Misunderstanding Race and the Digital Divide

by Joseph Miller, Guest Contributor on December 16, 2011

“One of the surest signs of the Philistine is his reverence for the superior tastes of those who put him down.” -Pauline Kael

What is to blame for digital age inequality?  The digital divide behind door number one?  Or the digital divide behind door number two?  These seem like silly questions.  That’s because they are.  But no matter what the reason is, some advocates always manage to find a way to misunderstand the lifestyle choices of people of color.

Last week was a busy week for progressives.  On December 3rd, The New York Times published an op-Ed by Susan Crawford, a long time net neutrality advocate, professor of law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of law, and former special assistant to President Obama on science, technology, and innovation policy.  Crawford wrote that smartphones—the devices that African-Americans and Latinos overwhelmingly prefer for accessing the internet—provide a “second class” tier of Internet service, as compared to the high-speed wired internet access that middle-class urbanites and suburbanites are able to enjoy via computers connected directly to the Internet.  In a blog post in Colorlines—a blog focusing on issues affecting minorities—Colorlines News Editor Jamilah King reiterated Crawford’s thesis, then went the extra mile of calling out the NAACP and National Urban League for taking funding from telecommunications companies like AT&T and Sprint.

The problem with Crawford and King’s approach is that they cast wireless broadband and smartphones in their worst possible light.  High-speed broadband and wireless broadband each have a distinct set of unique advantages over the other, making neither of them superior to the other in all respects.  If wireless were a substitute for high speed internet access, there would be no competition.

This dichotomy is not a race issue.  I have not seen any minority groups make the argument that wireless broadband is a complete substitute for high speed internet.  I have heard them say that, in the absence of high speed internet, or where high speed internet is not affordable, wireless is a lifeline.  However, I have not seen any organizations say that we should forget about high speed Internet access for communities of color and focus exclusively on ensuring that communities of color have smartphones. So the idea that there is some grand conspiracy to “trick” minorities into using mobile devices instead of computers sounds specious to me.

High speed internet access is critical for exposing people of color to the culture of innovation from which they have largely been excluded.  In this context, wireless internet access is not a substitute for high speed internet access.  Nor is it a substitute for some of the uses that Crawford mentions in her article, such as writing resumes, using remote healthcare applications, or for earning a degree online (although the current success rate of online learning for minorities is dismal).  But the exclusionary culture of Silicon Valley is not something that mainstream media advocates have addressed.  If corporations are really “D.C.’s most truly bipartisan, non-ideological lobbying force, spreading their money around everywhere from the halls of Congress to the advocacy organizations that represent communities’ interests there,” as King asserts in her article, wouldn’t minority organizations have a more diverse funding base?  Why not attack the technology companies that don’t fund them?  Why not attack free market groups more often?  Why are minority-oriented groups such easy targets?

Mainstream media advocates pooh-pooh minorities’ use of smartphones, but at the same time we debate about why so few African-Americans are participating in the Occupy Wall Street Movement, even though African-Americans are among those racial and ethnic groups most affected by socioeconomic disparities.  “Protesters” are Time magazine’s Person of the Year.  Could anyone plausibly question whether the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street protests would have been as successful as they have been were it not for wireless broadband?

From the outset of the digital divide debate in 1995, the Department of Commerce’s National and Information Administration (NTIA) has expressed the need to evaluate more than just telephones to determine who are the “haves and have nots” when it comes information access and participation.  NTIA’s report stated, “While a standard telephone line can be an individual’s pathway to the riches of the Information Age, a personal computer and modem are rapidly becoming the keys to the vault.”  But in 1995, according to CTIA, the Wireless Industry trade association, there were just 33.8 million wireless subscribers in the U.S. By 2009, that number had grown to 277.6 million.  Just as it was important to avoid allocating excessive resources toward universal telephone service as computers began to take hold, it is equally important to acknowledge that wireless offers a different value proposition vis-à-vis wireline broadband.

High-speed internet access and bandwidth are absolutely essential for supporting American innovation in Silicon Valley.  But commoditizing minorities to bolster that underlying argument is patently irresponsible.  There is no “new” digital divide—we are faced with the same digital divide that we have been faced with since at least 1940.  Wireless broadband has helped to close part of that gap, but we still have a long way to go.

This article by Joseph Miller, Esq., Deputy Director and Senior Policy Director of the Media and Technology Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, originally appeared on joemillerjd.com.

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  • Chipro

    Smartphones “provide a “second class” tier of Internet service, as compared to the
    high-speed wired internet access that middle-class urbanites and
    suburbanites are able to enjoy via computers connected directly to the

    Ok, I’ll admit that you can do more on a computer than on a smartphone, but in this day and age – not much. You wouldn’t believe how often I sit on my couch or even at my desk at work with a computer or laptop within 2 feet of me and I turn to my phone instead for convenience. Why go through all the hassle of the computer when I can hit a few buttons on my phone and check email, get the news, and perform any kind of Google/Bing search I want?

    If you ask me, smartphone access is better than no access, and you’re not missing much by not having a computer.

  • Guest

    It’s true that both wireless and high-speed internet access have their respective advantages and disadvantages, but I think the type of access is besides the point. The real issue comes down to the device, and desktop and laptop computers are, at least at this point in time, far superior to smartphones and tablets. Imagine trying to write a paper or a blog post on a smartphone. Conducting research. Creating a resume and applying for a job. Editing video. Recording music. Creating graphics and animations. There are still tasks that these devices are not capable of handling.

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