CMC Magazine: December 1998

Class Warfare in the Information Age

In the pages of Class Warfare in the Information Age, Michael Perelman, a professor of Economics at California State University, Chico, deconstructs the language of the information economy and shows how the commodification of information will only reinforce present gaps in class structure. Perelman is especially concerned about the fate of public education in the United States. Lower public spending on education (in some instances, as in California, state funding for prisons exceeds that of schools!), the privatization of education, increased tuition costs for university education and roving postgraduates in the sciences has led to an uncertain future for the information economy.

Perelman is also concerned with the changing nature of work in the information economy. What sorts of work are being created -- or displaced -- by the advent of ICTs? How does the labour process privilege information for the managerial class as a control mechanism? How has our sense of leisure declined in spite of ICTs? How have ICTs, in an ironic twist, kept us on our jobs 24-hours a day? Why is there such a contingent and contractual labour force? Dependence on the information economy also makes our society reliant on complex systems -- and what happens when a minor software glitch causes that system to crash, fail, or explode?

Perelman would have us adopt a system where information is treated as a common good: "The more we restrict other people's access to information, the less we are able to utilize information for our own use" (p.88).

Panopticism -- when technology exerts a surveilling and monitoring function on our everyday activities -- is yet another cautionary outcome of the information economy. How can citizens exert control over their personal privacy? How can citizens ensure that the narrow and self-serving interests of corporations do not intrude on our personal activities? And in terms of intellectual property rights, how can citizens ensure that their ideas and discoveries are protected and rewarded, rather than taken away and subsumed by corporations?

The environmental costs of ICTs is another issue Perelman tackles. What is the occupational illness rate for those working in the semiconductor industries? How are toxic emissions increasing relative to the manufacturing output of ICTs? Perelman contents that markets, casting a willful blind eye to the environmental degradation, are turning against the public good.

In conclusion, Perelman would have us adopt a system where information is treated as a common good: "The more we restrict other people's access to information, the less we are able to utilize information for our own use" (p.88). Improvement of public goods, particularly in public education, will allow us a society to "tap the brains of all citizens, not just the priviliged few with access to good education" (p. 133). Perelman's book is a slim yet thoughtful and provoking read. I suggest putting this book under the Christmas Tree of the Three Bill's: Bill Gates...Bill Clinton...and Bill Bennett... --

Cyberghetto or Cybertopia

Bosah Ebo's edited collection, Cyberghetto or Cybertopia? examines the conflicting scenarios swirling around the future of virtual communities, through case studies, historical overviews, quantitative analysis, and theoretical introspections. In his introduction to the collection, Ebo explicates his notion of the Internet and the "outernet." The Internet encompasses utopian sentiments as to the overall benefits for the society as a whole; cyber-utopiasts would have us believe that the Internet will lead to a more egalitarian, educated, and democratised society. Class, gender, and race will no longer matter on the Internet, as identity politics will exist harmoniously in the ether.

How the Internet reinforces gendered practices, and what the effects of the commercial imperative of the Internet (will this lead to a decline in the public sphere?) are, are other concerns that this collection addresses.

The "outernet," or the "cyberghetto" perspective, takes a more circumspect look at these claims, as class, gender, and race will still be built-in biases of the technology. The elitist tendencies of the Internet have been revealed by numerous demographic surveys, including the U.S. Commerce Department's Falling Throught the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide, released in July 1998. This study revealed that, despite the significant increase in Americans accessing Internet technology, "the 'digital divide' between certain groups of Americans has increased between 1994 and 1997 so that there is now an even greater disparity in penetration levels among some groups." These groups include the rural poor, the rural and central city minorities, Blacks and Hispanics, and female-headed households. Hoffman and Novak's study, Bridging the Digital Divide: The Impact of Race on Computer Access and Internet Use, also reinforces this data.

