Hipness/Digital Divide: The Homeless at SXSW

First came this brief mention on the New York Times Tumblr coverage of the  the uber-hip South By Southwest music and media event that attracts “the most data hungry crowd in the world”.

Homeless people have been enlisted to roam the streets wearing T-shirts that say “I am a 4G hotspot.”

A few hours later, writers for the excellent Read Write Web blog picked up the story and conveyed the dismay that I’d felt reading about this as a data problem:

You pay these homeless, human hotspots whatever you like, and then I guess you sit next to them and check your email and whatnot. The digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall.

(this post has been updated this morning with an interview with reps from the marketing company behind this project).

The NYT blurb has been tweeted out over 1000 times and “liked” on Facebook hundreds of times.

Commenting is active on the RWW blog post and the RWW editors have “Storified” a range of reactions to their story being posted on Twitter and Facebook.

Tumblr, Storify, Twitter, blogging (and reblogging).

Hundreds of digital hipsters are weighing in on the ethics of this exploit on all these cool new platforms.

But the point would be:

There is no evidence of the voices of the very  homeless being discussed.   None.  Some kid with an Iphone who’s never been within 500 miles of Austin is broadcasting his esteemed opinion on this to thousands of others,  but the objectification of the homeless via this stunt continues in the conversations about them.

Because they live on the far side of the digital divide.

And that’s the outrage here.

Update:  Mid-day, RWW has updated their post with an audio interview with one of the homeless men.

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.

Activism, Social Class, and the Digital Divide

So it’s not scientific, and it’s not deeply analytical, but this survey (from Mother Jones magazine and posted on the Engaged Youth blog) caught my eye today as I’m juggling my two intellectual worlds of social class issues and  participatory digital media. The question was “where’s the future of activism”:

I have no idea how the questions were framed or even who the respondents were.
But I see some measure of affirmation here in what’s becoming more clear to me by the day:  Having a voice in these times involves at least some measure of engagement in digital media and a presence in digital worlds.

And thus, I am disheartened when I read of the persistent digital divide that’s no longer only about access to equipment but also about  the time to play, create, and engage social networks.  As Cindy Long writes:

Students with round-the-clock, high-speed Internet access have more opportunity not only to be content consumers, but also content creators with a global audience—they have a chance to be “publishers, movie makers, artists, song creators, and story tellers,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The more opportunity young people have to play around online, the more their experience and comfort with technology grows. They’re becoming digital innovators who will increasingly integrate technology into their everyday lives and use it to shape the future—a future that will likely look a lot different for the millions of kids without the same level of experience.

And to many of us, the sort of learning that enables students to shape the future is at least as significant as the  conventional academic skills being drilled and tested in thousands of classrooms in which obsolete computers sit unused under a layer of dust in the corner.

I’m heartened by the work of teachers like Brian Crosby who are doing remarkable things with surplussed equipment  and an enormous investment of his own time and energy.

But it’s time to get beyond the point of thinking that more kids will gain this sort of access to digital tools if only there were more teachers wiling to dumpster dive for for equipment.

Children Left Behind In a Profit-Driven World

I’ve written before about my intersecting interests in social class and emerging technologies. David Warlick writes poignantly about these intersections in his recent post from rural America, where many students have no, or very limited access to the internet, simply because there is little profit to be made for telecommunications companies in sparsely populated, economically depressed regions.

He writes:

Pressure should be applied to the telecommunications industry to do what they promised they would do in the ’90s, in return for enormous tax breaks — connect America to the high speed information grid, not just the parts of America that are thick enough, financially, to be in the Telco’s interest to connect.

There are many ways in which poor and working class children in this country are routinely and systematically “left behind”, and the expectation that they should be made to wait until a profit can be made from their access to the internet is unconscionable. At precisely the time that more privileged children are using the web to transcend geographic boundaries to learn, to collaborate, and to question, the pressures of NCLB have left too many schools for poor and working class children simply tweaking teaching and testing within the confines of classroom walls.

It certainly makes for easy sound bites to simply blame teachers for disturbing and persistent achievement gaps than to ensure that all children have access to the communication tools that children in many communities now simply take for granted.

And thus, it certainly seems to be time for more people the ed tech community to press the issues that Warlick raises in his post. We need obstinate voices to remind us — often — that until all children have access to the dazzling array of tools on the web, our work to push the boundaries of digital teaching and learning may only exacerbate gaps between the children of the haves and the children of the have-nots.

