Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Digital Divide

Check out this article by Johann Hari on the digital divide--

The times, they are a changin’. The internet is changing how we get our news, buy our stuff, and relate to one another. Johann Hari raises many questions about the impact of these changes. Just as the printing press helped facilitate the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, the Protestant reformation, and language based nationalism, so does the internet contain the potential to transform our world. The question is how and whether it is for the better.

Although the internet facilitates getting information quickly, it doesn't makes us more intelligent in any real sense. There is a definite sacrifice in quality in favor of quantity and speed. I had a student once say to me, quite seriously, “Why would I read a book, when I have the internet.” My heart totally sank. Although the internet may be good for looking up a few facts and getting a random opinion, I haven’t been terribly impressed with the substantive content of the internet. If you have access to an academic institution, you can usually get more in depth articles and sometimes you can pay for online subscriptions, but the “free” information is often suspect. Unless you really know what you are looking for the internet isn’t great. On the other hand, you can always find what you are looking for on the internet, no matter how ridiculous. And since many internet sites are reluctant to cite sources—it turns much of the internet into a pretty effective urban myth and rumor machine. In this culture, “reality based” arguments are often problematic. Once I was attacked in a discussion room (by a right wing conservative whose constant mantra was that liberals have opinions, conservatives have facts) because I couldn’t provide a link that corroborated my statements. When I said I read them in a book (and provided the citation), I was told that this didn’t count because he couldn’t verify it and therefore my argument was fallacious. When I said, “Go to a library”—I was told that this level of argument was inappropriate for the internet because we can’t expect people to do that. And this is a representative of “educated opinion.”

One thing I have noticed since I have been perusing the internet with regularity, is the general lack of well reasoned and well supported arguments in the blogosphere or on discssuion boards. Much of it seems to be the nature of the medium. Most discussion boards have space requirements and even if they don’t, most posters prefer quick insults, dismissive comments, or sarcastic witticism. Personal, racist, and sexist attacks are quite common. Because most posting is basically anonymous, you don’t have to PC on the PC. At a certain level that gives a certain raw realism to the internet, but I also think it encourages ridiculous ideological posturing which someone would never do in “real life” where they might have to take responsibility for their opinion.

I know I am personally guilty in some respects. I have a much easier time reading printed material than on screen material-there is something about a book in my hands which makes reading more fun. Scrolling through an internet site—not so fun. Therefore, when I post in a discussion room, I play by the rules--quick, opinion charged, shots. As Hari indicates, it may be true that basic reading can be improved through the internet over TV, but if the internet comes to supplant books (if not the physical book, but the complex content within)—we have a problem. I see a lot of this in the class room. Many students have real trouble writing understandable sentences and organizing thoughts, but can spout “facts” that come from various internet sites. The relative ease of clicking and pasting has made plagiarism a real problem. Not only do students not need to read, they don't need write or think through things logically. Internet chatting and “texting” may very well become the “Newspeak” of the 21st century.

Corporate control of the internet is a spectre. In the past few years, the internet has become much more heavily marketed, as corporations have struggled to compensate for the loss of revenue on the bood tube and radio. I am not up on the specifics regarding attempts to regulate the internet, but it seems like it is well on its way to “market regulation.” Internet marketing has become a new million dollar industry—using search engines and links to steer surfers in particular directions is the key to capitalism on the internet. Ultimately, it is all about advertising.

Believe it or not, I have a Luddite tendency in me a mile wide. That may seem silly as I type away on MS Word 2007, preparing to post my ramblings on the information superhighway, but it is true. Although I usually come around to specific technologies, I am quite slow compared to most people I know. I resisted ATM cards like the plague (but use one now), I just got my first cell phone well after most of my friends, and just started a blog about 6 mos ago. Other aspects of technology I generally reject—not big on “texting,” my cell phone is nothing special, I have an old school television, no gaming system, and I have no desire to “keep up with the Joneses” on most technological developments.

As backwards as I think I am, I realize that I am way ahead of most people. I know much more about computers than the average Joe (primarily because I use one for my job), and am probably more internet savvy then most regular surfers. And that just includes people who have access to computers on a daily basis. What about people who don’t? The true digitial divide isn’t between bloggers and corporations, it is between those who regularly use computers for their job or leisure and those who rarely touch a keyboard. In a country like the US, that may seem like not that much of a big deal, but it is bigger than most people think. According to Edutopia, approximately 54% of Americans use the internet--which means 46% don't. Those with internet access tend to be concentrated in upper income groups and white folks are over represented. From a global perspective the divide gets larger. As an example, I was an online video game at my brother in law’s and it showed where all the players were in the world—it was quite revealing. Most of the globe (except North America and a few pockets in Europe and Asia) was dark. He said, “You see where the money is”--quite right.

On the one hand, I have been impressed with the diversity of opinion on the internet. It is comforting to know that there are people out there with crazier ideas than I have. It is also personally comforting (but also disturbing)that I fare well among the educated classes. On the flip side, the internet is hardly representative of the hopes, dreams, and wishes of the general population. In that respect, it is just like the newspapers in 1850 when literacy rates were less than 50%. It is simply a reminder of how far we have to go.

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