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Digital deficits Public representations of digital communications technology. James Sumner Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine University of Manchester, UK Techno-utopianism: connectivity as the great leveller.

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Digital deficits

Public representations of digital communications technology

James Sumner

Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

University of Manchester, UK


Techno-utopianism: connectivity as the great leveller

Like a force of nature, the digital age cannot be denied or stopped...

The traditional centralist view of life will become a thing of the past... While the politicians struggle with the baggage of history, a new generation is emerging from the digital landscape free of many of the old prejudices. These kids are released from the limitation of geographic proximity as the sole basis of friendship, collaboration, play, and neighborhood. Digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony...

A previously missing common language emerges, allowing people to understand across boundaries... The access, the mobility, and the ability to effect change are what will make the future so different from the present... we are bound to find new hope and dignity in places where very little existed before.

Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (1995)


The Digital Divide

Two years ago, President Clinton and I challenged America to connect every classroom – inner-city, rural, suburban – to the Information Superhighway by the year 2000. We challenged the nation to ensure that all of our teachers and students have access to modern computers and engaging educational software. We challenged the nation to provide all teachers with the training and support they need in order to help students make the most of these wonderful new technologies. We challenged the nation to make sure that our children will never be separated by a digital divide.

And America has responded to that challenge. Last March, the President and I rolled up our sleeves and worked alongside 20,000 other volunteers in California to hook up one-fifth of California's schools to the Information Superhighway in a single day...

Al Gore, public speech, Knoxville, Tennessee

10 October 1996


Assumptions underpinning the Digital Divide model

  • Digital connectivity…
  • is the crucial issue of our times
  • is binary (present or absent)
  • is progressive (presence is an improvement on absence)
  • distinguishes empowered from powerless
  • distinguishes development from underdevelopment
  • can be quantified by counting Internet terminal access points
  • can and should be remedied with reference to this quantitative understanding

Assumptions underpinning the Deficit Model in science communication

  • Science…
  • is iconic in modern-day thought
  • is a natural kind
  • is a unitary, coherent and progressive enterprise
  • distinguishes the wise from the ignorant
  • must be central to public life in a developed nation, and may be an indicator of economic viability
  • displays a spread or uptake which can straightforwardly be measured – as, correspondingly, can its absence
  • Points made chiefly in Brian Wynne, “Knowledges in Context” (1991); and in essays in Irwin and Wynne, eds, Misunderstanding Science? (1996)

Problematisations of the Digital Divide

  • Crude technological fix: social problems must be addressed at the social level (Rob Kling, Mark Warschauer)
  • “The Internet” is not a monolith. Modes of use and engagement vary (Eszter Hargittai, Nathan Ensmenger)
  • Non-use cannot be written off as irrational or backward (Sally Wyatt); whole “use”/“non-use” divide is problematic when dealing with extended systems anyway
  • Current ethnographic work: digital connectivity doesn’t provoke wondrous learning revolution and empower disenfranchised (Andrea Press)
  • We’ve been here before! Representations of the microcomputer – connected or not – as intrinsically educational tool of national salvation around 1980, later rejected (cf David Skinner, Neil Selwyn on this)

The present: techno-cynicism?

While I manage to fend off pop-up windows with Mozilla, and spam with Spamassassin, most people don’t know about those programs. They live in the “hinternet”, that shanty-town of X10 pop-ups and porn adware, and endless, endless Hotmail and Yahoo spam. They’re tourists in the world of the Net, and like any tourist, they rarely get a good guide. They’re just taken down the back streets by disreputable but flashy showmen, and robbed for everything they’re worth. And it’s true, we don’t do as much as we should for them, because we’re okay in our little burbclaves.

Danny O’Brien

Posting to personal weblog, 15 April 2003


The manifesto

  • Reject dazzling-light buzzwords (“digital,” “virtual,” “Web 2.0,” “e-”) and simplistic reductive categories (“using the Internet”): seek contextual understanding of actual technosocial processes
  • understand that hands-on use is a poor indicator of use in general
  • accept non-use as non-pathological; reject narratives of linear progress
  • question divides: who presents them and why? Do they represent nature, or are they rhetorical devices for self-identification? (Or both...?) In the latter case, are they any less significant?