Emerging Media Episode 2: Digital Division


In her essay: "Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in the Internet Skills and Uses among Member of the "New Generation", researcher Eszter Hargittai takes a methodological approach to question the assumptions and investigations of the digital divide, namely the basic demographic and socioeconomic predictors of internet access, namely: age, gender, race/ethnicity, education, income, employment status, and place of residence. Her research distills these preconceived notions and refocuses a hypothesis around Internet users' "online skill and diversity of Web usage". Her work and methodology reveals some of the contours of inequality. Figures 1 and 2 in her essay illustrate internet use variables in relationship to parental education as well as race/ethnicity, revealing an upward trajectory when it comes to the level of education background of “digital natives”, whereas her results were more varied when discussing race, web-use, experience and autonomy. The take-away here, as the literature suggests, is that age and education are only two factors used in examining digital inequity, and yet it is really a combination of autonomy of use, Web-use skills, and their considerable variations and deviation by user background. Her work here is still a moving target, and certainly required a nuanced approach, utilizing both qualitative and quantitative elements, to more comprehensively study these relationships. The popular rhetoric at hand that web savvy Digital Natives are somehow automatically better equipped for navigating this environment does not hold true, but is largely still attributed to those who live more privileged lives (college students). So, according to her study, the internet, in the end, is set up to benefit those more privileged, and doesn’t magically level the playing field as a utopian sandbox of diversity.

Synthesising disparate characteristics of the digital divide remains the greatest challenge. In her essay “The digital production gap: The digital divide and the Web 2.0 collide” Jen Shradie opens the door on the claims of digital democracy and digital inequality through the lense of not merely participation, but also, production, as in who is making content for the public sphere. Like Hargittai, Schradie point to a class-based gap in revealing which digital voices are amplified and which voices are missing. Schradie’s study pulls from a larger pool of data, examining over 40,000 surveys conducted in an early phase of the web 2.0 boom. What isn’t surprising, again, is that the preconceived notions of the Web being an “egalitarian public sphere” are yet again up against the wall when looking at large amounts of user data, or as Schradie states, “Digital production inequality suggests that elite voices still dominate in the new digital commons.” So from another angle, somewhat Marxist in it’s repercussions of how this era’s mode of production, how society is organized around the production of these new digital/material necessities of life, a somewhat techno-feudal-capitalism, if you will - where access and digital elitism rise to the top, hidden in plain site across numerous platforms and social networking sites. Shradie outlines her definition of the activities which are included in this production gap, including building websites and writing blogs for public consumption, sorta like this one. In her she addresses the argument as to what it means to be a producer, which requires its own framework of digital production - categorizing different web-based activities and their intentions, ie. the relationship between cultural production and consumption is quite detailed and nuanced as well, especially when considering audience and outcomes of each individual activity performed on the internet. Her methodological validity seems sound, and her models are easily digestible, revealing layers of inequality, not only between high school and college educated, but also the poor and working class, the later being considerably marginalized.

In waxing a little poetic, I can’t help but to ask myself a somewhat rhetorical question: does Matthew Arnold’s assertion still hold true: “THE CRITICAL POWER IS of lower rank than the creative.”

A few final notes:

In closing, a few months ago, I was blindsided by a viral video of actor and comedian, Sacha Baron Cohen delivering a speech as the recipient of The Anti-Defamation League's International Leadership Award, which goes to "exceptional individuals who combine professional success with a profound personal commitment to community involvement and to crossing borders and barriers with a message of diversity and equal opportunity. Through his alter egos, many of whom represent anti-Semites, racists and neo-Nazis, Baron Cohen shines a piercing light on people’s ignorance and biases." (full transcript here)

Cohen, in his most heavy handed moment, says: "Today around the world, demagogues appeal to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream. It’s as if the Age of Reason – the era of evidential argument – is ending, and now knowledge is delegitimized and scientific consensus is dismissed. Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march." He goes on to say: "The greatest propaganda machine in history. Think about it. Facebook, YouTube and Google, Twitter and others – they reach billions of people. The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged – stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear."

If Cohen is attempting to address the elephant in the room, than he has the right audience to do so. But if anything, as Business Insider reports, the message fell on deaf ears, as Facebook’s response included them simply reiterating the status quo of their policies, which critics are quick to point out they don’t REALLY uphold, falling short on their fact-checking policies surrounding political ads, all while we ramp up for the critical 2020 election season.

P.S. - Here is a cool interactive web map illustrating the digital divide through maping a survey of internet speeds in high shcools around the globe: https://projectconnect.unicef.io/

Header source: pri.org

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