accustomed to typing on a laptop keyboard primarily using a Word Document, I struggled to type quickly or efficiently on the Notes app. As Emily or Joe dictated, I constantly found myself asking them to slow down and repeat sentences. Moreover, while we were able to access journal and academic articles online it was certainly not easy. Reading such dense material on a relatively small screen was quite exhausting, especially given the limited time frame and my familiarity with the larger screen of a laptop. However, perhaps most notable was that several sites took an incredibly long time to load. Here the efficiency of the Wi-Fi was bought to my attention. Although I did have connection, the server was simply not fast enough to complete an assignment within a limited time. If I found the experience difficult enough working in a group of three, I can only imagine the strain and stress of completing assigned tasks by oneself. As Jessica Goodman (2013) notes in her study of Newark students, ‘…many students have found it impossible to perform the same quality of work on a smartphone that they might be able to on a personal computer.’ Thus, despite Vinton G. Cerf’s claims that access to the Internet is not a human right (2012), it is clear that restricted access does pose serious issues. Now, having experienced these limitations first hand, it is clear that having restricted access does prevent individuals from both participating in, and completing a set task.

Waiting for the page to load…

Forming our argument using the ‘Notes’ app on my iPhone

Interestingly, not one of us went to a book or any other physical material to assist in our research. Although we were literally sitting in a library we nevertheless relied solely on our smartphones, our  ‘…portals to the web’ (Goodman, 2013). This choice speaks volumes for how we access information in the digital age. In fact, our group used the University of Richmond’s app to access the Boatwright Library’s catalogue rather than taking advantage of the librarians or the library itself. While it was thus a faster way to complete the task, it did make me wonder whether the quality would be as thorough…

Accessing the library catalogue via the UofR app

However, what I was most concerned about was whether we would actually be able to get on a computer. Having worked in a library, I am astutely aware of the difficulty of accessing one given that so many other individuals are constantly on them. Again, this is another setback that individuals without easy access to technology must endure. Luckily we managed to grab the last remaining one in the assigned area (therefore avoiding what could have been a highly dramatic scene). With only ten minutes remaining Emily quickly typed up our group response on a word document. We had (miraculously) managed to submit our assignment. Of course, whether or not it was a quality piece of work remains to be seen.

Moreover, the question we were asked to answer as part of the experience proved challenging given the highly divisive nature of the topic itself. After much deliberation (Digital divide audio) we decided to tackle the question by arguing that “rather than perpetuating inequality, digital copyrighting inhibits expression and creative freedom.” While we found relevant cases and recent examples to support our claim, I still am not entirely sure where I stand on this matter. On the one hand, given my interest in films and television (and that I make my own short films), I am completely aware of the difficulty of using any existing material – even the briefest clippings. As someone who is also unable to pay for the rights to use existing material, I agree that these copyright acts seriously limit the freedom of creative expression. Yet, at the same time, if someone has produced a creative piece of work (that they’ve put a lot of time and effort into creating) then the idea that of someone else taking it and using it as they please, without asking for permission, seems utterly wrong. What is the difference between this act and theft? Is it acceptable because it isn’t a physical act of theft as say stealing an artwork is?  Perhaps one solution is the Creative Commons (CC) site that has been established to encourage interaction between the creative communities. That is they are “…devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share.” The site acts as a mediator for individuals to ask for permission to use an artist’s work as opposed to just taking it.

In terms of documentation, I took a few photos before and after the experience as well as several screenshots on my phone (and of my screen). However, given the frenzied pace at which we were working, I was not able to document as much as I would have liked to. Thankfully, Dr. Rosatelli was also documenting the experience, providing us with access to additional images and video footage. The video footage was particularly useful as it captured all group members actively engaging with the task and thus also helped to jog my memory of what we were thinking during the process itself.

Ultimately, this experience raised some interesting questions and certainly challenged my own experiences with technology. While I have grown accustomed to having easy access to laptops and high speed Wi-Fi, there are innumerable individuals with limited or no access whatsoever. This gap is startling. It is imperative that there are actions taken to reduce it, or we risk living in an increasingly divided society.


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Divide and Conquer? Not So Much

// Posted by Aisling on 10/15/2014 (10:46 AM)

This past weekend, I headed down to Charleston, SC with a group of friends for fall break. Even though it was a “break” from school, we all seemed to still have homework to do. One of my friends, Sara, had… Read more

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This past weekend, I headed down to Charleston, SC with a group of friends for fall break. Even though it was a “break” from school, we all seemed to still have homework to do. One of my friends, Sara, had a 2000 word paper due on the Saturday, and was really trying to get it finished before we arrived in Charleston. So, as we were driving, she sat in the middle seat on her computer, typing out the essay. We hit a lot of traffic, and her computer ended up dying about 2 hours before we reached Charleston. When her computer shut off, she sat for a few minutes, and then pulled out her iPhone. Within seconds of unlocking her phone, she had opened up her essay on her iPhone screen, and had begun working again. At first, her thumbs were flying over the tiny screen, and she seemed to be very productive. However, after about 10 minutes of intense screen-switching, scrolling, zooming, and typing, she put the phone down and simply said, “I can’t.”

