Digital Dead End

April 23, 2011

I recently finished reading a new book by Virginia Eubanks, Digital Dead End (MIT Press 2011). It was excellent. It reminds me of the importance of speaking out about what’s actually happening around technology vs. what we’d like to believe about it.

The book documents the author’s 2+ years of participatory action research with women in upstate New York. It illustrates how today’s “technology poor” (the approximate third of Americans without reliable communications access) do in fact heavily participate in the information economy – often as low-wage data entry workers or service workers, and also in terms of navigating and being monitored by the social service system. I found that one of the most interesting narrative threads of the book was the contextualization of the story in Troy, NY: a city that has been trying to boost itself into the information age by offering major incentives and tax breaks for high tech companies to locate there. The result has been that a few high tech jobs have been created, while rising housing and real estate prices have pushed many poor and working class people out of the city – not an unfamiliar story

The book gels with themes we observed in our study Broadband Adoption in Low Income Communities, which was commissioned by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to inform the National Broadband Plan in 2010. In this study we were tasked with investigating the reasons why more than one third of Americans don’t have high speed internet at home, including the possibility that some may not find it “relevant” to their lives. In a comprehensive qualitative study – the largest in the US on this topic – we found no evidence of that.  Rather, a complex narrative emerged about the pressures we (all) face related to technology: misgivings about how heavy tech use is affecting us and our children, and the fact that, whether we like it or not, in today’s world we are increasingly required to be connected in order to complete basic life tasks – to find work or an apartment, to complete school work or communicate with the government, etc. The “relevancy” issue – do people want the internet? – has long been a part of the policy debate around the digital divide, and for anyone engaged in this “Digital Dead End” is a must-read.

Throughout the book Eubanks talks from her own experience, writes clearly about complex issues, makes her research methods transparent, and includes – directly – the voices of her co-collaborators through short transcript excerpts and longer “portraits”. Much of Eubanks’ work is informed by the tradition of popular education and the work of Paulo Freire, including the idea that the people who most directly experience a problem are the best equipped to solve it (in this case, the “technology poor”). Similar principles have been adopted by the user design research community, but often times it is only the most profitable users who are sought out to problem-solve their problems.

Finally, via the voices of the woman of Troy, NY, “Digital Dead End” offers a refreshing perspective on the digital divide. The women argue that a true bridging of this would mean that people on both sides of the divide would start talking with and listening to each other (see this article, Zones of Silence, for an expansion on this concept). The women specifically suggest that the one most useful thing that government could do vis-a-vis helping “the disconnected” with technology is to inquire about what is going on in communities – that are perhaps unlike their own – and at what life is truly like for people in the information age (p. 156). The FCC did in fact reach out in this capacity during the National Broadband Plan. It should both be highly commended for this and encouraged to continue this work.


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