jumping into the Bobbi Newman/Jason Griffey digital divide debate

I’ve finally hacked away enough open tabs (oh, tabbed browsing, how I love/hate you) to get to Bobbi Newman and Jason Griffey’s fun, twitter-inspired blogging duel: Why Mobile Phones are Not the Key to the Digital Divide (Bobbi), Why Mobile Phones are One Key to the Digital Divide (Jason). And I found I had a comment that was turning into a post, so here goes:

Bobbi’s argument (and forgive me, both of you, if I oversimplify or err) is that for techno- and economic elites to be content with mobile access for non-elites is tantamount to separate-but-equal for the digital age. Jason argues that mobile phones are in some ways superior to desktop/laptop access and rapidly catching up in others, and that any preference we have for desktop access is rooted in history and habit rather than comparative advantages of the technology.

My instinct is, they’re both kinda right, because they’re making arguments about different things: one societal, one technological. I’m happy to defer to Jason on the technological claims — he’s the Web-scale pilot ninja who owns a smartphone, unlike me — but I don’t think the key part here is about technology. (This is always my bias, actually: technology is super-fun, but it’s a means to an end, and the ramifications of technology in society have more to do with the society than the technology.) So I have to lean toward Bobbi here.

Because my thought is: it’s the techno-elites who are making the web sites, and web apps, and smartphone apps. And if they are making them only with their own and their friends’ usage patterns in mind — if they are creating a web that is optimized for their laptops and iPhones but developed often without reference to other groups’ entirely different patterns of use — then the technological utility of the phones is irrelevant. There are real and major differences in how the web works on laptops vs. iPhones and Droids vs. web-enabled but less shiny phones; it does not matter if, per Jason, these differences don’t have to do with the technology being better or worse. It matters only that they are different, if those differences are not taken into account by the software designers. And we are all blinded by the nearness of our own social circles, assuming that “everyone” does things the way that everyone we know does.

(I feel certain there was a danah boyd post with a great example of class-based divides in mobile phone use, but I can’t find it. I will content myself with linking to her always-excellent The Not-so-Hidden Politics of Class Online, which isn’t quite the point I was making but everyone should read it anyway.)

In other words, it’s not about the technology. It’s about the reception of the technology. (I mean that in the sense I got from my classics education, though I’ll take the techno-pun.) It’s about the social infrastructure built on top of the technology. And if those infrastructures differ for different technologies — or different patterns of use — and those differences in technologies or patterns break down along race or class lines — then yes, we do have a meaningful digital divide. Even if everyone has a really sweet data plan. Even if they’re handing out free phones like candy.

3 thoughts on “jumping into the Bobbi Newman/Jason Griffey digital divide debate

  1. I feel like this post is missing something: perhaps the paragraph agreeing with all of my pre-conceived notions on the subject. 😉

    OK, OK, how about this: I would say that it’s not the techno-elites who are the problem children here. Speaking as someone who does a lot of mobile-based browsing, I’d say that sites designed by techno-elites these days tend to actually have very good mobile interfaces. Those folks seem more likely to understand and effectively deal with the limitations of the platform. It’s the more amateur sites that are problematic: lots of links close together (hard to click), using a ton of horizontal space, relying on mouseover text, poor contrast, small fonts, etc.

    I hate to say it, but my school’s library is one of the bad ones. Going to their main webpage, I find only on a side link a reference to a mobile browsing platform, nested with others and hard to directly select. This then sends me to a # at the bottom of a long page with yet another link, this time to a page with very small text telling me how to get mobile access to various sites: a bunch of smaller links in green-on-white text.

    I also note that there is a side-effect of considering multiple platforms: it seems (and here I am using vague anecdotes as data) that those sites that are better designed for mobile browsing tend to be more likely to have multiple language options. That, however, may be more a function of funding for web site design, and not a more general outreach thing.


  2. Mobile technology is bridging the digital divide internationally — mobile phones account for a huge fraction of internet access in the third world. This probably relates to John’s comment about mobile-targeted sites having better i18n.

    I suspect that mobile device support is complicated by a double divide — it is the poorest and the richest of the world disproportionately accounting for the mobile users, while the desktop or laptop computer remains the standard in the middle of the spectrum (including the American poor).


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