How the Internet reinforces gendered practices, and what the effects of the commercial imperative of the Internet (will this lead to a decline in the public sphere?) are, are other concerns that this collection addresses. The notion of social justice is one of the fundamental issues that Ebo's collection addresses: "Is the Internet a windfall of publicly accessible information and a barrier-free terrain of social associations or just another social revolution with an innate bias that reinforces the marginalization of the underclass, the subliterate, minorities, and women? Will the Internet create a cybertopia or will it exacerbate class divisions by creating a cyberghetto?" (p. 8-9).

The collection is divided into three parts. Part 1, Class on the Net, features five articles covering the gamut from issues on net demographics, to access for the lower-income and peoples with disabilities, the commercialization of the Web, and uses of the Internet by the U.S. military.

Alecia Wolf examines claims about the Internet being the "great equalizer" through an analysis of statistics on user profiles of the net. Race, class, income, gender, and educational level are all aspects that effect who is on the net. "The Great Equalizer metaphor," she writes, "is based on a functionalist perspective that places all responsibility for joining the new technologically elite class squarely on the shoulders of the individual, while serving to legitimate the status quo. This perspective assumes that rational people will invest in the human capital, but fails to consider the external social forces at work that prevent some rational people from making such investments" (pp.29-30).

Poverty in the information age and how communities can best mediate the information needs of their members is considered by John McNutt. Access challenges for peoples with disabilities is addressed by Mark Borchert, with specific reference to the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). What are the design challenges that need to be considered as technologies are in their developmental phase so that they can meet the needs of a diverse citizenry? James McQuivey looks at the widespread commercialization of the Web, and concludes that it's not the nefarious result of hungry transnational corporations, but rather the consequence of a young, entreprenurial, and media-saavy audience. In "Cyber-soldiering", authors Morton Ender and David Segal offer us their study of Internet use by the American military and their families, with specific reference to recent interventions in Haiti and Somali.

Part II examines race on the net. Two of the articles deal with media coverage of the Internet. John Pollock and Elvin Montero look at major city newspaper coverage of the Internet over a two-year period of time. One of their surprising results is that the higher the percentage of college students in a city, the less favorable was the coverage of the Internet. In another essay, Meta Carstaphen and Jacqueline Lambiase examine the racist overtones in an ethnographic study of a student electronic discussion group at the University of North Texas; however, the authors found that the nature of CMC meant that these opinions could be challenged and subverted.

Whether or not access to Internet technology is equitable in K-12 grades is the subject of Paulette Robinson's contribution. Unlike many studies that look at the issue of access, Robinson looks at access from the structural level of information processing and cognition. Why is it that college graduates from poorer post-secondary institutions present the greatest risk of marginalization in the information age? Rebecca Carrier examines some of the economic, institutional, and attitudinal behaviors that impact upon access and participation, and recommends that colleges and universities receive adequate funding for equipment, technologically skilled faculty, and support staff, and that faculty be awarded for their integration of information technology into their curricula.

The fourth and last section of Cyberghetto or Cybertopia? focuses on "cybergendering." Not much research has been done on Internet access, use, and participation by the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community. Nadine Koch and H. Eric Schockman analyse the demographics, political orientation, and use of the public access Queer Cyber Center (QCC), a pilot project located at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in Hollywood. One of their findings was that the QCC was avidly used by the homeless, the unemployed, youths living in nearby shelters, and the borderline mentally ill. "These are not the 'archetypal' users one generally associates with the population on the Internet, and it has been fascinating to study the ease of their engagement, high level of interest, and repeated, regular use of this previously unavailable technology" (p. 181).

