Black Techies, Web Redlining and the Digital Divide

“Black Techies, Web Redlining and the Digital Divide,” The Root, 16 September 2009

Perhaps #peopleofcolorintechnology should be a trending topic?

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At last week’s Gov 2.0 gathering—dedicated to exploring the ways that the Internet can improve public policy—Silicon Valley and Washington came together to discuss biometric security, open-source policymaking, geo-targeting and other breakthrough technologies. Roaming the halls? Internet luminaries like Google vice president Vint Cerf, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Vivek Kundra, chief information officer of the U.S. government.

Yet of the hundreds of attendees, less than a dozen were African-American. “I would have expected more,” says Darwyn Harris, director of research and development at 21st Century Cloud Computing. “I was actually very surprised.”

The Internet age has spawned remarkable advancements: enhanced communications, instant connectivities, and more and better ways to solve political problems. The election of Barack Obama was the prime example of smart technology paired with progressive politics in a way that attracted millions of Americans of all races. But when it comes to race and culture, does the Internet liberate the country from social categories—or does it reinforce them?

Danah Boyd, a researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, believes that social-networking Web sites demonstrate the same kinds of self-segregation of real life. Boyd, who is white, presented her controversial work on “The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online” on June 30 at the Personal Democracy Forum, another popular conference on technology and politics in New York. Conventional wisdom has it that the Internet is a classless, colorless democracy, but Boyd’s findings suggest the opposite.

“I want you to step away from the techno-hyperbole for just a moment,” she told the majority-white audience, “and think about issues of inequality and social stratification with me. I want you to think about the ways in which technology is not equally available, or equally transformative.”

Boyd could well have been discussing the so-called “digital divide” between groups of differing socioeconomic status. According to a report from Internet for Everyone, even in some of the most functional, tech-savvy cities, in the most technologically advanced nation on the planet, “many urban residents are locked out, unable to participate fully in the digital era.” This means many inner-city dwellers can’t easily apply for jobs online; or telecommute; they can’t easily take online courses, or even finish their homework. Some urban areas have been “redlined” by Internet service providers that don’t see a financial payoff to wiring poorer communities. Nationwide, only 38 percent of black urban households are connected to broadband, compared with 60 percent of non-Hispanic white homes. In Washington, D.C., which is roughly 55 percent African-American, only half the homes are connected.

But Boyd’s point is larger even, than that—she says blacks and whites use Internet technology differently, and in ways that send a troubling message about supposedly post-racial America. “Social media does not magically eradicate inequality,” she says. “Rather, it mirrors what is happening in everyday life and makes social divisions visible.” As evidence, Boyd compared two popular social-networking giants: Facebook and MySpace. She found that whites, the educated, the rich and the tech-savvy were “more likely to leave—or choose—Facebook.” Teenagers used words like “ghetto,” “barely educated,” “obnoxious” and “lower class” to describe users of MySpace. This division may have its roots in the Ivy League-origins of Facebook, and in the entertainment-focused nature of MySpace. Or in the way that euphemisms for blackness are often used to mean variations on the idea of “not good.” But it amounts to what Boyd terms “modern day ‘white flight.’”

The other gap is about careers.  “In the technology space, there are just fewer of us,” says Ryan Robertson, a principal strategy consultant for Synteractive, a sponsor of Gov 2.0. “Our music’s here,” he quips—referring to the James Brown pumping through the conference hall during a break. “But like everything else, we have a low market penetration in the leadership space.”

The conference exhibited future-oriented schemes and gadgets, from “cloud computing” to Twitter tutorials. “All the technology you see here, none of it is peculiar to any particular group,” says Nat Irwin, an African-American professor of business and a self-described “futurist.” Whereas gender-focused technology conferences like Blogher and Chicks Who Click have grown significantly in recent years, the black tech community is much smaller. Sites like Blacks Gone Geek and conferences like Blogging While Brown offer a silver lining, but, says Irwin, “We have to get more people involved in the debate about the human genome, about bioethics, about science and technology.” Irwin, a long-time tech conference regular, says he is dismayed that “the black community in general is not paying enough attention to the mid- to long-term future.”

Expanding the role of blacks in technology is not just a matter of tokenism: After all, the future face of America is increasingly black or brown. Wayne Sutton, a graphic designer and social-media marketing consultant, says the dearth of black leadership in the tech world has pushed African Americans into a somewhat passive stance on the major innovations that will shape the rest of this century. “It’s a content issue,” he says. “We are a lot of times content consumers rather than content creators.”

Internet for Everyone has documented the advantages of expanding access to a new, wireless economy. For example, in rural North Carolina—just as disconnected as Southeast D.C.—thousands of textile plant jobs that have disappeared could be replaced with Internet-based employment. “The Internet has opened me up to a whole new world,” says Ferman Fletcher, a D.C. carpenter and musician who relies on community centers and public libraries to get online.  But, he continued, “it’s a negative situation when you have that many people excluded from what so many others have access to … you have segregation basically, and it’s just not fair.”

As a presidential candidate, Obama pledged to, in the words of former Vice President Al Gore, “pave over” the digital divide—promising broadband access and smart electric grid construction to both rural and urban communities that have been left behind. And his stimulus package appropriated $7.2 billion to do just that. But one key takeaway from the Gov 2.0 gathering is how many governments, local and federal, use modern technology to disseminate information. Macon Phillips, White House director of new media, says the White House believes strongly that the Internet creates opportunities for equality. “Facebook is very popular for us [as a referrer],” he said. “We actually put videos out targeting the Muslim world whether it’s around Nowruz or Ramadan.”

Black communities unable to join this global conversation are at a political disadvantage. “Exposure is the biggest piece,” says Robertson, who believes strongly that the divide is only generational. Boyd sees it as a political issue. “If you want people to connect around politics and democracy, information and ideas, you need to understand the divisions that exist,” she says.

But today, the days of Facebook and MySpace hegemony may be over.  And not all blacks are being left out of the online cocktail party. Within Web communities like Twitter, black audiences are making their presence felt. Chris Wilson’s analysis of the recent “uknowurblackwhen” Twitter hashtag concluded that “trends like this one, however short-lived, suggest a strong, connected black community on the site.”

Still, this doesn’t mean that blacks will be bum-rushing the technology sector any time soon. Says Irwin: “This conversation, as rich as it is, would be richer if we had more people of color, more people representative of the future.”

Dayo Olopade

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