Double-Edged Sword, Blessing-and-a-Curse, etc.

According to this week’s readings, the Internet has the potential both to help and to harm, to alleviate disparity and exacerbate disparity, depending on how we decide to use it. We already know this – perhaps even take it for granted – but I reminded myself that I would much rather grow somewhat tired of hearing these comments, than “cyberutopian” ideas of the Internet’s infallible democratizing power. Since so many people still believe in the latter, isn’t it worth driving the double-edged sword argument home? Plus, the readings show how this basic concept can be fleshed out in very different and interesting ways.

“Cumulative Effect of Adversity” (178) pretty much sums it up. 

The Learning Race and Ethnicity chapter – discussing the role of the Internet in mediating racial health disparities – was chock full of mutually reinforcing factors that culminate in minorities getting the short end of the stick, for a change.


Photo by Flickr user sekalovesntn; find original here.

Internet aside, the article reiterates how race, low socioeconomic status, prejudices in the health care system, adverse health behaviors, and lack of insurance all play off each other to basically ensure that health disparities between whites and minorities persist. The Internet adds additional hurdles, and these extend far beyond access issues alone. The article shifts the conversation from “whether” to “how” people use the Internet (something I mentioned wanting more of in a past post), and recognizes how racial differences are also manifested through three individual characteristics that, in turn, influence health outcomes: Health Information Orientation (motivation to seek info), Health Information Efficacy, and Technological Efficacy (these last two boil down to self-confidence). Basically, individuals who possess higher levels of these three things are poised to benefit health-wise from the Internet and those who don’t, aren’t. These “haves” and “have-nots” are unfortunately also determined by the unofficial law of cumulative adversity.

Because the Internet has the potential to empower individuals with health information, resources, and support, the article calls for “capacity building” and “skills-training” programs for disadvantaged groups, and “culturally sensitive design” to appeal to these groups as well. However, far easier said then done, especially when framed in these overly vague terms. The primary hopeful example of such an initiative is MySistahs, and while I think the website is a fantastic and well-executed idea, the fact remains that it is still a website. The very people that the website hopes to reach are those who–according to this chapter–are least likely to have the motivation and self-confidence necessary to lead them to this webpage.

World Disasters Report 2013: Focus on technology and the future of humanitarian action 

In the Interests of space, I won’t spend too much time on this one, though I look forward to discussing the chapters we all chose to read in class. It was really exciting (a) that this topic was the focus of a report of this kind at all, and (b) how many ways technology has been used to help humanitarian aid initiatives, whether by enhancing early warning mechanisms, on-the-ground involvement, simple information dissemination, or training/education. However, it maintained that necessary undercurrent of caution, by reiterating the effects of cumulative adversity (p. 10 – “Those least likely to have access to technology – the poor, the uneducated, women – are also the most vulnerable to disasters”), access issues, and that “What matters is not technology, but how we use it” (p. 11).


I love thought-provoking social science books written to appeal to people outside of academia. Of the three, Rewire was the reading in which I felt most like an active participant; the concepts were presented in an intriguing but simple way, and its ideas and assertions quickly provoked more questions and ideas on my part. I’ll list some of the ideas or phrases in the text that stood out the most, along with snippets from; my subsequent streams of consciousness (including questions for us to discuss)

  • Comparison of SARS Epidemic to Arab Spring/Information Dissemination: Seem to remember from Sociology 190 that particular network configurations favor disease/information transmission, while other structures bring different benefits (social support, protection from disease…?). Is it possible that in moving towards this particular hyperconnected state, we are losing benefits from other types of social configurations?
“The Texting Family” from Tony Cuozzo's Flickr page. Find Original Here

“The Texting Family”
from Tony Cuozzo’s Flickr page.
Find Original Here

  • In reference to the US being initially unaware of Arab Spring events: “Our challenge is not access to information; it is the challenge of paying attention” (19): How much can we really pay attention to? Has our attention capacity really increased, or do we just deceive ourselves into thinking that it has? If it has (or hasn’t) how do we decide what to pay attention to?
  • On page 28, the talk of similar hype surrounding telegraphs, airplanes, radio, and television: Many argue that people are naturally inclined to believe that the technological innovations of their time are the most revolutionary; do we think the Internet is just another social advancement of equal measure, or is there actually something unique about its scope and effects? If so, what sets this technological advancement apart from the rest?
  • Page 23: Contact Theory v. Conflict Theory v. Constrict Theory: From our experiences, when do each of these come into play (because obviously it is not just one)? 
  • #MuslimRage (34-36): Does the Internet — specifically because we set so much store by its informational capacity — make us more vulnerable to availability bias? If we only see one side of a story on the Internet, are we now more likely to believe it is the only story? (Conversely, if it doesn’t appear on the Internet, are more likely to believe it never happened? “Pics or it didn’t happen”)

Questions for the Class: 

I asked a bunch of questions above, which can definitely be opened up to the class. But in particular:

1) What do you guys think about the statement that: “Our challenge is not access to information; it is the challenge of paying attention”? How do we decide what to pay attention to (is it even entirely within our own power to decide)? Has our attention span increased, decreased? Considering the story that inspired #MuslimRage, would you agree that access to information (all of the information) is no longer the issue?

2) All of these articles discuss the importance of making good choices and taking responsibility for shaping the Internet as a tool. As the Internet grows and almost takes on a life of its own, how powerful do we think individual action can be, especially in relation to racial health disparities, and where can individuals have the most impact?

3) Contact Theory v. Conflict Theory v. Constrict Theory: Discuss! Based on your experiences, which do you encounter most in your online experiences? Are these mutually exclusive? do they develop in a cycle? could we ever have just one?


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