For experience #3, Brendan, Emily, and I focused our work on the digital divide. The term  “‘digital divide’ is often used to discuss the connectivity gap among distinct regions and demographics.” (Goodman) We thought it would be interesting to explore this gap, and create a gap of our own within the classroom. To achieve this, we split the class into two groups, and restricted one group from the use of any electronics, and the other to the use of a smartphone. With their restrictions in place, we then told the groups to research the idea of copyright inequality, and to turn in a paragraph response and a list of sources used.

I was assigned to group B, otherwise known as group “Access Denied.” We were not allowed to use anything that connected to the Internet to conduct our research, and could not even bring our phones along with us for the purposes of time keeping.

Stack of iPhones prior to the experience

The question we were researching had to do with forming a position on whether or not copyright laws produce or enhance inequality. Although the question itself was not difficult, we had no idea where to find the physical books on copyright laws, so we went to speak to a librarian on the first floor of the Boatwright Library. Even though she was very helpful in looking up books for us, at first she did not understand why we couldn’t do it ourselves. When Damian approached her, she suggested he look up his topic in the library’s system. However, the library’s system is online, and we weren’t allowed to access it ourselves. When we explained the experience and why we weren’t able to look it up, she willingly did it for us, and gave us a list of several books to find.

Speaking with the librarian

The fact that the library’s system exists online was extremely interesting to me, as I considered what it would be like to be without constant access to an Internet connection. Although our librarian was willing and helpful, we might not have been so lucky. Suppose you were a high school student without Internet or a smart phone, and had to do all of your research projects at your town’s public library. You can only book two-hour timeslots on the computer each day, and you need this precious time to actually write your research papers. You can’t afford to use your minutes looking up books. So, each time you needed to find a book or a journal, you would have to do what we did, and ask a librarian to do something that the library expects you to be able to take care of yourself. The first two times the librarian might be helpful and even kind, but if you are coming in every week or two with a different project, it may not continue to be the case. Would you become notorious for not being able to look up your own books? Would the librarians eventually refuse to help you? Would you be forced to cut into your 2 hours and look up the books yourself, possibly causing you to have to then rush to finish your paper? Questions like these were swimming through my head as I tried to transpose our current library experience into one occurring at a public library.

Although the librarian in the Boatwright Memorial Library was very helpful, she delivered the unwelcome news that the books we needed were in the Law Library. Luckily, Elizabeth knew how to get there, because I certainly didn’t.

The walk from Boatwright Library (5) to the Law Library (19)

Once we arrived in the Law Library, we began looking for the books. We went straight to where we thought the books would be, and realized we had no idea where we were or where we should be looking. Eventually, Elizabeth went and spoke to a Law Librarian who pointed us in the right direction. However, we had all sort of split up to look for the books, and we ended up losing Brendan. Because we didn’t have our cellphones, we had no way to contact him, and had no idea where he was or what he was doing. As we were very much in a time crunch, we didn’t stop to look for him, and proceeded to find the books.

Damian, Elizabeth, and I skimmed through a book each, and quickly jotted down some thoughts. We had no idea what time it was (again, no cellphone to quickly check), but we had a feeling we were very crunched for time. The stress was real in this situation, and we even considered running back to Boatwright. Ultimately, we used the walk back to gather some thoughts, and to try and write up a paragraph. Thinking and writing while walking is extremely difficult, and it felt like our thoughts were extremely jumbled and not going in the direction we wanted them to. Without anything substantial on our page, we made it back to Boatwright, and found Brendan at the front of the library, sitting at a computer. We had run out of time, and needed to quickly come up with something to hand in. Our thoughts were flying everywhere and it was hard for us to come up with anything concrete. On top of not having our thoughts together, we also didn’t have our sources together. Although Elizabeth remembered her book, in my rush to get back in time I completely forgot to write down the name of the book we cited in our paragraph! It wasn’t the end of the world because it was part of the experience, but I can’t even imagine how stressful that would’ve been if I was a highschool student rushing between libraries in a time crunch. I probably would’ve had a mental breakdown.

Searching for books

Going through the research process without connectivity was something I found interestingly difficult and eye opening. I have always taken my ability to get online for granted, and have never thought of what it would be like if this ability was taken away from me. Watching my friend put her smartphone down in defeat after she tried to write her paper on it seriously made me reconsider what I do take for granted. Similarly to how Sara couldn’t work on her iPhone, Goodman’s article states that (like Sara), “many students have found it impossible to perform the same quality of work on a smartphone that they might be able to on a personal computer.” But what if Sara didn’t have a choice? What if she only had her smartphone? Sara is intelligent, and does well in school, but how would this change if she only had a smartphone? Would her potential and intelligence be lost somewhere between the difference of a touch screen keyboard and an actual computer?

