Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Digital Divide(s): Theory v. Praxis

Digital divides: a newer term, perhaps losing its vogue, for "social inequities" for the Information(alist) Age. This is the best explanation I can give for the concept we have been examining all semester. Arguing for or against their existence is an exercise without much merit, because digital divides are the differences in access and equity inherent to an increasingly networked world. The true debate, therefore, is in matter of degree and in examining divides in theory vs. praxis. In other words, a "Mercedes Divide" (with thanks to Michael Powell; this one never gets old) is still a divide.

As for theory v. praxis, the trouble with overwhelming issues of social injustice is that they are...overwhelming. Many people become bogged down in pointing out that other needs ought to take precedence over providing areas of the disconnected Fourth World (c.f. Castells) with ICT. Yet it seems to me that these things need not compete against each other and, in fact, that they are often so inextricably interrelated that to place them on a hierarchy often unreasonably and unrealistically simplifies them beyond meaning. Scholars such as Jeffrey James, for example, in responding to Compaine, Fink and Kenny, underscore the cumulative (exponential, perhaps) effect that IT innovations have in developing countries in the way they foment further innovations, research and discovery. This is just one way in which these issues form a complex relational web with each other, if we assume the inverse is also likely true.

To be sure, neoluddites who are wary of technology may reject technological engagement in the developing world (be that in the rural US or rural Namibia, to name just two examples) as a solution to sociopolitical ills, but I hazard a bet that the majority of such people are outsiders who frequently benefit from ICT in their own life, whether or not they recognize their own cultural engagement on a macro scale.

For people who are critical of technology developments being simply a means to "open a new market" to transnational corporate conglomerate interests for exploitation purposes, however, but are not against technological innovation wholesale on moral or other grounds, I do believe that there may be another way. My own understanding of these issues remains too lacking in sophistication to develop these thoughts without a great deal more precision (check back with me in about four years), but I do reject the notion put forth by some classmates in this thread that the globalized capitalist corporate monoculture is here to stay, and get used to it, full stop. It actually doesn't have to be that way. Human beings still have agency and still have control to manifest another vision of society in a manner that feels more palatable and more humane.

While some individual projects and programs designed to close/ford/bridge/insert-overused-metaphor-here the digital divide may reasonably seem to be so much tilting at windmills, they all don't have to be. Coupled with agitation and renewed efforts in other arenas to reform, rebuild and otherwise wrest back control into the hands of the people, these efforts can and will be successful and have meaning. Right now, for me, all of these discussions are largely academic. Will I become more disillusioned or enthused after my summer spent working on concrete, pragmatic policy initiatives designed to address some of these divides? Only time will tell. I am hoping that experience, as well as that of the reading of the few hundred books and articles on this subject that I suspect is just around the corner for me will elucidate these issues further. For now, I can say unequivocally that to ask if there is a divide is the wrong question. The right one is to ask what we, as global neighbors in the 21st century, intend to do about making our neighborhood a place we all would want to live. That, to me, is theory into praxis.


  1. I think you make a good point that there are lots of kinds of divides (you're right, "Mercedes divide" never does get old), and one of the things we have to consider is which ones to focus on. It's easy to latch on to something like the digital divide because technology seems like a sexy thing to talk about, but it still has to be considered in the context of other divides and action should be taken in that context. We can't change only one thing at a time.

  2. I can't help but hear arguments against addressing the digital divide as being too socialist, but is an issue of social justice based on socialism or equity?