Creating Technology for Social Change

Liveblogging #PPDD17: Global Perspectives on Gaps in Digital Divide Understanding and Research

I’m in San Diego at the Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide (PPDD) 2017 conference. PPDD engages a broad diversity of individuals and organizations to spearhead a multi-associational, multi-disciplinary partnership among scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to make significant contributions in closing the digital divide and addressing the many other challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age. I’ll be here speaking about some of my ongoing research on Mapping Information Access and liveblogging the other panels as I can.

This liveblog represents a best-efforts account, not a direct transcript, of the lecture, presentation, and/or panel.

Our next panel is titled Gaps in Digital Divide Understanding and Research: Global Perspectives. Our panelists are:

  • Chair: Karen Mossberger, Arizona State University
  • Neha Kumar, Assistant Professor, School of International Affairs and School of Interactive Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Andrea Kavanaugh, Senior Research Scientist and Associate Director,
    Center for Human Computer Interaction and Courtesy Appointment: Computer Science Department, Virginia Tech
  • Hernan Galperin, Research Associate Professor, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California
  • Blanca Gordo, International Computer Science Institute

Neha Kumar shares her backstory as a software developer to someone with a PhD in ICT and a focus on development, particularly among marginal peoples in India. She places a particular focus on dispelling myths and uses ethnographic approaches to help do this and to craft new narratives that center users as opposed to imposing narratives of how people should use technologies.

Today, Neha reviews her ethnographic work among Indian youth as they use Facebook. She shares stories and interviews from her participants about the uses and gratifications Facebook brought them, and if/how participants learned “from their environment,” meaning both the technical and social milieu in which they found themselves immersed.

At Georgia Tech, and with other collaborators, Neha is running a project called TanDEm, a feminist HCI project that studies “how empowerment translates across geographic, disciplinary, and socioeconomic boundaries, [as well as] designing so that individuals from underserved and under-represented communities are able to act, engage, and participate.” She leaves us with the ‘big idea’ of ‘respect,’ which she sees as a necessary condition for working (unoppressively) with and across subjects, countries, fields, and other boundaries.

Andrea Kavanaugh begins by saying she has worked for decades in ICT for development, not only in the ‘developing world’ of the global south but the ‘developing world’ of Appalachia and in community computing in rural Virginia. She traces the history of an ‘electronic village’ project from the early 1990s, in which Virginia Tech collaborated with federal offices and public libraries to help connect towns, to today, where some of her participants are illiterate but still have cell phones. “My fundamental argument is that people who cannot read or write are still learning basic computing skills on their cell phones, and that these skills can translate off their phones into other contexts.” Andrea canvasses a series of projects that she’s been a part of to help create common community spaces (both at libraries and outside of libraries) that can help facilitate this kind of capabilities-building.

Hernan Galperin says that, instead of talking about his own research, he wants to ask whether we can connect everyone, and if we want to. 20 years ago, the answer was unequivocally yes: this is a great technology, and everyone will use it if we can just get them access, and it will be a social equalizer. In retrospect, he says, this was simplistic. Part of these misunderstandings arose from the fact that the Internet was built on the telephone network, and so people assumed that, like the telephone network, connectivity was sufficient (and empowering). However, the general-purpose technology of the web was fundamentally different.

The fundamental question Hernan poses is: what does it meant to be digitally connected? The historic binary of the digital divide was inaccurate but also urgent because it is so clear. Meanwhile, various forms of nuance (ranges and kinds of access, or literacies) are more accurate and subtle but also are confusing from a policy perspective. In some cases, trends may point in opposite directions: simple connectivity may be increasing while inclusion/equity decreases. In order to make advances, Hernan argues, we need to “build a better knowledge condition” and refine concepts, metrics, and outcomes so that our research can be more accurate and more usable.

Blanca Gordo opens by stating her excitement at being surrounded by people who care about (in)equality in, with, and through technology. At the same time, she says that she’s surprised we still have to debate such (in)equality, given the empirical record. She raises and reviews a set of questions about what conditions – politically, governmentally, economically, pedagogically, and technologically – are necessary and sufficient for achieving more equality. She advocates for the term “new entrants” as opposed to “late adopters” when referring to subaltern communities; “you can’t be late to something that was never offered to you.” Blanca argues that too many researchers and policymakers continue to ascribe the results of inequality to personal choices when they are in fact the product of what she calls “digital destitution.” She concludes with a rousing call for a renewed focus on the structural factors that exclude and disempower disadvantaged individuals and communities.