Creating Technology for Social Change

What would W.E.B. Du Bois say about Exclusion and Inequality in Digital Societies?

Exclusion and Inequality in Digital Societies: Theories, Evidence, and Strategy

Co-authored by Denise Cheng and Rogelio Alejandro Lopez

Dr. Ernest J. Wilson III, Walter Annenberg Chair in Communication and Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

This will be part 2 of the 3 part series on Exclusion and Inequality in Digital Societies: Theories, Evidence, and Strategy, that is hosted by the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. The lecture series infers what Du Bois might say about the impact of the digital revolution on communities of color if he were alive today. Today’s talk is titled Policy Responses to Digital Inequality: Beyond Economics, for Wednesday November 28, 2012.

Today’s talk was introduced by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham , who is a Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies, and Chair of the Department of African American Studies at Harvard University. Professor Higginbotham recently received the Hauser Innovation Grant by the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching  (HILT) to work on the project “Portraits in Multimedia: A Social Engagement Project in African and African American Studies.”

Higginbotham and Wilson’s wife met while they were both Du Bois fellows at Harvard University. Higginbotham recalls Wilson’s involvement as a Harvard undergrad in the push to establish the African American Studies Department at the college 40 years ago. Wilson has since then authored books on the Information Revolution in Developing Countries, Diversity and U.S. Foreign Policy, and is currently working on Innovation in the Digital Age: The Quad Model. Wilson brings complex insights on problems relating to race based exclusion in communications industries.

Responses to Digital Inequality: Beyond Economics

Yesterday, Wilson talked about definitions and theories that he employs when looking at communications. Today, Wilson uses specific cases and examples to explore these theories. A question that he posed is: What is the impact of new media on internal discussions and dialogue in the African American community?

The attendees of the lecture were encouraged to think of the term, The Black Public Sphere. Wilson recalled a recent visit to China, which complicates notions of public sphere through communications. He urged the question: What is a public sphere in China, where people can be reprimanded for participation in communications? Dr. Wilson also mentioned working with the FCC on monopoly competition and diversity, which has the potential to make drastic changes on U.S. communications as we know it. Being at Harvard, Wilson reiterated the importance of educational institutions in communications at large, and was thankful for not burning down a building at Harvard in the 1960s.

The Amenia Conferences in 1916 and 1933

The Amenia Conferences, which were mentioned in Wilson’s previous talk yesterday, were established by Du Bois in order to convene prominent Black scholars of the time. Wilson went on to show photographs from the Amenia Conference, within which his grandfather can be seen alongside Ralph Bunche, W.E.B. Du Bois, and other scholars. The purpose of these conferences was building intellectual communities, not only in terms of race but in terms of values. Wilson mentioned his desire to call another Amenia conference, during which issues related to media and inclusion can be discussed. These conferences carried out today, especially in reference to Du Bois’ work and context and the difference today. Du Bois was thinking and writing during an in-between era, when the U.S. was moving from an agrarian society to an industrial society. The beginning of the 21st century is very similar; our society is now moving from the industrial to a post-industrial, informational society.

Economies of Communications Content

Wilson thought it was nice to see that the presidential elections boiled down to two issues: the minority vote and technology. Also, we saw the importance of data mining, and outreaching using media and technology. These issues are new, but Wilson also cites the long history that technology and media have intersected with issues of race and exclusion. What is different though, is the greater role that communications are playing in U.S. society, and the world. Communications and media are coming to the center of political economy. It’s becoming more important. Nowadays, we don’t export physical goods, so this has an impact for our GDP. What the U.S. exports is content.

These issues are becoming more central to our modern lives. But at the same time that communications take a greater role, large segments of society are being left behind, especially people of color. If we look at journalism, television, movies, the printed press, etc, we find that the number of African Americans and other people of color, in terms of leadership and ownership, are either stagnant or declining. How do we explain that? More important, as Du Bois would say, “How do we fix that?”

What would Du Bois Say?

Wilson posed this question to leaders throughout the nation using different forms of technology. However, Wilson cites several flaws in the work of Du Bois. W.E.B. Du Bois was a prodigious scholar who worked in many forms, from poetry, to essays, to scholarship. But he did not systematize his work in terms of providing a frameworks that could be used for future scholarship. Wilson asked the crowd: “Are there any Marxists in the room? Weber-ists? What about any DuBoisians? What is a DuBoisian?” Du Bois was writing before the explosion of the social sciences, and today we are looking at issues that are the essence of social science and economics research. Although Du Bois traveled the world, Wilson comments that he did not provide an overarching framework that was systematized. That is not to say that Du Bois’ legacy cannot be used to look at issues in communication today.

