Digital and Political Divides

I’ve been reading Henry Jenkins’ Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (link to PDF here). Jenkins and his team at Project New Media Literacies speak of the need to prepare people to critically consume and — even more importantly — to produce new creative forms of media for broad distribution within new participatory technologies.

And simultaneously, I’ve been reading of the profound ways in which these  participatory technologies are changing political life.

In the presidential campaign, the Obama campaign’s use of the web enabled them to bypass TV networks, party structures, and major fundraisers to build  grassroots support and transparent communication in ways that will also now shape how the Obama administration governs.

And this past weekend, the user-generated website Join the Impact was central to rapidly organizing the  international grassroots protests against California’s passage of Prop 8, “astonishing long-time activists with the power and speed with which [the web] gets their message out” according to the New York Times.

So when it’s with consternation that I read Jenkins’ warnings of new forms of the digital divide. Jenkins writes of the new “participation gap”:  As policy makers have counted computers in schools toward the goal of providing “access” to technology to all kids, middle-class kids, with unfettered access to computers, adult support, and broadband at home are using computers in ways inaccessible to kids whose access it limited to public, filtered computer networks at schools and libraries.

Jenkins writes:

More often than not, those youth who have developed the most comfort with the online word are the ones who dominate classroom use of computers, pushing aside the less technically skilled classmates.  We would be wrong, however, to see this as a simple binary: youth how have technological access and those who do not. [Researchers] note, for example, that game systems make their way into growing number of working-class homes, even if laptops and personal computers do not.  Working-class youth may have access some of the benefits of play described here, but they may still lack the ability to produce and disseminate their own media.

In these new political times, technological savvy is enfranchisement.  And enfranchisement should not be dependent upon the resources that one happens to have at home.
And when I go to my teach my tech class tomorrow, I’ll again hear of computers gathering dust in the corners of classrooms in diverse schools, because no one knows how to use them, because they don’t work, because they’re considered an “extra”, because in schools, people have not yet caught on to the cultural shifts of this new participatory media culture.

2 thoughts on “Digital and Political Divides

  1. The Urban Scientist November 18, 2008 / 2:26 pm

    This so true and it has been coming on for a LONG time. Apprx 10 yrs ago Black Leaders like Jackson and Sharpton were harping on about the digital divide and wanted to get computers into every Black home. A great idea. I saw hordes of Black families – working class (like my own) and better) purchase computers from Wal-mart and other big box stores. But the overwhelming use of these computers were for solitaire and other card games. Office packages weren’t included and people were interested in paying extra for the Microsoft or similar packages – and they weren’t sure why the needed them. But what shocked me more was that parents who purchased computers really believed owning one would make their children smarter and more prepared for school.
    Years later (more recently), the kids I taught in a very poor urban high school were rather familair with computers, especially the internet. But they struggled to do what I thought to be simple class projects -like typing up a paper or making graphs or a powerpoint presentation. They needed about a quarter’s worth of instruction just to learn HOW to use the computers they saw everyday at home or at school.

    Somehow, the idea of having a computer (the material thing) doesn’t translate to being computer literate. Some serious issues need to be addressed. And you’re right, it only further separates the have from the have nots, making their access to resources (services, policians, info, etc) more challenging and foriegn.

  2. janevangalen November 19, 2008 / 7:30 am

    Hello US.

    Yeah, things are moving so rapidly in the tech world that it’s getting harder to even know what we don’t know, but kids with savvy parents and unfettered access to broadband are figuring it out.

    I’m wondering, too, about divides in how much of the internet is blocked in middle-class schools and working class poor schools. I have only anecdotal info, but I’m wondering of poor and working class kids have access to teachers who do the advocacy work to get basic tools unblocked, or if their teachers are less savvy themselves about the potential learning that can happen with new technologies.

    It feels like a huge project to get this conversation started. I sometimes have interns in my tech courses in teacher ed argue that they should be spending their time elsewhere because the kids they teach don’t have access to computers at home or at school.

    I argue that those same kids have limited access to good books at home or at school, but no one is making the case that we shouldn’t then be teaching them to read.

    It’s a daunting challenge!


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