Dr. Ernest J. Wilson on Digital Societies and Those at the Bottom

Dr. Ernest J. Wilson on Digital Societies and Those at the Bottom


What the Transition to a Digital Society Means for Those at the Bottom

Earlier today the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University hosted Dr. Ernest J. Wilson III to give a lecture as part of the Exclusion and Inequality in Digital Societies: Theories, Evidence, and Strategy series.  The lecture was titled "What the Transition to a Digital Society Means for Those at the Bottom" and began at 4:00pm. 

Dr. Ernest J. Wilson III is the Walter Annenberg Chair in Communication and Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southen California. In his work, Dr. Wilson addresses digital inequality, which manifests in all levels of media, from films to lines of computer code. MIT Professor Fox Harrell introduced Dr. Wilson, and he mentioned how even concepts such as double consciousness are now being presented and manifested through code. Dr. Wilson's interests include, digital media, modern democracy, negotiating the net, politics of diffusion in Africa, and diffusion and U.S. policy. Dr. Wilson made the point that, "Information is rooted in politics." Behind the walls of the academy, Wilson has been a proponent of digital activism and inclusion. He looks at media configurations across the board, and he also founded the New Media Committee.

Exclusion and Digital Inequality

Dr. Wilson expresses that he is pleased to be back at Harvard. The last time that he was in a room like this (the Thompson Room at Harvard), he was with a group that was threatening to burn it down in order to establish the African American Studies Program at Harvard. In his work, Wilson has spent months looking at data along what he calls verticals (specific media platforms): television, radio, print, etc. What he found is that there were many facets lacking in diversity across theses verticals. As media was becoming more and more central to the political economy, the role of African Americans was shrinking in that vertical. Communications and media is coming to the center of society, and more Americans spend their lives using and consuming media. People of Color though, are becoming less visible in terms of content, seeing their own presence, and ownership. With these topics in mind, Wilson proposed what can be done theoretically and practically. What can we do about these things in the real world?

Black Communities and Publics

Regardless of our racial categories, all people have stories, and those narratives matter very much. How did it happen that Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans came to be marginalized? Wilson looks at different sources, including online sources to address these problems. What are the implications of large media to African American discourse? What about for engagement? Is there a Black public sphere? Is there an American public sphere? As people are becoming fragmented, can it be possible to have a public sphere? Or do we have a larger public sphere as a consequence of the new technologies and types of media.

The digital divide used to be defined by access, and African Americans and Latinos are rapidly catching up in terms of sheer access to media. The new digital divide is about ownership, control, and content. Dr. Wilson thanked his colleague, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. for introducing him using a story. Dr. Gates was one of the first scholars to be online, and also to work across the traditional media. Dr. Gates' presence means much to Wilson as both a friend and as a colleague.

The 2012 Election and People of Color

Dr. Wilson expressed interest being back at Harvard, especially because we just ended our presidential election. What we saw is that the nation was equally divided. What made the difference? Ground games. Who was called with these ground games? People of color. Brown people. It was the mobilization of African Americans and Hispanics that allowed Obama to win. To get that vote, however, he had to use technology. He had to use data mining, voter registration, getting voter resources. With Obama's victory, we see technology on one side, and voters of color on the other side. The Romney campaign even agreed to these strengths, and they said "we should have gotten into this technology stuff."

W.E.B. Du Bois and The Amenia Conference

Barack Obama owes us, because without us, those few of us in this room, he would not have been elected. It is wonderful to give this lecture at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Wilson mentions. In the spirit of the introduction, Wilson mentions that it is a personal pleasure because of some of his personal family history that crossed with Du Bois. Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois got his Ph.D in 1895, and historians have unscored how he was very much a man of the 19th century. What is interesting though, is that Du Bois was interested in many topics related to communication, and he is said to have been a "communicator's communicator" for embracing new technologies throughout life and career. Using Internet research, Wilson was able to find pictures of the Amenia Conference of 1916, that was organized by Du Bois to talk about many of the things related to communication that will be discussed today. T. Montgomery Jefferson, Wilson's grandfather who graduated from Harvard in 1910, was at the Amenia Conference along with Du Bois. What is curious about the Amnia Conference was how powerful the "talented tenth" was, with many of them coming from top universities in the country in order to address issues of the day. Dr. Wilson mentioned that narratives shape who we are and how we relate to others, which is a tenant of communications.

The stories that we can find about Du Bois, especially about who he was on a daily basis, are seldom told, especially through media. In Dr. Wilson's early age, Black communities were in search of authenticity, but at the same time it was politically incorrect to be bourgeoisie and socially mobile. Du Bois himself personified the ability to cross borders, in Africa, in the UK, and in China, and also socially. There are great photographs of Du Bois with Mao, both men laughing and having a good time. "We need to get past the clatter of twitter," mentions Dr. Wilson. Also, we know that there is a preoccupation with new gadgets. Studies show that new gadgets and tools capture attention, and we may find ourselves constantly seeking more.