In her article, Goodman refers to a Whitehouse study, which showed that only 71% of Americans have broadband at home. In a country of over 316 million people, that leaves close to 90 million Americans without a broadband connection in their homes. 90 million is a lot of people, but coming from an island with a population of 65,000 it is hard to conceptualize what 90 million actually means. To help my understanding of how immense the divide is, I tried to relate America’s 90 million to my 90 million. I decided that it would take over 1,300 Bermudas to reach the number of Americans without Internet access in their homes. That’s over 1000 countries (albeit tiny ones) put together. Connectivity is something so taken for granted, and yet there are over 1300 Bermudas without it.

 

Bermuda*1000

The digital divide creates a gap, but after this experience I also feel like it creates an abyss. A place of lost potential and performance. Because I have never personally experienced the digital divide in my lifetime, it was hard to actually imagine what it would be like to be on the other side of it. However, after going through the experience without any access, I truly feel like this experience opened my eyes to the complex issues and difficulties surrounding the divide.


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A “New Economy” in the Digital Age?

// Posted by Damian on 10/15/2014 (10:40 AM)

As we took our seats, the subjects of a mysterious and seemingly innocent experiment, those of us who had not developed this experience were blissfully oblivious as to the unexpectedly stressful and nightmarish hour that lie ahead.

The class had… Read more

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As we took our seats, the subjects of a mysterious and seemingly innocent experiment, those of us who had not developed this experience were blissfully oblivious as to the unexpectedly stressful and nightmarish hour that lie ahead.

The class had been split into two groups, aptly named group A and group B. Members of both groups were given a deceptively simple assignment: to write a 250-word essay about digital copyrighting, and whether or not it perpetuates inequality. As is usually the case in life, the assignment had a catch: To simulate the digital divide experienced by those in a lower socioeconomic bracket, members of group A would have to do research solely on their phones. Members of group B could only research using books and could not use any device that connected to the Internet. A library computer could only be used to type up the essay. Suddenly, being a member of group B did not seem like such a lucky deal, as I had originally thought. Even so, I still assumed that the task was doable, if challenging.

I had no idea just how tense the subsequent hour would be. We first visited with librarian Marcia Whitehead, who was enormously helpful, but unfortunately left us with the harsh reality that to access the resources we needed—without the aid of the Internet—we would have to travel to the law library. Thus began a 6-minute trek and an even longer search for the books we needed. When we finally found them (of course they were tucked away in a secluded nook), we were confronted not only with excessively technical legal texts and other sources that were not entirely applicable to our central thesis. Whereas we wanted a more accessible listing of examples of copyright infringement and its perpetuation of inequality, what we often found was a five-page legal examination of copyright, defining it and laying out consequences of infringement. Debates over the implications, socioeconomic, ethical, or otherwise, were sorely lacking, or at least in many of the texts we encountered in our necessarily brief search.

We did what we could, jotting down notes frantically, but ultimately providing weak support for our contention. We did not have any other options, though, and realizing that time was running short, we could only place the books back on the shelf in resignation, running once again back to Boatwright. We attempted to scribble the notes that would constitute our unfortunate excuse for an essay as we walked briskly back to the library. In all the confusion, we had lost Brendan, but luckily, he thought ahead and claimed a computer so that we could quickly type out our argument. Nonetheless, we did not have enough time and turned our assignment in late. I highly doubt anyone in the group felt very good about it.

Below, for my documentation (all of which is courtesy of Dr. Rosatelli, since I did not have a phone with which to take pictures or video), I have included a link to a YouTube video with a clip of Aisling, Elizabeth, and myself in the elevator of the law library, explaining the scenario in which we found ourselves embroiled at that point in time, as well as the final class discussion, in which we expressed our findings and our emotions both as experienced during and in the aftermath of the experience. I also have included below a picture of us searching frantically for a book among the shelves of the law library. I chose these mediums of documentation so as to provide a more immersive and visual representation of the difficulties experienced and the stress with which we responded as a group. For as much as I can express in words, video is an even more effective tool that will ideally enhance the reader/viewer’s understanding of the experience and the extent to which my group found ourselves in a situation with which we were considerably uncomfortable.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbTkAkcjwj8

For group B, it was a horrendous experience. Insulated from the realities of the world faced by those less fortunate than us, we had taken for granted our laptops and smartphones and the instant gratification of the Internet. Deprived of those tools, however, we simply could not perform at a high enough level to keep up even with our counterparts in group A, let alone with other students fortunate enough to have complete access to Internet-connected devices.

Though it may seem simple enough to insist that ours was merely a simulation, and not necessarily an accurate depiction of the tribulations faced by high school students from lower-income households, who might not have access to a smartphone or laptop, the fact nonetheless remains that, whether or not we wish to confront the dismal reality of the experience, a considerable contingent of the high school student population relies on public libraries in such a way. As I write, countless students across the country are working frantically to research in a library, wishing they had access to their own computer and failing to find works that apply directly to a paper they are writing. Many are finding that allotted time for computer usage simply is not conducive to the writing of a thoroughly-researched, well-developed thesis. For too many high school students, our experience was not simply an exception; it was the rule.

