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?
  • Also with Eszter Hargittai, we review some of the frontiers of our knowledge. What questions are researchers not yet able to answer?

Understanding and Defining Inequality Online (15–20 min.)

In this section, we introduce our case studythe proposed funding to expand access to broadband connections in the rural United States. We use this proposal, discussed in the Pew reading, as a context in which to discuss our central question: Is the Internet a tool to reduce inequality, and if so, how?

At this point we ask members of the seminar to begin submitting comments and questions using the Berkman Question Tool[1]. Participants without laptops will experience a bit of a digital divide: they must either participate vocally or submit through a friend's terminal.

Before jumping fully into the discussion of broadband expansion, we'd like to use the group to examine ways in which the Internet may change the way we need to understand inequity. We will present some kinds of privilege and status differentials that exist in the context of the Internet, and compile a list of criteria fo shape the coming discussion.

  • 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?

Concluding Discussion/Case Study

  • Depending on what happens in conference 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?
    • Other questions we'll discuss through this section: 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?
    • [[2]]
  • An addendum, if we have time: Our introduction will include data on global use, as it exists. If we turn to a global perspective, how can access to the Internet affect equality in diverse international settings? What policies would be effective when dealing with populations where, as is the global average, only one-fifth of people are online?



  • 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.


Class Participation

We hope to involve the class during the presentation through the use of the Berkman Question Tool. This is an interactive mechanism by which we can receive feedback, address questions, change direction, and incorporate new ideas. Furthermore, by directing questioning away from traditional hand-raising and face-to-face communication, we hope to reflect some of the ideas we will be discussing. How will such a change alter traditional interactive dynamics between presenters and the audience? Will this empower those who otherwise would remain silent, or will it allow merely a few to continually raise their questions at the expense of others?

Those who do not bring computers to class or do not know how to use the tool will be unable to participate in this practice, a poignant reminder of unequal access concerns that animate much of this section.