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.
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.