digital divide

The author's home antenna
The author’s home antenna

I moved to rural Kansas a over a year ago. I live beyond Lawrence city limits, on the outskirts of Stull (where local legend places one of the gateways to hell), and 50 minutes driving to the nearest Google Fiber connection. It’s a liminal space in terms of broadband connection – the fastest network in the country is being built in the neighboring metropolitan area but when I talked to my neighbors about internet service providers in our area, they were confused by my quest for speeds higher than 1mbps. As this collection of essays on “small town internet” suggests, there’s an awareness that internet in rural, small town, and “remote” places exists, but we need to understand more about how digital connection is incorporated (or not) into small town and rural life: how it’s used, and what it feels like to use it.

One of my ongoing projects involves researching digital divides and digital inclusion efforts in Kansas City. The arrival of Google Fiber in Kansas City, KS and Kansas City, MO has provided increased momentum and renewed impetus for recognition of digital divides based on cost, access, education and computer literacy, relevance, mobility, and more discussion and visibility for organizations and activists hoping to alleviate some of these divides and emphasize internet access as a utility. I’ve argued that by reading digital media in relationship to experiences of “place,” we gain a more holistic and nuanced understanding of digital media use and non-use, processes and decisions around implementation and adoption, and our relationships to digital artifacts and infrastructures. In other words, one’s location and sense of place become important factors in shaping practices, decisions, and experiences of digital infrastructure and digital media.

The irony is not lost on me that while studying digital divides in a metropolitan area, I had chosen to live in a location with its own, unique series of inequities in terms of internet connection. These inequities have nothing to do with socio-economic instability or lack of digital literacy, as I had funds and willingness to pay a significant amount for internet service (comparable to the prices charged by urban-based, corporate ISPs), and everything to do with the fact that I lived in an area that felt as if it had been forgotten or intentionally bypassed by the internet service providers (ISPs) I had come to know living in other US cities and towns. more...


“You are talking to me like I don’t understand what you are saying. I understand what you are saying, I don’t accept what you are saying,” shouted the bespectacled woman who would soon have tears running down her indignant face. “I’m not from this country. I don’t have a phone. I have kids with me. What am I supposed to do!?” The customer service representative at the airline desk spoke slowly and explained again, as if to a spoiled child, that all of the hotels were full and customers were now responsible for finding and booking their own, but not to worry, customers would be reimbursed after going online and submitting the necessary information with a paid receipt. The woman stared blankly at him, and stepped aside to wait for a supervisor. Now she would cry.

***** more...

is and ought

Last week, Robin James (@doctaj) wondered if “digital dualism” was really “ideal theory” a-la Charles Mills. She argued that what we call digital dualism is really a critique of idealization; that the “ought” of the relationship between humans and technologies reflects the “is” of a privileged group. This is expressed both dualistically but also monolistically.

Within the comments, we discussed the complex designation of “ought” in the relationship between humans and technologies. Without taking on Robin’s ideal theory hypothesis, I want to take about a thousand words here and think about the “ought.” That is, I want to explore what the “good” technosubject does, and how zi relates to technologies within the contemporary era. more...


This week, the Bexar County Bibliotech Library opened in Texas. This library is unique in its all-digital format. It is a library without physical books. Instead, patrons have borrowing access to thousands of “e-books” and digital media materials, along with cloud space on which to store them. The library does have a physical building, which houses computers, laptops, kindles, and other hardware that people can borrow, or use on site. Patrons can also attend story time and literacy events at the library.  This is not the first library of its kind, but may be the first one to remain fully digital. In 2002, the Santa Rosa Branch Library in Arizona got rid of bound books. However, in light of consumer complaints, the SRBL—like most libraries— now offers texts through both bound books and digital media.

Perhaps now the timing is better. If so, a library such as this poses a host of questions. How will a digitatized library interact with the digital divide? Will this exclude the less tech-savvy, or act as a means of spreading digital literacy? How will the library continue to support itself without late fees? Why did they choose to eliminate books entirely?

Mostly, though, I want to know what this library will smell like, and how this will shape the intellectual somatic experiences of a new generation. more...

Digital Divide

1. The digital divide is so over that it’s passé

This is a common trope I hear at conferences, whether academic or otherwise.  Before presenting at the American Sociological Association annual meeting last year, I got feedback from colleagues that I should explain what in the heck the digital divide is before launching into its connection to online activism. Huh? We are sociologists – we have all read Marx. Inequality is one of the pillars that holds up our discipline. We wouldn’t know what to do without gender, class and race gaps.  Why should the Internet be any different from the rest of society?

But I’ve been told to always listen to my audience, who need a gentle reminder that digital inequality is alive and kickin.’ But what is it, exactly? more...

rousseau spiderman

Just about every one of our contributing authors has written a piece that challenges or refutes the claims made by tech journalists, industry pundits, or fellow academics. Part of the problem is technological determinism- the notion that technology has a unidirectional impact on society. (i.e. Google makes us stupid, cell phones make us lonely.) Popular discussions of digital technologies take on a very particular flavor of technological determinism, wherein the author makes the claim that social activity on/in/through Friendster/New MySpace/ Google+/ Snapchat/ Bing is inherently separate from the physical world. Nathan Jurgenson has given a name to this fallacy: digital dualism. Ever since Nathan posted Digital dualism versus augmented reality I have been preoccupied with a singular question: where did this thinking come from? Its too pervasive and readily accepted as truth to be a trendy idea or even a generational divide. Every one of Cyborgology’s regular contributors (and some of our guest authors) hear digital dualist rhetoric coming from their students. The so-called “digital natives” lament their peers’ neglect of “the real world.” Digital dualism’s roots run deep and can be found at the very core of modern thought.  Indeed, digital dualism seems to predate the very technologies that it inaccurately portrays. more...