When I was younger and my family was facing the inhospitable conditions that resulted from the so-called “Great Recession” in 2009, I found myself in the position of those students, and I encountered many of these challenges along the way, relying on public libraries but struggling to complete work in the allotted hour of computer usage. Even with this background experience, the class simulation offered a new perspective, as I was faced with a situation even worse than ones I had experienced heretofore. I am sure that almost everyone in the class was afforded a new perspective on the digital divide. The question that remains, however, is what conclusions we draw from this experience with regards not only to copyright law and the digital divide in general, but also to more overarching topics of discussion from throughout the unit.

It is fascinating—and necessary for our purposes—to juxtapose the idealistic visions of the “New Economy” with the current conditions in which many are now mired. Nicholas Negroponte, who in the mid-1980s had created the MIT Media Lab, envisioned the “New Economy” as one in which existing hierarchies were subverted and superseded by a progressive network of nodes, in effect enabling every individual therein to start anywhere and work on a more equal footing with their colleagues and those who might formerly have been labeled “superiors.”

Negroponte’s notion of a “New Economy” was far from some fringe ideal. Men like Stewart Brand, who worked alongside Negroponte at the Media Lab, shared his libertarian vision. Brand would go on to serve as a co-founder of the Global Business Network, a consulting firm that advocated the aforementioned flattening of hierarchies and would boast such impressive clients as Royal Dutch/Shell and AT&T.

In a profoundly significant way, the GBN represented the propagation of counterculturist ideas within the framework of an evolving economy looking to move into a new age. This intertwinement of counterculture and the libertarianism of Brand and Negroponte (along with that of countless others, including Kevin Kelly and Louis Rossetto, the executive editor and founder of Wired Magazine, respectively) would later reveal itself even more substantively in a manifesto entitled the “Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age,” written by four authors, including Esther Dyson, a writer for Wired at the time. The “Magna Carta” likened Cyberspace to a new frontier, which the American populace had to be empowered to explore, to pursue “civilization’s truest, highest calling.” The manifesto not only called for, but also coincided with, the deregulation of the telecommunications industry as part of Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” Indeed, in the 1990s, the counterculturist ideals of Brand and others were fused with the libertarian laissez-faire fiscal policy so essential to the Republican Party, and this fusion would be represented in Wired Magazine, one of many conduits for the dissemination of idealistic visions of the digital age and the “New Economy.”

On the surface, for those incognizant of the digital divide and conditions represented by the in-class simulation, it may seem that the “New Economy” has delivered what it promised. To look quickly at “accelerators,” like Y Combinator, which finance the start-up businesses of promising young entrepreneurs, accelerating the growth of a product or a business into a more lucrative entity, it seems that we are living in a world in which anyone can simply come up with an idea for a digital technology and subsequently earn tens of thousands of dollars, and maybe more in the long run. When venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal, advocates students NOT attend college and, under his Thiel Fellowships, will pay them $100,000 in a two-year grant to launch a startup instead, it is easy to be led to believe that the economy is changing and that the hierarchies of old truly have been leveled, that the status symbol of college is no longer necessary to have a chance, and that anyone can live the “American Dream,” whatever that really is. Unfortunately, such is a woefully inadequate and incomplete picture, and it provides a largely untruthful representation of the economy in the digital age.

Truthfully speaking, the “New Economy” does not really seem to be all that new. In fact, it seems like more of the same, in deceptive new packaging. Y Combinator may be subsidizing young entrepreneur’s startups, but its intent is not to promote the growth of new businesses so much as to have its investment pay dividends when that venture is ultimately sold to a corporation. Thiel may believe that students should skip college, but that erroneously presupposes that every student is a computer prodigy. People like Thiel, an outspoken libertarian, are the same ones who led the movement towards the “New Economy,” but they are also the same ones who, when pressed to discuss the digital divide, give answers like “That’s not one I focus on as much.”

In the end, it would appear that the “New Economy” was designed not truly for the betterment of every citizen, but rather clearly for the betterment of large corporations, which have benefitted greatly and become, more so than ever before, centralized forces in the private sector, holding sizable concentrations of wealth and power. The hierarchical structure of the “old economy” has not been eradicated; nor has it been superseded by a new network of nodes, so to speak. What we have found instead is that the “New Economy” is instead a complex network of supposed nodes that is structured in such a way as to constitute a complicated system of nested hierarchies, thereby maintaining the decades-old status quo, in a different, superficially appealing form.

