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Experience 3–Books and Blisters

// Posted by 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.

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

// Posted by 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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