Kevin Crowston and Ericka Kammerer contribute to the body of research on gender and interpersonal communicative styles in their article by specifically looking at gendered participation in some Usenet newsgroups. Charlene Blair examines netsex and its implications for female power roles -- Blair sees the anonymity of the net as a bonus in terms of negotiating and subverting sexual identity. The use of the web as a forum for political activism and protest is exemplified by Kathy Daliberti's Yellow Ribbon homepage. Andrew Wood and Tyrone Adams look at the design of Daliberti's website (a reaction to the imprisonment of her husband by the Iraqui Government and her frustration at the lack of response by the U.S. government) in terms of quilting metaphors of both content and community.--

Cyberspace Divide

Brian Loader's edited collection, Cyberspace Divide, brings together diverse perspectives on issues related to equity/social exclusion, social interactions/identity, and strategies for social inclusion to ICTs. Loader is located at the Community Informatics Research and Applications Unit at the University of Teesside in the U.K., where many of these papers originally emenated. Loader's purpose in compiling this volume is to start the policy discussion on the complex issues related to social exclusion of the information society within both developed and developing countries, and to consider how notions of public policy, governance and the formation of identities impact upon access. Divided into three main sections, this collection, although reflectings its U.K.-centric bias, is, nonetheless, a welcome contribution to the access debate.

Loader's purpose in compiling this volume is to start the policy discussion on the complex issues related to social exclusion of the information society within both developed and developing countries, and to consider how notions of public policy, governance and the formation of identities impact upon access.

The first section of the book concentrates on issues of difference and social exclusion. Trevor Haywood reiterates the fact that "despite the convergence of a whole range of new technologies, easy access to the information that can really empower and liberate people still looks likely to be the preserve of an affluent minority" (p. 26). He is especially concerned that the economic paradigm used to describe global networking discounts the social dimension of networking. Journalist Mike Holderness takes a sobering look at statistics on who is connected to the Internet and concludes that "not all Internet connections are created equal" (p.43). Projects to wire up Africa, such as AT&T's Africa One (a proposal to spend $2.65B USD to lay fiber-optic cables around the shores of the continent) need to be questioned as to their appropriateness -- appropriate for a country where often the most basic telecommunications infrastructure isn't in place yet, or appropriate for a large transnational corporation?

Virtual cities, and whether or not they can serve to invigorate and sustain citizenship and become a relevant public sphere, is the topic of Alessandro Aurigi and Stephen Graham's article. Examining several urban digital cities, the authors conclude that the virtual environments reflect a commercialized and non-interactive space more appropriate for marketing purposes than civic engagement. Furthermore, it is the already urban disenfranchised who do not have access to ICTs, so these digital cities tend to reinforce elitist perspectives and behavior. There are some exceptions, which the authors discuss, such as Amsterdam's De Digitale Stad and the Iperbole in Bologna.

Although differential attributes of access based on gender have been well documented, bringing some of the major themes together in order to question how agency is granted and performed along gendered lines is the purpose of the contribution by Alison Adam and Eileen Green. Adam and Green explore the themes of gender differences in information technology employment and the relationship between gender and cyberculture. The authors persuasively argue that agency is intertwined with the idea of skill and de-skilling in gender relations in ICT work (contingent work, teleworking). With respect to recent feminist responses to cyberculture, Adam and Green conclude that "whatever the positive aspects it may ultimately offer, cyberfeminism as currently constructed appears to offer women a somewhat empty promise" (p. 97).

Also in this second section on identity and social interaction, Duncan Langford looks at the ethics of the Internet, briefly exploring issues such as spamming, inappropriate material, and copyright breaches; while Joe Ravetz is concerned with the blurring between virtual reality and reality. "No Free Lunch for Scholars" chronicles Steve Fuller's debate with Steven Harnad over peer review and scientific academic publishing on the Internet.

The final section of Loader's collection examines how policy should address social exclusion. Nick Moore identifies two models: the neo-liberal (private-sector market-driven, competitive, non-regulatory, as exemplifed by the U.S., Canada, and E.U. responses to policy); and the dirigiste, or interventionist model. The latter is illustrated by the policies of Singapore, Korea, and Japan, countries who are concerned with the state as a key player, and with a sense of managed competition, as well as social concerns such as ICTs for education and inclusion. Jane Steele reports on a European Commission study on how the information services industry should meet the demand for citizenship information. The report concluded that "three broad types of information are needed for citizens: information about rights and services; information for accountability and participation in democratic processes; and information about duties and responsibilities" (p.180). Citizenship information in a digital environment raises further complex access issues -- technological access to computers, economics, and literacy.

