Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Digital Divide’s Jagged Edges

In reading Susan Crawford’s “The New Digital Divide,” I saw how predictive some parts were, especially about high bills because of “the lack of competition in cable markets.”

And, of course, with the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, things aren’t looking too laissez-faire for the average cable customer either. Well, until one takes a deeper look into Crawford is writing circa December 2011, and what is happening in the digital realms in February 2014.

Crawford seems to take the position that home-based high-speed Internet access is like segregated public schools: separate and unequal, making it a digital-technology cause worthy of a movement. I say wait a minute and let’s consider a few things.

First, analog television: The last of the analog-holdouts howled something fierce when full-power TV stations switched to all-digital broadcasts. What year was that? June 2009. But guess what? Most people, which include a great number of African-American and Hispanic households, already had either a digital TV or…wait for it: cable, which provided access to the digital signals.

I don’t think the economic realities for ethnic minority households changed all that significantly between June 2009 and Crawford publication date in December 2011. What does this mean for the segregated-schools comparison? It means that high-speed Internet access is more like expensive designer sneakers. Several people, regardless of income, will spend their money on things that they want, whether or not it makes any economic sense.

Sure, there are some American households without Internet service, mainly because of economics, but lest we forget that nowadays the majority has access to the digital arena? Sure it would be great if there were a computer with a reliable high-speed Internet connection in every home, but that’s probably not happening anytime soon. Remember analog televisions had been around for more than five decades before the FCC pulled the plug, so to speak, just five years ago.

Second, Google and Netflix: On the road to a federal hearing on the gigantic cable merger, Comcast brokered a deal with Netflix to make the video streaming more seamless. This move has colors to quiet net neutrality questions and antitrust sidesteps. And, now there is an emerging player in the digital-divide wars: Google Fiber.

While the Google service is cheaper than what powerhouse cable operators provide, the registration service isn’t free. Yet, Google Fiber is an alternative to no access at all, but Crawford doesn’t mention it, even though the registration service had arrived in Kansas City by the time she published.

Third, the rise of the app: Crawford spends considerable time explaining why smartphones are not the answer to the digital-divide problem, but I think she’s outdated on this point. Today’s high-tech, new media world is all about the app wizard (think Instagram), compared to the millionaire circa turn of the 21st century. For many home users, mobile devices are replacing desktop, and increasingly laptop, computers.

Using Crawford’s example to expand my point, if there isn’t an app for online for job applications, there will be one soon because there seems to be an app for just about everything. And, lest not forget Wi-Fi. With a decent firewall, public wireless is a viable option for many folks. In other words, if ethnic minorities in the U.S. have smartphones, and according to Crawford they do in considerable numbers, and/or some other mobile device, they are active participants in today’s digital world, and they do not need, necessarily, home-based high-speed access to make Internet connections. The digital divide exists make no mistake, but apps and mobile devices have made the edges of it jagged.

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Brokers in the Bits Bazaar

After exploring all sorts of scholarly nuances behind the phrase, “the medium is the message,” Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis in Blown to Bits bring us to the real: The money isn’t in the medium or the message but whoever brokers access to the bits.

In the opening of Blown to Bits, Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis state that we’re in the midst of a digital explosion since technology (bits) is intertwined with everything we do. The authors used the 2008 scandal surrounding a former governor of New York to illustrate their point that everything is a bits story, but I couldn’t help but make a more up-to-date comparison in the unfolding bridge-gate saga ensnaring the current New Jersey governor in 2014.

The now infamous traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee is a bits story too since the smoking gun is an email; an electronic message, which even if deleted, is never, really obliterated (Koan #6) and now that seminal message (retrieved via a redacted Freedom of Information request, which by the way illustrates the examples in Chapter 3 effortlessly) has resulted in firings and subpoenas within the governor’s inner circle.

And, in keeping with the authors’ examples, I illustrated another of their discussion points about bits when I inserted a series of hyperlinks into this blog post. In an effort to pass along information about the bridge scandal, I used two different search engines (Bing and Google) to locate news stories about the New Jersey bridge scandal. Abelson, Ledeen and Lewis devote most of Chapter 4 (Needles in the Haystack) to the rise of the search engines, or in the authors’ phrasing “brokers in the bits bazaar.”

Originally, I read stories and watched videos about the New Jersey bridge-gate scandal in the digital editions of the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC. I went straight to these various mediums to consume their messages on the unraveling saga, but the bits story doesn’t end there. In fact, it’s just starting, according to Abelson, Ledeen and Lewis, because none of these major media outlets control the ultimate digital access to their information; that power belongs to the information brokers: Google and Bing.

The open market understands that “information access has greater market value than information creation” (p. 158) because whoever controls the search engine has the power to shape what people see in the bits bazaar, which is the reason Google has a market capitalization of $157 billion versus the New York Times’ $3 billion (p. 158).

Once upon a time, such as in the 20th century, reliable information was assigned to such luddite-like information portals as encyclopedias and newspapers of record (the local daily in most places), but nowadays that job mostly resides with search engines and their endless spiders that crawl across the internet collecting and cataloging an assortment of digital information.

However, too many people are forgetting that just like producers of encyclopedias and newspapers, search engines are created by humans who on their best days might be impartial in creating their algorithms to collect information but nonetheless are always subjective in what they allow consumers to see in their aggregated listings (i.e. Google and China). In other words, humans are not bits, even though they have created an insatiable appetite for that search-engine technology with all its risks and opportunities (p. 15).


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