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.

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notes from the grounds

Sweet use of wireless devices today at the DeCordova Museum’s sculpture park — many of the sculptures have an extra plaque that has a phone number you can call and various extensions you can dial to learn different things about the sculpture. Loved how this was simple, unobtrusive, and took advantage of technology people already have right where they are — no need to borrow an audio tour from the museum (which is closed on Mondays anyway).

One of the installations is a slope between the parking lot and the museum which is all stone archways and paths and water. Apparently it used to be poison ivy (thanks, cell phone audio tour!) but they wanted to “turn an obstacle into an opportunity” or words to that effect, so now it is a lovely space which knits together two important areas while providing a wonderful view of autumn leaves downhill.

Got me thinking that — aren’t all obstacles opportunities? Obstacles are things users encounter when they’re looking for routes to something. If they don’t care about access, it doesn’t matter how much might be in the way; barriers are only obstacles if you wanted to go there. And if someone wants to go there, there’s an opportunity for accessibility. Would that all strategies were so lovely…