The last three articles in the section look at case studies for inclusion of citizens in the information society. U.K. public policy on the "information highway" is analyzed by Puay Tang, who concludes that policies must ensure that access to public information is a fundamental right for citizens. How the Welsh use ICTs and methods to encourage Welsh content for cultural sovereignty are described by Hugh Mackay and Tony Powell. Healthcare applications (and particularly the cost and time constraints) of ICTs in relation to the U.K.'s NHS (National Health Service), and particularly to GPs (general practitioners) is the focus of research by Justin Keen, Brian Ferguson, and James Mason.--

High Technology and Low-Income Communities

High Technology and Low-Income Communities, edited by Donald Schon, Bish Sanyal, and William J. Mitchell brings together diverse perspectives to look at access barriers and issues, initiatives for using ICTs in socially beneficial ways for low-income communities, and an overview of public policy that can contribute to sustainable use of ICTs in low-income communities.

Rooted in an urban studies and planning colloquium, the collection offers a range of views: techno-utopians, techno-skepticists, and techno-pessimists all are represented here.

The book emanated from an MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning colloquium held in the Spring of 1996. The colloquium's goals were to examine the intersection of urban planning (particularly with the social needs of low-income urban communities) with the rise of ICTs in everyday functions. The views of techno-utopians, techno-skepticists, and techno-pessimists are represented here.

Part 1, "Setting the Context" presents five articles by notable technology critics. Manuel Castells revisits the informational city which he defines as "an urban system with sociospatial structure and dynamics determined by a reliance on wealth, power, and culture, on knowledge and information processing in global networks, managed and organized through intensive use of information/communication technologies" (p. 27). Castells looks at the informational city in relation to the socioeconomic realities of most urban centers, where there is an increased polarization between classes -- what he dubs "dualization." Such a dichotomy between informationalization and dualization is illustrated by most large American cities (and increasingly Canadian). ICTs are certainly not the cause of this "urban schizophrenia," but they do run the risk of greatly increasing the gaps between the information rich who live in suburbs, edge cities, and rural vacation spots, versus the information poor, who continue to live in inner and central cities. However, in some cities, we are seeing the growth of new and vital centres devoted to the design and production of ICTs -- San Francisco's South of Market area and NYC's Silicon Alley are just two examples. Castells emphasizes that it is the role of public education that is crucial to ensure that jobs and income generation can accrue.

Peter Hall also reiterates Castells' concerns vis a vis the necessity of public education serving as a fundamental glue for social cohesion. Noting how work has been dramatically transformed by the increase in ICTs and changing labour practices, Hall reminds us that the 'brawn' jobs of the past have been replaced by the more "symbolic analyst" jobs which typically require higher educational degrees. Until inner-city and central-city public schools and community centres are equipped with the requisite ICT tools and training, children in these 'havens' face a dismal future, according to Julian Wolpert: "...young people need to be computer literate, more home computers are needed, more and better equipment is needed in inner-city schools along with trained personnel" (p. 102).

William Mitchell advances his City of Bits thesis -- how the new digital milieu is changing our physical enviroments. The electronic agora is transforming our notions of work, community, and everyday activites (banking/commerce, education/schools, leisure/entertainment), as well as creating social problems -- issues of isolation, lack of privacy, increased surveillance. Contrary to Mitchell's rather optimistic view of ICts, Leo Marx presents a less giddy look at ICTs by looking through the historical prism. Technology, as he points out, "is depicted as if it were a palpable thing -- a complicated kind of tool devised by a few geniuses, members of a technically gifted elite -- and an embodiment of virtual autonomy and agency" (p. 136/7). Technology has typically been equated with progress and advancement; but, Marx cautions us that although ICTs will profer some benefits to society, "it would be foolish to rely on them as a 'fix' for the afflictions of racial and economic justice" (p. 147).

