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.
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.
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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.
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