Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Access, Ownership, and Power: The Dig-Div-ide

Jeffery Grabill describes the practical and material concerns of power and technology that are more theoretically addressed by both Giddens and Foucault. These “rhetorical, ethical, and political issues and practices” (300) concerning who makes and uses digital technology name the kinds of power differentials open to individuals and groups to control and access technological resources touched upon by both Foucault and Giddens. Grabill’s article establishes access to technology as a public right and need, pointing to the institutions beyond the classroom to community literacy programs and libraries as nodes of access that must provide the resources. In this sense, it aligns with the position of Giddens, who specifically names resource allocation as a fundamental prerequisite to exercising institutional power. Moreover, Grabill discusses the infrastructural dimensions of access for what he terms the “techno poor” (303), especially as it concerns systems of design and decision making that create and maintain the technological forums needed to facilitate the democratic role of electronic communication (300).

Adam Banks takes up this issue of control and access in U.S. African American communities, who have in many instances created virtual spaces that foster black linguistic and discursive traditions by escaping the surveillance of language censorship occurring in classrooms and other forums more rigidly invested in maintaining dominant white rules of decorum and language use (68-9). Like Grabill, Banks views technological spaces as essential to less dominant populations (in this case, blacks) who seek places that honor and celebrate “difference,” and where “self-determination,” “resistance” and “oppositional identities and world views” are maintained and reproduced (69). Putting a human face on issues of power, Banks sees the loss of access to digital technology as one more step toward loss of identity for black Americans, and agrees with Grabill that “ownership of digital spaces and technologies” is paramount (71).

Anthony Walton’s historical overview of how technology has and is used as a weapon to exercise domination and maintain power differentials adds another facet to the discussion of power and agency. Walton writes, “the history of African-Americans since the discovery of the New World is the story of their encounters with technology” (16). Today, he notes, the technological boom has left blacks to participate only as “consumers,” which despite being characterized as moment of agency by a few radical free market economists, falls too far short of the kinds of control and access called for by others such as Banks. It is interesting that Walton touches on the unpredictable turns in technological innovations, from gunpowder to fiber optics, which have all found themselves becoming weapons or obstacles thwarting black equality. Each new technological innovation (what Giddens might have termed unintended consequences) is another wedge to maintain inequitable power relations.

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