You Forgot the Foreingers

In discussing contemporary usage culture of the Internet, non-Western, and even non-American perspectives are almost wholly ignored. As Watkins so happily remarks, home Internet access in 1999 “among youth 8-18 years old, 57% of white youth, 35% of black youth, and 25% of Latino youth lived in homes with Internet access” has risen substantially (2012:1). The 2010 update of the same Kaiser Foundation data cited by Watkins gives the statistics as 88% of white youth, 78% of black youth, and 74% of Hispanic youth within the same age range (23). All jolly good, and rightfully so. The Internet provides access to a wealth of information and opportunities, social and economic. It is critical to having equal footing in the modern world.

However, Watkins thoroughly ignores non-American actors. On this front, Daniels (2009) does a little better than Watkins, but where Watkins discusses the numbers of the digital divide Daniels only works with the use. Daniels discusses “the mobilization of global awareness and opposition to the repressive Taliban regime by the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan” as “just one example of the effective use of the Internet by a global feminist organization” and the use by many women of “the Internet as a ‘safe space’ for resisting the gender oppression that they encounter in their day-to-day lives offline” (2009:108). Never though does Daniels gives numbers for Internet access abroad. Indeed, she explicitly refers to the digital divide only within an American context (2009:106).

One can measure the availability of “safe spaces” online in terms of the number of these spaces that exist, but are these spaces actually accessible? Imagine it like the question of the actual accessibility of an unoccupied (available) parking space on the opposite side of a busy two-way road. It exists, but does it make a practical impact on your efforts to park? As Daniels notes in discussing the digital divide in America, “the empirical research indicates that most of the apparent ‘digital divide’ in computer ownership and Internet access, has been the effect of class (or socioeconomic status) more than of gender and race” (2009:106, citing ‘Norris 2001’). So what, then, about the world outside of North America and Europe?

The conversation that ignores the global digital divide ignores several key concerns:

  1. Is the Internet available? Even if one does not have home Internet or access to it at a public terminal, would it be possible to install it? Some regions are geographically isolated from where data cables running between business hubs exist. There is still a serious physical component to Internet access.

    Global Internet access.

    Global Internet access. Click to access zoomable map.

  1. In what form is the Internet available? Is it censored, such as the so-called Great Firewall of China? Are there strict access controls with many websites blocked? Many countries officially only provide access to part of the Internet.
  1. To whom is the Internet available? This whole line of questing is based on the assumption that domestic US divides along economic lines exist among nations too. Can this line of thinking be shrunk down again? Is Internet infrastructure universally poorly developed in some countries, or does the same sort of class-based inequity exist abroad too? When Daniels discusses the Internet as a “safe space” in oppressive cultures, which women get to use the Internet?
  1. What can be done to increase access to the Internet? Can programs like Facebook’s Internet drones or Google’s Internet balloons actually increase access to the Internet? Is there a transition to Internet-capable phones in countries with low Internet rates but high mobile phone usage? Programs like One Laptop Per Child are criticized and ridiculed, but can their efforts or similar ones do anything to help fight global inequity, or are they wholly worthless?

    OLPC use in Kenya.

    OLPC use in Kenya.

My worry about Daniels and Watkins is not so much with what they say, as with what they do not say. I believe they should star applying lessons they have learned from the great closing of the American domestic digital divide and the use of the Internet by those economically privileged. Indeed, the cases made by Bauwens (2013) and Fuchs (2013) is that the Internet is the source and enabler of much wealth. The obvious solution then seems to be to focus on increasing Internet access. By encouraging construction of new cables and providing technology, physical limitations on access will no longer be a problem. Ultimately, if it is both true that wealth is a driver of access and that freedom of access and if the Internet drives wealth growth (by allowing people to participate in the increasingly globalized and networked economy), it should hopefully bring with it correlating features.

Let American academics not get caught up in our own successes, but instead shift our perspective to a larger one using lessons learned at home.

  1. Bauwens, Michel. “Thesis on Digital Labor in an Emerging P2P Economy.” Scholz, Trebor, ed. 2013. Digital Labor: The Internet As Playground and Factory. New York: Routledge.
  2. Fuchs, Christian. “Class and Exploitation on the Internet.” Scholz, Trebor, ed. 2013. Digital Labor: The Internet As Playground and Factory. New York: Routledge.
  3. Daniels, Jessie. 2009. “Rethinking Cyberfeminism(s): Race, Gender, and Embodiment.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 37 (1): 101–24.
  4. Freedom House. “Freedom on the Net 2013: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media.” 2013.
  5. Norris, Pippa. 2001. Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty, and the Internet Worldwide. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  6. One Laptop Per Child. Untitled background image from “Kenya: joyful collaboration” page on OLPC website. Jpg image.
  7. Rideout, Victoria J., Ulla G. Foehr, and Donald F. Roberts. 2010. “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds.” Kaiser Family Foundation.
  8. Watkins, S. Craig. 2012. “Digital Divide: Navigating the Digital Edge.” IJLM 3 (2): 1–12.
  9. World Bank. “Internet users (per 100 people).” 2014.

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