The Internet and Societal Inequity

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Topic Owners: Mark, Graham

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Working Framing


Many of the frontiers of the internet are located at the present upper limit of innovation or social development, but the most vivid frontier is the border between online and offline. This session is designed to complicate that division and explore solutions to some of the problems it presents. After years of discussion of a "digital divide" between people with and without internet access, some social scientists have turned their attention to the differences in ways people use the internet. Are people logging on to take full advantage of the latest collaborative media and an empowering access to information? Are they logging on to shop and chat, but not seeing the same benefits as early adopters? Relatedly, how do the internet and its social configurations affect people who do not log on? Does increased connectedness among people who are online isolate those who aren't from opportunity?

A second important way in which rapid growth of internet infrastructure affects the offline world is that, indeed, the internet has a physical infrastructure. From individual terminals to fiber-optic lines and data centers, the physical footprint in mineral and energy consumption is enormous. Moreover, the conditions of disassembly and recycle of retired machinery are usually not ideal. Indeed, recent media reports have explored the intensity of environmental and human impact in "illegal" but thriving e-waste processing towns in China and elsewhere. The human impact, in the form of noxious inhalation and contaminated food and water supplies, is unsurprisingly felt by people who already have few socioeconomic opportunities.

In this session, we set out to address how online society can reduce its own negative impact, or even work toward positive effects specifically targeted at the externalities of a thriving online space.

Invited Guests

  • Eszter Hargittai A present Berkman fellow, has done empirical work on web use in a diverse socioeconomic sample among other things on the topic of social inequality and the internet.
  • Alex Wissner-Gross A fellow at Harvard who recently got media attention for work he's authoring on the environmental impact of Google searches. In addition to studying this issue, he proves an inadvertent expert on how the media often gets both academic and technical issues horribly wrong as his unpublished paper appears to have been misquoted, exaggerated, and then sensationalized.


Concrete question(s) of the week

  • How can online society incentivize responsible offline behavior?
  • What might a "responsible surfing" campaign look like, and what would be its metrics?
  • Can computers and other network components be built for safer disassembly and easier recycling?
  • Is the Internet a place where all are welcome, where all have equal access, where all can participate equally? If not why not and how so?
  • How does the Internet affect the distribution of social and cultural power?

Anything else material towards planning your topic

Preliminary Framing

Socio-technical Gap

Problems encountered in the act of discoursing itself are sometimes addressed via social means, technological means, or both. It has been suggested that technological tools should support social processes, but there is an adaptation of each realm to the other - how does this back-and-forth take place in the design of a successful technology-enabled discussion?

Which inequalities are created or strengthened due the increasing reliance on technology and the differences in the ability to access the Internet(e.g. global and socio-economic differences)? Does the net actually re-distribute and decentralize power and influence, or does it also reinforce the existing political and economic hierarchies? In short - is the Internet really a good thing for everybody?

One Laptop Per Child

Happy to help this group with info as I can. Mchua

Environmental Concerns

To what extent is the hardware upon which the Internet exists damaging the environment? Where does old tech go when it dies? What distributive impact does the "recycling" of old tech have. Was the Internet build with principles of physical sustainbility in mind? Is it too late to change? How do individual companies, like Google, view their own practices? Does the cost of a server internalize the cost of disposal? Why has it been cheaper to just keep throwing on new machines? What of the electricity necessary to run these machines? What does it say about society that we are so willing to pollute our own communities to create a second life? Has technological innovation and advancement dislocated the true impact of non-zero cost transactions? --Megerman 19:36, 29 November 2008 (EST)

Perhaps a way to innovate on these questions would be a system for tracking these offline effects of online behavior. Track hardware? A certification scheme? A carbon footprint clock for online activities? --G 02:10, 14 December 2008 (UTC)

Very good topic. I'd recommend focusing on the first half, which is rich enough to fill a whole session and associated readings and mindshare, rather than dividing between the latest on digital divide stuff and the environmental stuff. Eszter would be a natural guest for this, and I think it would be great to push her to policy proposals -- something social scientists usually shy away from. What would she want gov't or others to do to address the more subtle inequalities she wants to highlight? Whenever various people call for "more education" as a solution, as a practical matter, is that a solution at all? (Are there examples of "more education" working, when deployed in a self-conscious way? JZ 16:36, 15 December 2008 (UTC)
I agree that Eszter would be one of the best possible people for this topic. We could also consider bringing in more social scientists like Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher, but I think that might get redundant. The Envronmental concerns and the development concerns are separatable, but I might want to reconceive the first half into two components. The first would be: how do different people use the Internet if different ways and how does this disparate usage and access affect their Internet experience. The second would be: how does the Internet deepen and further pre-existing inequity in society, create new problems, or address old problems? These issues are related but not identical. We could explore how a culture of lulz means that young men in the suburbs are more likely to feel comfortable on pseudoanonymous bulliten boards and in turn how that might lead to a deepening of the gender gap when they turn their anger on classmates. We could talk about the use of social networking among people with non-traditional sexual practices and how this allows people to form new communities and escape feelings of loneliness and isolation (or conversely leads them to confuse passing interests for identity, creating new fetish subcultures that co-opt the rhetoric of oppression for bizarre ends).
I'm being longwinded again. The point I'm trying to make is that I'm fine jettisoning the environmental component but would like to keep the second-half of the feedback loop in our analysis. The question shouldn't just be how there are social concerns in the way that people use the Internet, but also that the Internet may redistribute social power.--Megerman 06:26, 20 December 2008 (UTC)

Class Participation

We hope to involve the class in the creation of a Firefox add-on that will track the estimated carbon footprint of an individual's Internet usage. This will involve breaking into small groups to explore individual technologies, such as Twitter, Facebook, GChat and other popular Internet tools. The methodology will be similar to that explored by Alex Wissner-Gross in his recent (and somewhat controversial) research.

The hope is to combine these estimates into a package which will allow individuals to understand part of the unseen impact their usage is having. The goal isn't merely to focus on the environmental impact of cyberspace, but explicitly to denaturalize one of the assumptions about the Internet. Environmental impact is diffuse and hidden from users, much like many of the social concerns we are addressing. While it might be hard to dramatically unearth how Internet communities are structured along certain social patterns, we feel that this might provide the kind of "eureka" moment when people realize that there's more going on that just what appears on their screen.