While tech-writers often act as if the Web is something out there away from society, we all know (and they do too) that technology is always embedded in social structures, power, domination and inequalities. And the words we choose to talk about tech, while seemingly innocuous, betray some pretty heavy political predispositions.
Yesterday, the New York Times ran a story looking at a “new digital divide” where “poorer” folks aren’t using the web in a “meaningful” way but instead are “wasting time” on social media. I was reminded of how Facebook users looked down on MySpace users a few years ago or the current racist rhetoric surrounding iPhone versus Android mobile phone users. Technology is often an excuse to reify the fallacy that those less privledged are an other, different, less capable and less human.
Whenever someone declares what Internet-use is “meaningful” versus a “waste” we must be critical: who is making the claim? who benefits from these too-commonly constructed hierarchies? And here, as usual, we are dealing with a hierarchical framework created by privileged folks for everyone else to placed within.
New York Times reporter Matt Richtel looks at how children of poor families connect more on social media – and declares it “a waste of time.” Talking about children of less educated parents, Vicky Rideout is quoted in the article as saying, “Despite the educational potential of computers, the reality is that their use for education or meaningful content creation is minuscule compared to their use for pure entertainment […]Instead of closing the achievement gap, they’re widening the time-wasting gap” [emphases added].
The more “meaningful” technology use is defined as that which is more “productive.” By productivity the article points to things like how to apply for jobs online, use word processors, use parent-filters and finding ”educational” links.
While these are important skills to be sure, to discount identity performance, socialization and other activities on social media as not productive, not educational, not meaningful, pure entertainment and a waste of time offensively reduces less privileged folks as “an other,” less worthy and less human.
When seeing this story, my first reaction was to find sociologist and author of Cyber Racism Jessie Daniels’ Twitter stream. Of course she was on top of this, providing analysis, more links to other stories like this and links to those who have challenged the digital divide rhetoric. She says all of this better than I, so here’s a Storify I created of her reaction [I can't embed it on this site]: “Jessie Daniels on the ‘New Digital Divide’.”
Like this New York Times article, the goal of ‘digital divide’ rhetoric is to fix the division; not to repair but to preserve it. The rhetoric claims to be about identifying and mending a divide when the reality is that it is more about creating and reifying a divide; to invent differences, chastise and paternalistically help, educate and “civilize” the manufactured “other.”
More work should be done in the future demonstrating how social media is indeed productive, meaningful and important and not a waste of time [also, since when is entertainment always a waste?]. But we cannot begin this work until we stop manufacturing divides and start recognizing all Internet users as equally and fully human.