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?

This early focus on the digital divide quickly matured into a more complicated literature. Instead of merely asking "who" was and wasn't using the Internet, the questions first shifted to focus on "how." Of course, not everyone who uses the Internet does so in the same way. Researchers began looking at different types of connections, and differences among people's usage patterns once they are connected. Massive efforts at data mining and interpretation led to an increasingly sophisticated understanding of these differential usages. One such example continues at the Berkman Center, mapping the complicated blogoshere of Iran.

Learning who is using the Internet and how they are using it only brings us to the more fundamental questions. How does this differential usage divide communities or bring people together? Whose "usage" constitutes reality on the Internet and whose "usage" is largely overlooked and relegated to the background? Even if users participate differently in a growing Internet culture, do all have equal access to semiotic self-representation and cultural contribution? What are the secondary costs of hiding these differentials on a playing field that openly purports to be level?

  • 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? How has this area of research developed and what major questions remain to be asked?

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.
  • Central question: Is the Internet a tool to reduce inequality, and if so, how?

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?
    • Are there underlying biases built into legislation like this? Does such an act represent an implicit understanding of how the Internet is to be used? Whose views are reflected in such a vision? When providing expanded access in such a manner, what is it that we are giving people? What would a bill look like that understood differential usage? How active ought a technical elite be in "giving" the Internet to underdeveloped areas? Is it possible to give under-served people the tools to construct their own relationship with the Internet, or do all such efforts carry with them a reflection of the views of their creators? From one viewpoint, educating underrepresented groups resembles an imperialist attempt to impose the worldview of the powerful upon the experiences of the subordinated. From another perspective, this form of education is the only possible way to bridge preexisting divides and denying these groups access to fundamental infrastructure denies them equal opportunity to succeed in a modern networked society. Can these positions be reconciled?
  • 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.

See Harvard academic refutes Google carbon footprint story, Infoworld, Jan 14, 2009


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.