Corporations and other powerful parties in the “new” economic order are not simply gaining power, but they are often manipulating the means of wealth attribution in a way that makes economic opportunity—supposedly a cornerstone of libertarian values—less accessible than ever before. A prime example is the high-frequency trading that has come to dominate the stock exchange, not only domestically, but also internationally. In essence, trading firms like Tradeworx utilize machinery that operates using autonomous algorithms that, via transmissions communicated through globe-spanning networks of fiber-optic cable, execute trades faster than humans can intervene. One of the fundamental consequences of HFT for the “average citizen,” not privy to the luxuries afforded a Wall Street trader or oligarch, is that the stock prices published on websites like Yahoo Finance are obsolete by the time potential buyers view them. Stock prices are fluctuating constantly throughout the course of the day, as algorithms perpetually buy and sell stocks to make minuscule gains that, multiplied by millions of trades, add up to substantial dividends. In all of this, David Golumbia is correct in his assertion that the majority of individuals are excluded from participating meaningfully. Such is far from the supposedly democratizing impact that was supposed to be effected by computerization and the rise of the Internet. Indeed, the Internet has equally empowered all citizens, but it serves especially to keep those at the top at the top, as evidenced in the stock exchange and the dizzying rapidity with which trades are being executed, precluding more consequential involvement from a more socioeconomically diverse array of citizens.

The structure of this class and the sequence with which we have discussed different topics is intriguing and appropriate, as I have come to recognize over time that the digital utopianism that at first seems so appealing becomes less and less so over time. Whereas in an earlier unit, especially after the first experience in the LA Live Chatroom, it was easy to stand behind the idealistic vision of a democratic Internet and all of the possibilities presented thereby, the realities with which we are confronted in the units on cybersecurity and the digital economy serve as a reminder that, to a large extent, digital utopianism—and the idealism that has come to so strongly characterize it—is fundamentally flawed and looks only at a portion of the picture. Technological determinism, the notion that technology is inherently democratic, is enticing, but ultimately wrong. Saskia Sassen’s thesis is ultimately a more accurate depiction of technology, as she insists that nothing about the Internet is inherently democratic. Indeed, she is correct. Mark Poster is partially correct when he writes in “Information Please” that the Internet may bring about the “overturning of certain systems of social control,” but it does not have to (193). It can be used, most simplistically, for good or for evil (though such a simplistic, monochromatic dichotomy eschews the convoluted nature of reality).

How, then, can the Internet be rendered a democratizing agent, if at the present time it is far from such a force? The answer is, as always, more complicated and requires more extensive elaboration than I can herein provide, but one such solution is presented in the current debate over copyright, which served as one of the principal foci of the class simulation.

Copyright law, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 more specifically, is most commonly construed by the government and media companies as a defense of the rights of a creator of a work, be it literary, artistic, or otherwise. These authors and artists, we have been told, have a right to recognition and compensation when their work is borrowed by another. As a matter of principle, such seems to be a reasonable argument. What is left out of the equation, however, is the complex web of interests surrounding copyright law. Who really profits?

“RiP!: A Remix Manifesto” does an excellent job of depicting with discomfiting accuracy the state of copyright in this country, and who the real winners and losers are. Anyone who believes that copyright laws are designed to benefit only the creators of a work should consider the fact made clear in the documentary that over 90% of media companies are owned by larger corporations like Disney, NewsCorp, GE, Viacom, and TimeWarner. These are powerful entities that constitute equally powerful lobbies in this country. They have tremendous influence in politics, and they have continued to push for more stringent copyright legislation. Some of the most recent alterations to the law include the provision that corporations can retain a copyright for 95 years after the life of an author. This number, it should be pointed out, will only be increased over time, yet another representation of the ways in which the “New Economy” and the digital age have failed to democratize, instead merely consolidating power in the hands of multinational corporations.

Indeed, answering the question posed during the simulation, digital copyright does perpetuate inequality. On a basic level, I will speak simplistically and give a personal example. If I need to analyze a movie for class, but do not personally own it, I have to go to the library to find it. Without free public availability online (assuming—unrealistically and only for the sake of argument—complete compliance with the law and the extinction of illegal downloading sites), I could not access the movie without paying. If I were a student who could not afford to pay the fee for an online rental, I would find myself reliant upon a likely insufficient online synopsis, and would not be adequately prepared to analyze the film for class, be it in an essay or on a test. Every other student who could afford to rent would be given the upper hand. Again, it is a simplistic example, but it nonetheless serves as a necessary reminder that digital copyright can feasibly serve to perpetuate inequality. On a more complex level, however, who is to say that Girl Talk, the musician who serves as the focal point of “RiP!: A Remix Manifesto,” does not have a right to make mash-ups of classic songs, creatively rendering old art something decidedly new and different and innovative? For a mash-up artist aspiring to move up, to become a star, how does digital copyright do anything but bar them from reaching the heights of other musicians? Is it fair that the law can prevent Girl Talk from doing what he does best to rise up the socioeconomic ladder? To answer such a question requires that we consider, as Poster does in “Information Please,” the relationship between cultural objects existing in the physical realm and those existing in cyberspace.