You Need the Following…

If Du Bois was here today and was asked about the impact of the Information Revolution, he would provided a meta answer. He would say, “to answer that question, you need the following.” He would provide some key points. According to Wilson, these points should be:

1. An empirical approach
2. Conceived categories
3. Centrality of exclusion, oppression, and discrimination, and not simply tacked on.
4. Purposeful and progressive action. Du Bois thought scholarship was good, but near the middle and end of his life, he was all about action. Any scholarly project that Du Bois would have proposed about communications would have led to a push for action and social change.

The Continued Marginalization of African Americans in Communications

The number of African American broadcast properties in 2009 totaled 1%. Since 2009, this number has dropped to .7 percent. This does not have to do with technology, or blogging, or Twitter. But with power, political power, that is exercised by political institutions in this country, and around the world. Most of the examples that we see are in the legacy media, and not so much in the new media. Wilson mentioned several African American-themed sites, such as Africana and Black Voices ( Wilson urges whether we can learned about the lessons from legacy media to learn from the new.

Theory: C@C, Communication at the Center

Looking at these issues all at once can be like drinking water from a firehouse, states Wilson. Instead, we should use theories that can help us sort and understand what we see. If we map out communications today, we see that they are more central than ever. Among young people, more than 7 hours are spent daily with some form of communications. There are all of these different levels that we must look at, so Wilson proposes his Macro, Meso, and Micro perspectives. If we are to understand the transition from the old to the new, then we must understand these three different levels of abstraction. Through examining the 1996 Act, the Minority Tax Certificate, Wilson employs his three-tiered abstraction to examine current conditions.

It is important to note that communications conditions do not occur automatically, despite the technological determinist views of many people who would argue this. There are perspectives where people actually believe that technology itself, whether computers or iPads, can allow for social mobility and social equality. It’s the view that somehow, these technologies will elevate social conditions of people of color simply by possessing them. By existing in their hands. Wilson argues the opposite, because when new technologies are introduced, we can empirically observe that social inequality actually deepens. Using this macro, meso, and micro perspectives, Wilson delves into his examples in order to show how technologies have deepened inequality.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act

1996, Telecommunications Act. This act was so important to the people involved that more lobbying money was spent on this bill than any other bill in the history of the U.S. Also, $400 million dollars were spent just blocking certain sections of the bill that were unpopular, which gives us a sense of scale.

Al Gore was Vice President, and he was interested in the Internet and how small start-ups were having trouble entering communications markets. Gore asked Clinton for the Telecommunications Portfolio, and several key figures, such as Larry Ervin, joined on. They acted like a small group of conspirators that wanted to revise the communications economy at heart to create more opportunities for small businesses, emerging tech businesses and marginalized groups. They were strategically placed to reduce the power of the telecommunications industries. Their work allowed the “Googles” of the world to emerge. It also had an impact on people of color.

In order to participate, the FCC set up a system that was purely auction based and also increased market concentration. These factors allowed larger companies to grow, and smaller business to be marginalized. Over the past 15 years, we have talked about the digital divide. However, the digital divide as we used to know it has shrunk. The new digital divide is now about ownership, management, and content of major communications industries. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to ensure that the Telecommunications Act was ushered in.

There were some structures that seemed beneficial to minority groups, such as tax reductions when media owners sold to communities of color or to women. A number of studies has shown that there is a relationship between ownership, management, and content. Ownership matters because it affects content. If we are to create a democratic society, we need a democratic media ecologies, were the voices and perspectives of people of color and women are not silenced.

There are many reasons why African American-owned communications have decreased. Some reasons relate to legislation that encourage media concentration, but there are also economic and advertisement reasons. In some cases, advertisement does not focus on people of color, so the funding may not be there at an equal rate. Studies have shown that “white eyeballs” are more valuable than the eyeballs of people of color to advertisers. The practices have profound impacts on markets and businesses of color.

Comcast and NBC Universal

Dr. Wilson also spoke about Comcast’s merger with NBC Universal. By owning NBC Universal, Comcast thought it could control information, which is the goal of industries today: to own everything that passes through their channels. However, there was pushback against Comcast because of the negative effects that this concentration of power would have on minority in communications industries. So a caveat was enacted: Comcast would have to allow minority channels, programming, and ownership as part of the merger. For a small fee of several hundreds of millions of dollars, Comcast agreed to the stipulations in order to create one of the most powerful communications conglomerate in the world. Some of the individuals that have been involved with the push for minority programming are Magic Johnson and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs.

Hollywood’s Problem

While the share of minorities working in television increased to 10% in 2005, minority writers have decreased. For feature films, this number has decreased to around 7%. These numbers have been steadily decreasing across the board, even though they were never really representative to begin with. What’s more, thirty to forty years ago, we saw shows that addressed racial and social issues. Today, we have shows like LL Cool J’s, but they do not discuss what it means to be a Black American male in a White Dominated society. These things matter, and they matter to our children. We cannot ignore the divide in content, because it truly matters.