Warlick writes:

The shame of it is that this should not be happening. The natural resource that defines success in a flattening world is human intellect. And there is certainly no shortage of talent here in northeastern Wisconsin. There is simply a shameful lack of access to them, and they have a shameful lack of access to their world.

Shameful, indeed.

What is the responsibility of the ed tech community to ensure that our work isn’t just serving the children who already enjoy so many other economic and educational advantages?

Paul Willis, Social Class, and the Digital Divide

After being away for a few days, I’m still catching up with the many blog postings, listerve discussions, comments, news stories (from NPR to the Chronicle of Higher Ed), and misrepresentations of Danah Boyd’s essay on social class divisions among users of the social networking sites Facebook and MySpace. Boyd argues that Facebook is the network of choice for the educated, upper-middle class, while MySpace is the choice of kids who are “socially ostracized in school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers”. Boyd cogently argues that these differences are, essentially, grounded in class.

Boyd makes clear that her observations are not (yet) based in research. She’s not reporting on a formal study.

Yet she has sparked deliberation in major newspapers, in hundreds of blogs, on numerous listserves.

She’s talking about class in a land in which class is not supposed to exist.

And people are sitting up and taking notice.

Among the more careful responses to Boyd’s essay are several that press the intriguing questions of why social class would trace into virtual worlds, where ascribed identities would seem to matter less than in the “real” world.

Scott Rosenberg writes that while there have always been distinctions between what is “cool” to the elite few and what is accessible to the broader masses in the on-line world,

The difference today, it seems to me, is not that social class divides extend from the offline world into online space, but rather that online interaction has assumed such a central place in the lives of young people that the divisions now matter far more. For teenagers trying to figure out who they are, the choice of social networking site has become one more agonizing crossroads of self-definition.

Engineers Without Fear writes that

[P]eople cannot help but take the social structures their bodies grew up in online as well. Our virtual existences are a hybrid of the old and the new. We have already created new social forms but we cannot junk the old ones yet.

Boyd references Paul Willis’s Learning to Labor as offering one explanation for why working-class kids might choose community and belonging over accepting the values of higher social classes in which one might never be accepted.

Yet I think that in all of this focus on what’s going on within the technology, we may be missing even more intriguing questions about what is going on within class.

Working class culture in Learning to Labor is circumscribed by the maleness of the shop floor and the pub, by traditional gender roles in the home. In their economic, social and geographic isolation, the racism and sexism of “the lads” go unchallenged. Yet as Willis has written more recently, with the demise of manual jobs, identity formation among working class youth is grounded now more in their participation in a global, consumerist culture than in the culture of work. He writes:

They find more passion and acceptable self-identity through music on MTV, wearing baseball caps, branded sneakers and designer shirts, and socializing in fast-food joints than they do through traditional class-based cultural forms.

Within consumer and electronic cultures, Willis argues, working-class kids now have access to

…something that only the elite has enjoyed as part of their sacred privilege. This privilege entails the formation of sensibilities to mark oneself culturally as a certain kid of person — rather than simply an unconscious carrier of traditional markers of class, race, and gender — or to “choose” to belong to these categories in transformative, distinctive, mannered, celebratory, or self-conscious ways. … there are simply more groups, so to speak, within the working class. …Within the different groups are very many more discursive, symbolic, and socially symbolic resources feeding into their cultural productions.

For Willis, though, the questions in the 70’s and the questions now remain the same:

How do the cultural forms of youth — whether “having a laff with the boys” in the pub, or creating a presence in Myspace – represent the their understanding of their positions within the larger social structure? To what extent do their cultural practices represent their resistance against exploitation, and when do they participate in reproducing their own subordination?

Knowing that college kids are in Facebook and the socially marginalized are in Myspace does, indeed, raise important questions about the reach of class in contemporary culture.

But the much more intriguing questions may be about how class is being lived within new cultural spaces that include not just “the lads” of Learning to Labor, but also queers, immigrants, and punks, all constructing their own representations of identity in a global virtual space.

What are young people learning their positionality, their agency, their potential in their active participation in deep and broad social networks? How is it different being a working-class kid — the child of “the lads” — now connected to potentially thousands of others via tools that enable voice, discourse, and representation of self via a dazzling array of media?


Willis, Paul (2004). Twenty-five years on: Old books, new times. In N. Dolby and G. Dimitriadis (with P. Willis). (Eds.) Learning to Labor in New Times. New York: Routledge.