Poster sees a fundamental flaw in the notion that illegally downloading a music file is equivalent to stealing a CD from a store, writing, “When the CD is taken from the store, the store no longer has it; when the file is downloaded, the person sharing the file still has it” (189). I do not profess to have all the answers with regards to the complex nature of the intangible cultural objects of the digital space, but Poster’s argument seems to incorrectly define theft—or at least he does so in a manner that contradicts my subjective understanding of the term— though of course that definition may be altered by the differing nature of intangible digital objects. Illegal downloading of music may simply entail copying, but it presupposes that theft occurs without a loss of profit for one party involved. In other words, the means by which the music is “stolen” may be different, but the end result is not, so it may theoretically still constitute theft. A stolen CD is problematic because it deprives the store owner of a profit that could have been made off of the product. Though online only a copy is made, someone is still deprived of profit. My intention is not to insist that we grieve the loss of profit for multibillion dollar corporations that probably are not hurt terribly when a 12-year-old girl illegally downloads a $7.99 album, but it is to suggest that the increasingly complex nature of intangible cultural objects must push us to consider definitions of concepts as seemingly simple as “theft” if we are to come to a greater understanding with regards to proper action to be taken on copyright. I am certainly not in the business of defending abusive copyright legislation so much as calling for a more fervent debate over the relation between the physical and non-physical realms we currently occupy.

So digital copyright is perpetuating inequality, along with high-frequency trading, and corporations in the “New Economy” have served to make themselves more central figures in the private sector than ever before. Working against the democratizing potential of the Internet, wealthy tycoons exclude the less powerful from engaging meaningfully in the economy, monopolizing power and minimizing opportunity along the way. The picture thus far has frankly been incredibly depressing; but to paint such a picture without examining the rays of light that we now see would be a gross oversimplification.

It is exceedingly appropriate that the class experience asked us to consider digital copyright in relation to inequality. The issue is so crucial in this discussion, in fact, that the solution thereto provides one of many such solutions to broader inequality that has resulted from the implementation of “New Economy” policies which have too often effected a change diametrically opposed to that which was promised.

Poster makes clear in his examination of copyright that to find solutions to the problems we currently face, “[w]e must invent an entirely new copyright law that rewards cultural creation but also fosters new forms of use or consumption and does not inhibit the development of new forms of digital cultural exchange that explore the new fluidity of texts, images, and sounds” (209). Though seemingly overwhelming a solution at first, “RiP!: A Remix Manifesto” introduces us to a man who provides one very simple but very effective step towards a broader, more democratic solution to problems we face and inequality which must be rooted out: Lawrence Lessig. Lessig is a professor at Harvard Law School and an anti-copyright activist who travels the world speaking out against copyright legislation.

In 2001, Lessig founded Creative Commons, a non-profit group that offers free licenses which can be used by creators of a work to signify that, instead of “all rights reserved,” it is only “some rights reserved,” and that certain rights have been waived so that others may borrow more freely. It seems to be an incredibly simple concept, but in actuality it is incredibly powerful. If Creative Commons licenses were more greatly expanded so as to ensure freer dissemination of cultural objects online, providing a wider range of access to those objects, that alone would serve as a step towards eliminating the inequality with which the current economic order is plagued. It would at least begin to establish a foundation for a more democratic Internet in which access to cultural objects is made more equal and opportunity, in turn, is expanded.

I am not under the illusion that Creative Commons can single-handedly solve the problems that we face with regards to corporate influence over the digital world and the economy thereof. I do recognize, however, the democratizing potential inherent in Lessig’s organization. His example should serve as inspiration to us all, a helpful reminder that we are more than capable of organizing within the framework of the Internet. We—the heretofore repressed masses—can provide the push for democratization, and in so doing, subvert the autocratic rule of authoritarian governments and monolithic corporations. The Internet may not be inherently democratic, but if used to work towards the proper ends, we, as agents of change, can make it so.

For as much of the complexity of the issue I may understand, I will openly admit as per usual that I am not omniscient with regards to solutions to these complicated issues. I do recognize, however, that change can be effected. Millions took to Twitter and Facebook to protest the Stop Online Privacy Act, another piece of copyright legislation, and the bill has yet to become law. It is doubtful at this point in time that it ever will. Of course civic engagement can have an impact on policy decisions in this country. Unfortunately, we must also consider that large corporations like Google also opposed SOPA, and that their influence must be felt in stopping the law as well. Nonetheless, social media and the Internet, if used for the right reasons, can bring about change if we choose to step up and act, as was the case, for example, in the “Arab Spring” uprisings. We know what the problems are, and we see glimmers of hope in new solutions, like Creative Commons, but no change will come if no action is taken first, so it is contingent on the American citizenry to become engaged and to use the Internet as a means of democratic protestation and organization.

As I said before, the organization of this class is both intriguing and appropriate. We see now that if change is to be brought about, it will require organization with the aid of the tools we are afforded within the digital landscape. To render the Internet a more democratizing force, we must make it such, and use it to work towards a democratic end. Though we may not now understand how to do so, or the precedent which exists for digital movements, the next unit should provide ample framework for the implementation of such a movement. We now move forward, beginning to explore civic engagement in the digital age, looking to subversive movements like Occupy and Anonymous and the impact created thereby.