What has been the experience of black ownership and black management in digital spaces? We have examples like Net Noir and Black Planet, at the same time that white folks were creating major sites. It would be interesting to see where these people get their capital from. One of the things that we have seen has been the aggregation of sites along ethnic lines, where African American, Hispanic, and Asian content is lumped together in order to attract more eyeballs. What has been the trajectory and the success of these companies? Many of them have been bought out by companies like the Huffington Post and NBC. Does the same relationship that we see with legacy media exist online? This is the kind of empirical research agenda that W.E.B. Du Bois would have proposed. What is the role of power? What is the role of industry? Are we teaching young women and people of color about these issues? Or are we encouraging an environment where youth should just consume and consume.

Taking Action as Scholars

Wilson brought the conversation home with a proposition to his colleagues: What can African American Studies do to research and address these issues in communications? Even in Wilson’s own field of communications, this discussion is very marginalized. “Those of us working in these fields and looking at these issues should come together, like those of the Amenia conference, and push towards creating a more inclusive future,” said Wilson.

Q & A Session

Q: Dr. Gates said that of the many examples that Dr. Wilson gave, 2 out of 3 of the African American websites were created at Harvard. This shows that the academy plays an important role in addressing these issues and taking action.

A: Wilson praised Harvard’s role in taking action, and pointed out Du Bois’ tradition of taking action in addition to his scholarship. Wilson mentioned the importance of reproducing these scholarly communities that address the intersection of race and inequality and communications. There aren’t many scholars looking at these issues, mentions Wilson, so building those networks is crucial to creating scholarship and pushing for social change.

Q: How can we approach creating Black-owned media for Black Communities?

A: Wilson discussed the journal, Black World, which intended to build community around current events a few decades back. It would be interesting to study whether these former print communities are moving online, through some of the websites that were mentioned.

Q: The title of the talk was addressing digital inequality through policy. He doesn’t feel Wilson actually addressed this, so he asked whether Wilson actually thinks it can be addressed?

A: One of Wilson’s points: Problem right now is telecommunication industries will say that they would love to hire more colored people, but they don’t sell. Wilson and his team is working with the FCC to provide an analytical framework to reach a more regulatory conclusion.

An audience member brings up projects funded by Harvard as examples of content being created by African [Americans] including a multimedia repository online for Cape Verdeans and a mapping site.

Q: Three points: First in family to graduate from college. When he finished, his father asked him if he was going to pursue a trade. For his generation, it was “quickly get to safety.” The commenter says we have to change how we think of it. Commenter was a TA while pursuing his graduate degree at Syracuse. In his opening speech, the provost at the time said “we are here to train you to be employers and not employees.” That’s a huge paradigm shift from how most people think. Finally, as a social scientist, it’s not helpful to look at anything to do with for-profit as the devil incarnate (attributes this view to Marxists). He feels that needs to change.

A: You can do stuff at universities that you can’t do at companies. At Annenberg, they’re trying to create nodes of experimentation, no grades, permission to fail. If you build it under the radar, then the economists and admin at universities won’t stifle it. Academia is a safe space for experimentation

Q : MIT Professor Fox Harrell on the Role of STEM learning (arts). What’s the role of computational literacy (algorithmic and procedural thinking) when growing innovators? How does it link to macro policies and regulations?

A: Wilson sees this most distinctly in big data. Communications deans know that big data is important. We have to be literate and numerate in terms of algorithms, computer programs and the like. Wilson’s goal is to turn out the best students in the world. Some of the students have to know how to connect social architecture in a society and social architecture in software, which is shaped by society and why they need to be at the cutting edge. Literacy is a double-edged sword because there needs to be basic literacy for everyone but also produce people who can be on the edge (he frames this as placing our bets).

Q: It was once relatively simple to have an internal-external dynamic at work that galvanized people. How do you do that now when people are faced with “if you own the press, you have the freedom of the press,” and everyone has the press (i.e.: blog)?

A: Outgroups create the strongest in groups. If you are persecuted or discriminated against, then you need to sit down with others like you to lead to collective action.

Q: But we haven’t created any sort of regular cultural events like Saturday school the way that Asians have (DC: I think this guy is talking about language schools).

A: But now, everyone’s listening. When The Root and others were created, they knew who they were talking to, and it was a group that already knew to look there. Now, when those things are written, there is no privacy. Everyone is peering in, some are sympathetic, some are stalkers and trolls. As much exposure as there is, there is some value to that privacy and in-the-family conversation.

Q: Improvements in technology continue to displace workers. Platforms such as AirBnB are creating new ways of earning income while also disrupting older industries, but it’s also affecting African Americans who often do work that is the first to be replaced. AirBnB might be doing revolutionary things, but it doesn’t replace the sort of job/job benefits that are lost.

A: What happens with displacement and globalization? “From agriculture to industry, braun could carry you [the worker] a long way. Now it will carry you nowhere.” The U.S. has to address this new digital divide in the information economy or income disparity, class and racial divide will deepen even more than it has been in a long time.