Creating Technology for Social Change

How digitally inclusive is your neighborhood?

digital inequality sketch

The picture above is a rough sketch of digital inclusion (we’ll return to this below.) In Introduction to Civic Media, last week we read several texts about digital inequality. We traced the transformation of this conversation since the 1990s, when many still talked about a binary ‘Digital Divide,’ to the present day, when digital access inequality is thought of in terms of a more complex set of factors. Digital inequalities are still reflected in access to tools – for example, do you have always-on broadband connectivity in your home, workplace, and on your mobile device? Do you have occasional access to a slower connection, that’s more highly filtered (say, at school or in a public library)? Or perhaps your primary access point is via an internet cafe or a mobile phone? Jack Qiu talks about this in terms of the ‘Information Have-Less;’ he’s writing in the Chinese context, but many of his insights are applicable anywhere. However, the debates formerly framed in terms of the ‘Digital Divide’ have also shifted beyond tools, to emphasize the reality that there is a wide range of access in terms of digital media literacies, networks of friends and family who are able to support these literacies, and so on.

For Civic Media practitioners, persistent access inequality poses troubling questions. If we simply create digital tools and platforms that are designed to enable civic engagement without paying attention to digital inequality, we may end up reproducing, or even deepening, other forms of power inequality. We know that race, class, gender, age, and geographic location (among other factors) all shape people’s access to digital connectivity, tools, skills, and support networks; Ezster Hargittai points out in her article“The Digital Reproduction of Inequality” that if we’re not careful, digital inequalities are not only produced by, but also can reproduce, other kinds of inequality. For example, it might seem commonsense that we would replace face to face registration systems with web-based ones; following this logic, we might build a beautiful web application that provides easy access to registration for services for elders. However, if we’re talking about a limited service and low-income elders aren’t on the broadband net, they may suddenly find themselves at the back of the line, behind middle- and upper-income folks who snapped up the best times using your oh-so-friendly web app.

Back to our sketch: we began by brainstorming key terms for a model of digital inclusion; students came up with many, including: age, gender, inclusion, power, skills, capital (economic, social, and cultural); language, access, knowledge systems, market segmentation, and many more. Next, we split into two groups and sketched out images representing a model. Finally, the groups switched sketches, added missing elements, and combined them into a single drawing. In this sketch, you can see a networked public sphere (on the left) with seperate, but connected, sets of digital publics; there’s also education and literacy in the mix, as well as capital and accessibility. Zooming in to one of the digital micropublics, on the right, we see a diverse, interconnected neighborhood, a digitally literate community, the broader ecological context in which our network society takes place (the tree!), and something that looks to me like a pizza (?).

I’ve asked students in Intro to Civic Media to start from this model of digital inclusion to analyze their hometown or the neighborhood they grew up in, and other readers of this blog are invited to do the same. Don’t attempt to be exhaustive – just use the model as a tool for reflection. What information and data sources would you draw from to better understand digital inclusion in your hometown? What does the local information ecology look like? What are the key inequalities, and are there interesting civic media projects or practices going on? Feel free to comment on this post, or to create a standalone post on the topic – student Польза has posted an interesting overview of digital divide and inequality in Uzbekistan. I’m Looking forward to your thoughts!