Group “Business” clearly did an excellent job of raising the questions that needed to be raised, and though more exist than can be answered, it is my hope that I have at least skimmed the surface thoroughly enough to highlight, as always, a path forward, and one, I now realize, that likely lies in the next unit. What a pivotal one it shall be.


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You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone

// Posted by Emily on 10/14/2014 (10:16 PM)

The last time I hand-wrote an essay-like assignment was my sophomore year of high school. I had a quirky English teacher who insisted that the art of letter writing was dead, so in an effort to revive it, he required… Read more

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The last time I hand-wrote an essay-like assignment was my sophomore year of high school. I had a quirky English teacher who insisted that the art of letter writing was dead, so in an effort to revive it, he required that all of our essays be handwritten in letter form and mailed to his house. He docked points for spelling and grammar, so naturally the entire class exploited a loophole in the assignment by typing first and writing second. For Digital America’s third experience, I was in “Group A: Limited Access.” We used our phones–and nothing else–to complete an assignment arguing for or against the inherent inequalities of digital copyrighting. Since this experience gave me the perspective of what it’s like to research and type on a four inch screen, I decided I would put myself in “Group B: Access Denied”‘s shoes by hand writing the entire reflection before typing it up and posting it to the blog.

My outline: 

Writing and researching on an iPhone during the experience was simultaneously frustrating and distracting. Aside from the small screen and sore thumbs, it was significantly harder to find scholarly research in mobile mode. I used Google as my search engine because I knew that Richmond’s “One Search,” while infinitely more reliable, would also be infinitely more time consuming, and we had a deadline to meet. Google’s shortcoming is its lack of readily available academic material. The search results on digital copyright were dominated by opinion pieces and news articles summarizing legal decisions, and finding legitimate educational sources required some digital digging.
Pages One and Two:
The capabilities of smart phones make them the ultimate tools of distraction. I received multiple text messages and emails during the experience. I didn’t pause to open them, but I absolutely would have if I was doing the assignment on my own time, and I think it’s fair to expect that others in my generation would do the same. Laptops contain their fair share of distractions, but they have an assumed academic purpose where phones function first and foremost for socialization. As far as I know, there’s no way to disable a phone’s social apps (iMessage, email, Twitter, Instagram, etc) without also shutting down the wifi, which means writing and researching on a mobile divide is an uphill battle to overcome the formidable opponent of distraction.
Luck and the parameters of the assignment favored my group in ways I almost wish it hadn’t. We were allowed to collaborate in our group of three to research and write our response to the prompt. With our three phones, we were able to divide and conquer to finish the task in a fraction of the time it would have taken if we were writing it independently and had to regularly switch between apps. When it came time to type up the paragraph we had written in the “Notes” app, we lucked out by snagging the last available computer in the pod. Had that computer not been free, we would have had to ask someone to move. In the middle of midterms week when tensions are particularly high, asking a fellow student to switch computers is a risky proposal with unpredictable consequences. In the spirit of authenticity, it would have been interesting to both attempt the assignment independently and to step way out of our comfort zones by asking to use an occupied computer. That being said, I have no immediate plans to research or write anything on my phone, and I’m honestly intimidated by the thought of asking anyone in the library to let me use their computer.
The ability to refuse to do frustrating and uncomfortable tasks is a luxury that people on the advantaged side of the digital divide take for granted. Therein lies a lesson to be learned from this experience: technology is an under appreciated agent of ease and comfort–you really “don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” What about those who have never had “it”: reliable and easy access to the Internet? Can you miss something that’s never been yours, or is not having something that so many others have and take for granted even worse? Goodman in “The Digital Divide is Still Leaving Americans Behind” writes about New Jersey teenagers who were trading bus tickets for wifi, and quotes Susan Crawford, a former White House Official who argues for the establishment of Internet access as a basic human right (Goodman, 2013). In direct opposition, Cerf in “Internet Access is Not a Human Right” puts forth that technology is an enabler of rights, but not a right in and of itself (Cerf, 2012). On both sides of the coin is the agreement on the reality of a digital divide, and an acknowledgement that access (or lack thereof) to the Internet is fundamentally life changing.
Without minimizing the challenge of living with limit access to a reliable Internet connection, in a sense, we all experience a digital divide in our daily lives. Golumbia and Adler shed light on high frequency trading, an opaque process that has already begun to shape the financial market. As Adler notes, by nature high frequency trading is an exclusive process that creates new concentrations of power and wealth (Adler, 2012). In this world, power and access is given to a very select few, and the majority is left in the dark with no knowledge of what goes on behind closed doors, in closed networks. Though here access is granted to a minority instead of the majority, it parallels the digital divide our experience mimicked and is evidence of the exclusionary potential of technology.
I’ve heard several professors justify their ban on using laptops in class to take notes with the idea that the act of writing is more deliberate and thoughtful than the act of typing. I can follow that logic, but I’m not sure it applies in the context of longer assignments. My laptop is in “sleep” mode a foot away from me, taunting me with the knowledge that the quality of this assignment is likely different–maybe worse–than it would have been if I had typed it and used the saved time to develop a stronger idea. I’ve only written about four pages, none of which required any outside research, and even after that, I can’t imagine having to do this on a regular basis. I can attest to the frustration of having to hand write an assignment, but my “access denied” is deliberate and temporary. In a few minutes, I’ll go back to my laptop to finish this and the rest of my homework. No temporary simulation can change the fact that I’m never going to know what it’s like to actually not have access to the Internet or technology.
Pages Three, Four, and Five:

