// 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
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.
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.