Danah Boyd On Participatory Divide | Digital Nation | FRONTLINE | PBS
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Danah Boyd on participatory divide


danah boyd
danah boyd

There is little doubt that certain information and communication trends are generally affecting everyone (who can get some form of access). But we need to address what Henry Jenkins has been calling the "participatory divide" and think through the implications of this.

Let me focus on US teens for a moment since that's the demographic that I know best. In the US, Pew is seeing access rates at 93% amongst 12-17yos, but what kinds of access they have and what that access means really varies tremendously. (It should also be noted that the remaining 7% are overwhelmingly religious households where the Internet is actively demonized.) This only refers to baseline access. On the ground, we see teens whose only access is in heavily filtered libraries and schools, teens who access via their mobile only, and teens who have dialup when their parents remember to pay the bills. At the other end of the spectrum, we see teens who have their own laptops, continuous access to WiFi, a series of peripherals, and high-end mobile phones. (Basically, akin to what most folks on this list have.) Any teen with access is accessing information (especially Wikipedia) and engaging in some form of communication technology. But the variance is HUGE and, I suspect, increasing. Media literacy (see Henry Jenkins) and skills vary widely (see Eszter Hargittai), resulting in disparities of experience that go beyond just access. So which teens are really participating in the future that we've mapped out? And what happens when US colleges expect a high level of technology skills and media literacy because they assume "digital natives"?

Over and over again in the US, I see institutions and individuals expecting that the "digital natives" are technological experts because they grew up with this around them. And those from privileged backgrounds excel in such environments because they often do have the skills, the experience, the familiarity. What pains me is that the skills learned by those from less privileged environments are often not valued, especially by adults. Poor urban youth were actually among the first to get web-enabled phones - the Sidekick. This was often their primary web access point. Yet it wasn't until the iPhone came out that US companies started thinking about making webpages phone-readable. (Wikipedia excluded of course.)

Outside of the US, the picture gets messier. Access becomes a huge sticking point, with mobile playing a much bigger role (see Jonathan Donner, Genevieve Bell, Jan Chipchase). But we're still seeing huge disparities in terms of participation. In the US, we know that sharing a device radically reduces participation; this is so common outside of the US that we don't even measure the implications of it.

What worries me - and what I feel the need to call out - is not about whether or not everyone in the world will benefit in some ways by information and communication technologies, but whether or not the privileged will benefit more in ways that further magnifies structural inequality. I am certainly seeing this as the US college level, as more privileged US freshman are leaps and bounds ahead of their less privileged peers in terms of technological familiarity, a division that makes educating with technology in the classroom challenging. But my colleagues elsewhere in the world are signaling that this is occurring everywhere. So, yes, while I suspect you'll find lots of folks benefiting from technology as you traverse the world, the question that I think you should be asking is whether or not those of us with more privilege are benefiting at a greater rate than those who have less privilege.


posted February 2, 2010

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