The Internet and Societal Inequity

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Topic Owners: Mark, Graham

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Schedule for this session

Introduction (approx. 45 min)

John Perry Barlow's 1996 "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" presents some people's dream for the Internet: the creation of libertarian utopia, devoid of regulation and open to free expression by all. "We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace," Barlow concludes. "May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before."

By the time of this particular statement of cyberspace utopianism, however, a parallel concern was emerging; even if the online world was more humane and fair, a "digital divide" between those with access to such a space and those without was attracting attention. If being online was such a great thingfor freedom, for learning, or for getting aheadwhat would happen to people who were left out?

Of course, not everyone who uses the Internet does so in the same way. There are different types of connections, and differences among people's usage patterns once they are connected.

  • With the help of Eszter Hargittai, we examine the extent of our knowledge about the state of inequality among Internet users. What are the most illuminating findings from social scientists in this field?

Understanding Inequality Online (15–20 min.)

  • Also with Eszter Hargittai, we review some of the frontiers of our knowledge. What questions are researchers not yet able to answer?
  • Turning to a global perspective, we consider some of the other divides that exist online. A user whose connection is filtered by government authorities, or one who reads a language with little available material, experiences a certain realm of possibilities. We'll outline some of the barriers here for discussion.

Discussion/Case Study (remainder)

  • Depending on what happens in committee between this writing and our meeting, the U.S. Congress either will or will not fund a large investment aimed at bringing broadband access to rural areas where it is currently unavailable. What are the pros and cons of this policy? What other means might we employ to expand opportunities?
  • Has the Internet changed the criteria by which we might define inequality? The proposed funding for broadband might suggest it does. What factors other than access are most relevant? Does a person's ability to control what a Google search for one's name calls up impact opportunities?



  • 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.


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.