Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Re-discovering the digital divide

The New York Times has discovered that all is not fair in the land of digital technology. Janet Maslin, a book critic for the paper, doesn't usually review tech books. So I was a bit surprised to see her review of Jaron Lanier's Who owns the Future, in Monday's paper (yes, the actual paper version). And admittedly more surprised to hear her praise the book - not only for its writing but for its message. As Maslin notes:
"Mr. Lanier bucks a wave of more conventional diatribes on Big Data to deliver Olympian, contrarian fighting words about the Internet’s exploitative powers. A self-proclaimed “humanist softie,” he is a witheringly caustic critic of big Web entities and their business models"
I haven't yet read Lanier's newest, though I was a fan of his previous book, You Are Not A Gadget. And, as I continue to organize my "futurist" bookshelf from dystopian/negative to utopian/positive* I will gladly fit this onto the shelf when I am done. I plan to go hear Lanier speak about the book in Menlo Park on May 15th. (Yes, most of my copies are printed versions on an actual shelf.)

Sunday's New York Times saw Jenna Wortham, a regular tech columnist at the paper, also worrying about the growing gaps of tech haves and havenots. Her column, More Tech Magic, If You Can Afford It, is ostensibly about Google Glass, the latest, "too expensive for the masses" contribution to digital gadgetry. Wortham admittedly enjoys her brief experience with a borrowed pair of Google Glass and then notes that she, on her columnist salary, won't be buying a pair (at $1500 per) any time soon. Then she jumps to her real topic, which is shaped by price disparities but are rooted in principles of justice:
"Surely, wearable computers are in our future, whether they are embedded in glasses or smart watches or even contact lenses. But the experience of wearing Glass raised questions for me about the future of new technology and who gains access to it first — part of a much larger debate concerning the undercurrents of power and privilege that course through the Web.
At the very least, the release of Glass could shape how we think about human and computer interactions, and — considering Glass’s abilities to quietly take photographs and record videos — how we influence policies about privacy and public spaces.
And it would be a shame if the only people who participate in this leap forward are those who can afford it."
Wortham and Lanier are both writing about an issue of great importance - the expanding divide between owners and others. Lanier focuses more on the company owners making billions off of individuals' private data; Wortham notes that we are heading toward a world where the rich live by different rules of personal privacy then the rest of us.

That's not the world I want to live in. It's one reason civil society matters.  Civil society is where each of us, regardless of wealth or other status, voluntarily contributes to a greater good. The space of civil society is framed by rules about privacy, ownership, speech and association. We are in the process of writing these rules for digital spaces.  We need these rules to honor and protect the same values of civil society that we have set forth in the "analog" world.

*Morozov, Lanier, Gorbis, Zuckerman, Shirky, Berlin Johnson. Others, who I tend to keep off the spectrum, include - Lessig, Zittrain, Benkler, Ullman, Turkle, and Rainie and Wellman, On my "to read" list next to Lanier are Schmidt/Cohen.

1 comment:

Praveen Madan said...

I like your take on the digital divide and civil society. Issues we should be talking and doing more about.