Sunday, March 10, 2013

Siobhan Stevenson and the Meaning of the "Digital Divide"

Siobhan Stevenson's thought-provoking and dense article, "Digital Divide: A Discursive Move Away From the Real Inequities," examines the ways in which our rhetorical understanding of the problem of the "digital divide" helps to mask deeper endemic inequalities in American society that have been exacerbated by the "transition from a Keynesian welfare state and industrial economy to a neoliberal  and globalized information economy" (page 1).

Stevenson begins her article by discussing the inadequacy of the phrase "digital divide." She observes that the term has "grown to encompass an increasingly complex array of problem definitions," while, on the other hand, she observes that the idea of the "digital divide" is often reduced to a problem of "physical access at the expense of... deeper social inequalities" (pages 1 and 2). At this point, though, rather than further pointing out the problems with the conventional understanding of the "digital divide," she investigates the term's history and offers an intriguing argument as to why this problematic idea of "the digital divide" has come to dominate discourse about inequality in the information society.

She discusses two different understandings of, both, information communication systems and of information, itself, that battled for supremacy during the 1980s and 1990s. On the one hand, some people understood information systems, as well as, information to be a "public good" that the government had a responsibility to regulate so that all citizens had the opportunity to benefit. During the first half of the twentieth century, such attitudes led the federal government to approve of and regulate the AT&T monopoly in order to"creat[e] a nationwide and interconnected telecommunications system" that subsidized "lower income and/or rural communities... through the higher pricing of services to urban users, business, and long distance users" (page 9).

On the other hand, other important governmental and corporate actors advocated for the commodification of information and the deregulation of communication systems.  Stevenson explains that "governments and industries were anxious to realize the vision of information as the fuel capable of driving a new economy," and these advocates felt that a highly regulated information system stood in their way.  "Only a deregulated and competitive environment," the free marketers argued, "would spur innovation and, by extension establish the internet as an important new site of capital accumulation" (pages 8 and 10).

Stevenson maintains that the vision of information and communications systems as commodities won out over the alternative public good view, and she intriguingly makes her case by examining the shift in federal policy from promoting "universal service" to promoting "universal access." This seemingly small change had a profound impact and would lead to the construction of our contemporary ideas about the digital divide.

Starting in the 1930s, the federal government understood the telephone network as a public good and tried to achieve "universal service" so that every household in the country could be part of this vital communication systems. In contrast, during the 1990s, federal policy defined the internet as a commodity to be delivered by the free market and promised only to promote "universal access" to this vital communication system.  This change had the effect of shifting "the target of this policy away from individual households and into the broader community," Stevenson writes. "While the state could no longer subsidize home service, it could work toward ensuring that all citizens had access to the new communications medium through local public institutions" (page 9).

This shift from "universal service" to "universal access," Stevenson contends, created the issue of the "digital divide" as we know it. Such rhetoric, she says, allowed for "the stabilization of the problem of the wealth gap as one of access to the technology... and effectively obscured the historical and class-based dimensions of the problem" (page 10). This conception of the "digital divide" cast the problem as merely a "technical issue" that the government, corporations, and philanthropic organizations could work to ameliorate, and, as access to technology became more widespread, "failure to thrive in the new economy became an individual and not a systemic failure" (page 15).

Furthermore, Stevenson contends, focusing on the "digital divide" as solely an access problem reinforces the systemic inequalities created by the post-Fordist information economy in the first place. Simply providing hardware and software to libraries or other community access points, for example, solidifies the positions of companies that benefit from the ever-expanding and restrictive copyright regimes they help to maintain. Similarly, training the underprivileged in low-level information skills, she writes, only prepares them to become fungible labor "within a regime that privileges capital's freedom to perpetually downsize, streamline, and... offshore" (page 15).

I find Stevenson's thesis intriguing, but it would have been useful  if she had been able to provide more details about the contested understanding of information and information communication technologies during the late twentieth century. She charts the change in understanding of information as a public good to information as a commodity as occurring relatively quickly during the 1990s, but, even though she cites much legislation and numerous government reports, she is rather vague about the people or organizations driving this shift. She writes about "Reagan and his advisors," "post-Industrial Democrats," "the private sector," and "the Bush Administration," for example, but beyond such generalities it's never quite clear who pushed Congress to implement the change in policy from "universal service" to "universal access."

Stevenson argues that the ALA and public libraries, in general, have been complicit in working within an understanding of the "digital divide" that necessarily obscures the true nature of inequalities in the information society, and it will be interesting to see the class' reaction to this article.

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