The Internet and Societal Inequity

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Topic Owners: Mark, Graham

back to syllabus

Working Framing


I'll suggest: The Internet and the Offline World? Is this incomfortably dichotomizing? I think it can nicely incorporate both social inequity and environmental impacts of online actions. --G 02:12, 14 December 2008 (UTC)


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 does 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.

Guest wish list (if any)

  • Eszter Hargittai, who is a present Berkman fellow, has done empirical work on web use in a diverse socioeconomic sample.

Readings (if any yet; OK to be preliminary)

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?

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)