Those At the Bottom

Many of those at the bottom are pursuing strategies of resistance and engagement, especially African Americans. How do we build around hierarchies, and who is in charge of challenging these structures? Who is in charge of doing the negotiations of bringing those from the bottom into the center? Is is the NAACP? Is it Obama's Communications Commission? "African American Studies must do a better job of studying communications," states Dr. Wilson. Not studying communications today is like not studying industrialization in the time of Du Bois. Also, the freedom of the press is so central to our democracy. We should also care about these things if we want new jobs, because communications are moving to the center of innovation and growth. If you are interested in African Americans and People of Color in general, then close attention must be paid to this lecture.

Thought Experiment

Dr. Wilson went in to discuss how there is a vast community of intellectuals that believe that these technologies are transformative. People believe that if you take a cell phone or a laptop and put it in a village, the people there will become more knowledgeable. It’s assumed that they can learn new things, self educate, and communicate with the world. There is this idea that these tools can bring about modern society. If so, what does it mean for people of color, who do not have these things. In a sense, it means that getting these tools will lead to prosperity. Wilson then went on to talk about demographics, and how the medium household income for whites was near $100,000. For Blacks, this was nearer to $10,000. In terms of educational attainment, roughly 16% of Blacks graduate from college, while 33% of Whites do the same. What’s more, 1/3 of Black males have been involved in the criminal justice system. This is a different starting point, that is also no less true that any other. And some people believe that all is needed is a smartphone and social elevation can occur.

What would Du Bois have said?

What would Du Bois have said? This question was sent out to multiple people, including Dr. Manuel Castells at USC, and other people at the NAACP. Whatever the question, it must be based on clear empirical evidence. Secondly, it will require rethinking and rewriting of conceptual frameworks. It is important to get the data, but it must be reframed. Also, many of the major texts in communications and media studies do not mention class, race, and discrimination. The transition to a digital society must mention these. Third, the scholarship must lead to progressive action. At one point in time, Du Bois said “knowledge and information will set us free.” This idea was related to the talented tenth, but know it’s closer to a “talented oneth.” Fourth, we should be aware at all times that we operate in a global environment. These are important starting points for the transition to a digital society with respect to those at the bottom.

How should we think about these issues?

How should we think about these issues? Wilson mentioned “C@C,” which stands for communication at the center. In a global context, and in all other contexts, media and communication was sort of important, but was not as central as it has become. At the macro level, and the meso level, and at the micro level, communication technologies have become central. If we want to track how society is changing, but also understand the the role of discrimination, we cannot just look at the macro level. These changes are so enormous and so far reaching, that they are similar to the move from an agricultural society to the industrial society. Now, knowledge is at the center.

Growth of Communications and Media:

In the 1900s, media and communications were important, but not as central as they are today. What happens at the meso level? What we see is that organizations are becoming flatter because middles levels are disappearing. Structures are changing, and also the organizational models of institutions. “If we want to understand how society is being changed by communications, especially as African Americans, we need to look at the meso levels of analysis,” mentioned Wilson. You have probably seen that African Americans and Hispanics are overrepresented in Twitter. The problem with some of that data is that there are ways to analyze the number to determine whether an investment is a good idea. There is an entire school of sociologists and psychologists that are looking at how these technologies are affecting the way that people think and interact with one another. If we are going to understand the transition from an industrial to a postindustrial society, then we need to look at the macro, meso, and the micro.


When look at the verticals in radio, television, printed news, and films, African Americans are overwhelmingly underrepresented. By verticals, Wilson means separating the media into specific platforms. With this type of analysis, we see that places like senior management positions are shrinking. In radio, we can see that ownership by African Americans is now less than 0.7%. Also, the content produced by the entertainment industry is not an industry at all, it is a guild. If we look at demographics of film studios, how many women do we see? Very few, and more than that, diversity is steadily declining. These communications are largely becoming dominated by white males. Many of these numbers are strongly related to advertising, because people of color are valued less by advertisers.

Leaky Pipelines, Glass Ceilings, and Clubs

How can we explain the dire lack of diversity in communications industries? Is this a problem of a pipeline? Is it a problem of a glass ceiling? Is it a problem of a club? Is it a problem of a career and advisement? There are many different options that we can use when analyzing. Dr. Wilson looks at how pipeline, glass ceiling, and club issues combines. People of Color moving into the post-industrial society are at a tough place in history. Wilson also spoke about the different approaches that researcher take when examining inclusion in media ecologies. Many scholars who want to make impact on a single area work hard for years, then they go to Washington, and nothing happens. In other cases, the Government comes to scholars, and productivity is usually tied to funding and many years or research. There is a political world and set of actors that need the type of information that scholars can generate.

A Time for Concentrated Media Ownership

Recently the FCC released a report that spoke about relaxing prohibition against media concentration. What will this do for people of color? Or for women? At the Annenberg School of Communication at USC, scholars have been building coalitions that are researching these topics. Also, President Obama might be interested in the type of work that is being conducted around these issues. If we do not get this right, then we are in trouble. We are moving from a situation where media was important in an environment to where it is now central. Are people of color going to continue being at the margins, or can they be brought to the center? It is as they say when academics want to dodge something, "It is an empirical question,” said Dr. Wilson. We are at a tipping point where the situation can go into a dystopian path or a better path.