The theory and policy of Internet connectivity has not kept pace with the increasing diversity of network access. The full variety of access points, social practices, and meaning created by networked individuals has not been critically engaged by most authors.  Jenna Burrell’s new book Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafe’s of Urban Ghana is the start of a major corrective in the social sciences’ treatment of the Internet. For “nonelite urban youth” the internet café provides an opportunity to extend one’s social network outside of the zongo (colloquial term for slum) that they grew up in, and gain access to resources and contacts they would otherwise never acquire. A majority of Burrell’s work takes place in these cafés but we are also treated to a discussion of global ewaste streams, international consortiums on the “information society” and the collective reputation and shared meaning of Ghanaians  on the Internet. Burrell provides a broad, but at times penetratingly deep look at the Internet from the margins.  more...

Stacks of Kente and cotton cloth sit in piles, waiting to be stamped with Adinkra patterns. Note the “pixelated” patterns in the center stack.

In part 1 I opened with a run down of the different kinds of “digital divides” that dominate the public debate about low income access to technology. Digital divide rhetoric relies on a deficit model of connectivity. Everyone is compared against the richest of the rich western norm, and anything else is a hinderance. If you access Twitter via text message or rely on an internet cafe for regular internet access, your access is not considered different, unique, or efficient. Instead, these connections are marked as deficient and wanting. The influence of capitalist consumption might drive individuals to want nicer devices and faster connections, but who is to say faster, always on connections are the best connections? We should be looking for the benefits of accessing the net in public, or celebrating the creativity necessitated by brevity. In short, what kinds of digital connectivity are western writers totally blind to seeing? The digital divide has more to do with our definitions of the digital, than actual divides in access. What we recognize as digital informs our critiques of technology and extends beyond access concerns and into the realms of aesthetics, literature and society. I think it is safe to say that most readers of this blog think they know better: Fetishizing the real is for suckers. The New Aesthetic, a nascent artistic network, is all about crossing the boarder between the offline and the online. Pixelated paint jobs confuse computer scanners and malfunctioning label makers print code on Levis. The future isn’t rocket-powered, its pixelated. Just as the rocket-fueled future of the 50s was painstakingly crafted by cold warriors, the New Aesthetic of today is the product of a very particular worldview. The New Aesthetic needs to be situated within its global context and reconsidered as the product of just one kind of future. more...

[Edit 09/07/11 @ 5:03PM EST]  It has been mentioned in the comments, and elsewhere, that while the Postal Service is facing a solvency problem, that problem is the direct result of Republican-led legislation that burdens them with excessive overhead. I completely agree with this sentiment. The 109th Congress, passed the “The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act” in 2006, which you can read in full here. The law requires that the USPS  pre-fund 75 years-worth of pensions, and prohibits them from selling  goods that are not directly used for sending letters and packages. I suggest you read more about this legislation here and here. I encourage all of you do to your own research and post what you find in the comments.]

galveston federal building

Photo Credit: Wikipedia – The Galveston Federal Building, built in 1937, is a multi-purpose building with many different government agencies. Don’t bleed the Post Office dry, make it a 21st Century Civic Center

Reading the news lately, makes it seem as though the Post Office is giving its final economic death rattle. Post Master General Patrick Donahoe spoke at a Senate hearing yesterday, and according to the Christian Science Monitor:

Donahoe reiterated a list of cost-cutting measures he has been proposing in recent months to erase the agency’s deficit, which could reach up to $10 billion this fiscal year. They include eliminating Saturday mail delivery, closing as many as 3,700 postal locations, and laying off 120,000 workers – nearly one-fifth of the agency’s work force. (This doesn’t include another 100,000 jobs lost to attrition that the agency does not plan to replace, for a total of 220,000 lost positions.)

These  are  disgraceful solutions to what could be considered an exciting opportunity to innovate. The Internet is being blamed for many of the Post Office’s problems, and it is safe to say that email has put a significant dent in their revenues. But revenues are only half the story. Expenditures are equally important. Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck in their book Suburban Nation relay a conversation with a former (unnamed) Postmaster General who explained that most of our postage goes to the gas for the trucks and vans that carry mail to the suburban fringes of municipalities. Indeed, the USPS has the largest civilian truck fleet in the world. In an era of austerity, we need to look for ways to reduce spending while maintaining affordable services. I just think we need to spend less money on machines, and more on people. The internet can help us do this.


QR codes line the bulletin boards of many college campuses.

Lisa Wade over at our sister blog Sociological Images sent us an email from one of her readers, Steve Grimes, who shared this image and some interesting thoughts about how Quick Response codes or, QR codes can contribute to inequality. That is, QR codes such as these serve to make certain content and information “exclusive” to those who have smartphones. He states,

There is a general thinking that technology can create a level playing field (an example of this is can be seen with the popular feelings about the internet). However, technology also has a great ability to create and widen gaps of inequality.

In a practical sense the company may be looking for students who are tech savvy. They may also want to save on ink toner (might be a stretch). So using the matrix barcode may serve that purpose. However, the ad also shows how technology can exclude individuals; primarily in this case, students without smart phones. One may think that being on a college campus every student would have a smart phone. However, when you look at the prices of most smart phones along with the prices for the plans of a carrier (usually somewhere $75-150 per month) one can see that not every student may have one. Especially considering the other things that they may have to pay for that are a bit pressing to their environment (books, food, etc). more...