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#3 Embracing the Digital Divide

// Posted by Brendan on 10/14/2014 (3:39 PM)

Our third experience as a class was the first time i participated in the organizing of the experience. My team consisted of Aisling, Emily and myself and we were responsible for creating an experience that encompassed the business and globalization… Read more

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Our third experience as a class was the first time i participated in the organizing of the experience. My team consisted of Aisling, Emily and myself and we were responsible for creating an experience that encompassed the business and globalization section of digital America. From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to create an experience that recreated the digital divide that we learned about in the Goodman article and in the discussions proposed by Sassen and Cerf. We were particularly inspired by the environment described in the Goodman article, where students in a Newark high school relied primarily on smart phones for their access to the internet. We created an experience that divided the class into two different groups that both had different restrictions on their access to technology, and provided each with the same assignment: write a response using scholarly sources giving a stance on whether digital copyright perpetuates inequality.

I was sorted into Group B, or the “Archaic Access” group. My group could not use any device with an internet connection, had to handwrite our assignment before typing it out on a public computer and were encouraged to use non-digital resources to complete our assignment. We each turned in our own phones before starting so as not to be distracted during the experience. Having only 40 minutes to complete the assignment, my group initially seemed overwhelmed with the task at hand. Once the experience began, we met quickly and set out a game plan. We would talk to the librarians and use their recommendations to find books on digital copyright that we could use in writing our response. We immediately met with a librarian in her office in Boatwright. We explained our assignment and the restrictions we had in place and she was more than willing to accommodate us. She found 2 books on digital copyright and wrote down all the information we needed to find them on a slip of paper. The books were located in the Law Library on campus so we needed to travel 6 minutes to the separate library. Having never been to the law library before, I found myself lost in navigating its different setup. We decided to look for the books on our own before consulting a librarian which proved to be a disaster. We could not find the section where the books we were looking for were located  and I even became separated from the rest of my group during the process.

Our group consults a Librarian for assistance

Eventually, my group asked a librarian for assistance and were directed to the appropriate section of the law library, which was apparently only accessible by elevator. I meanwhile, continued to search through the sections of the law library that I had access to, but could not find the appropriate section or any of my fellow group members. Checking the time and realizing we had only 10 minutes left in the assignment, I rushed back to Boatwright, convinced that my group members had returned there to write our response.  Despite my intuition, my group had yet to return and were still searching for the appropriate books. Running out of time, I decided to take one the only open computer of which we were allowed to use and waited for my group to return.

The Group finds the appropriate books for the assignment

When my group returned, the time limit for the project had already passed. We frantically typed up the response that the group had scribbled on a piece of paper and printed it. We turned in the assignment more than 10 minutes late, but it was complete. Afterwards we met in the Group study room to discuss the experience and the difficulties we encountered with Dr. Rosatelli and the other group.

My experience in group 2 made it blatantly clear just how vital digital technology is to not only the academic sector but also for my ability to communicate. Not having access to any form of internet made me realize just how lost I would be without it. The experience forced me to do things I had never done before like ask a librarian for help finding a book on a certain subject, using the law library and trying to navigate a library’s organizational system. I felt completely out of my depth and almost panicked under the circumstances. The biggest difference to me was in the matter of time. Not having internet access meant that it took significantly longer to complete  our assignment. With an internet connection, I could easily have found the appropriate book through an online database within 5 minutes and been able to write a response within the given time frame easily. Without internet, my group was forced to spend the entire allotted time searching for the appropriate books and materials to even begin our assignment. Digital access benefits its users by providing information in a significantly quicker manner that allows them to complete tasks in a much more energy conserving and efficient manner.

The phones we were not able to use

Surprisingly, what hampered my experience the most was my lack of access to a cellphone. Having been separated from my group, I had no means of communication with my fellow group members and could not get in touch with them in any way. I searched throughout the entire law library that I was aware of and still could not found them, so I was not able to help with the assignment. The lack of a cell phone removed me from even participating in my own experience. Our group project was further impeded by the inability to communicate with cell phones.

I thought the experience succeeded in creating an environment that reflected the lack of digital access seen by many students throughout the world suffering from a digital divide. Both groups struggled with the task, and my group especially lagged behind the other due to our complete inability to use the internet at all. For me, this elucidated the struggles that many kids like those featured in Goodman’s article face in school as they do not have the means to complete assignments on time or efficiently.

 


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