Part II presents some case studies on action, broken down into governance, entrepreneurship, and community approaches. In the first section, Joseph Ferreira, Jr. analyses how IT services can become integrated with land-use planning; in particular, he advances a 'middle-out' approach to data processing so that neighborhood and interagency coordination can ensue. The use of the Internet and other multi-media IT applications for planning and community-related scenarios by grassroots organizations is looked at by Michael Shiffer.

"Entreprenurial Potentials" examines what it takes to be a Fortune 500 IT leader. Alice Amsden and Jon Clark assert that -- not surprisingly -- it's access to the human and social capital that can make or break entrepreurship. Even though Bill Gates was a college drop-out (OK, it was Harvard...), he had a ready-made collection of social networks and a class background that supported his tinkering. How many Bill Gates-types spring from Roxbury, or East Palo Alto, or the Bronx? The authors contend that not only must public education in under-privileged areas be improved, but the neighborhoods themselves. The six-million dollar question, though, is: will IT infrastructure in the inner city help resusitate these communities?

Jeanne Bamberger looks at how using the computer in a classroom can stimulate students who are otherwise bored and disenfranchised from mainstream education -- but, as she points out, this is a proposal for an approach to learning, not a curriculum.

The next section, "Community Approaches" features five articles. Mitchel Resnick's article focuses on the Computer Clubhouse, an after-school center located in Boston, with the cooperation of MIT and the Computer Museum. Instead of just teaching basic computer skills, the Clubhouse aims to develop "fluency" with the computers: "technological fluency involves not only knowing how to use technological tools, but also knowing how to construct things of significance with these tools" (p. 266). Serving a diverse range of inner-city kids with adult mentors, the Clubhouse has become a successful example of fostering computer fluency through an emphasis on design, individual autonomy, and cooperative sharing.

Bruno Tardieu chronicles the facinating Fourth World Movement, where the Street Library Program has been initiated. This movement started in France in the 1960s and can now be found in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Its goal is to "open the modern world to children in poverty, through reading books, telling stories, and developing art and science projects" (290). Introducing computers into the Movement was the vision of Pere Joseph Wresinski, who "insisted that the poorest families be part of this modern revolution."

Using theories of social constructivism, Alan and Michelle Shaw provide an analysis of MUSIC -- Multi-User Sessions in Community, a new sort of NII. Neighborhood information infrastructures provide local, computer network systems in order to support and meet the needs of community members. Here, the Shaws descibe their MUSIC system in a low-income housing development in Newark, New Jersey.

Sherry Turkle looks at Tardieu and the Shaws ways of community-making via the computer, concluding that the real empowerment of the computer lies within its development and maintenance of the local. The use of computers within communities becomes a political act, and a way for a community to increase their self-knowledge.

Anne Beamish elaborates on her earlier work on community networks. What troubles Beamish is both the commodification of the concept and its use solely in broadcast terms. Rather than citizens of information, we have consumers (passive, one-way) of information. Does such a model meet the needs of low-income communities? Whose community is being served? Towards whose and what ends should community networking be meeting?

Given the mix of technological theorists, practitioners, and grass-roots projects and groups represented here, High Technology and Low-Income Communities is a valuable addition to the literature on access. Of special importance are the emphases on the social infrastructure of ICTs, and how the design needs of diverse communities can best be supported.


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Class Warfare in the Information Age, By Michael Perelman

Cyberghetto or Cybertopia?: Race, Class, and Gender on the Internet, Edited by Bosah Ebo

Cyberspace Divide: Equality, Agency and Policy in the Information Society, Edited by Brian D. Loader

High Technology and Low-Income Communities: Prospects for the Positive Use of Advanced Information Technology, Edited by Donald A. Schon, Bish Sanyal, and William J. Mitchell

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