Digital Disparity is a Moral Issue

Digital technology directly impacts who we are and what we do; it ushers in abundant possibilities and indelibly alters how we form relationship and community. . . . For Christians committed to a more just and inclusive society, and imaginative and serious ethical response to digital technologies requires looking beyond the immediate experience of software and hardware to how it was created, how our use of it shapes us, and what values are promoted across these processes. (vii)

So begins the preface to Christian Ethics for a Digital Society, my new publication, which urges readers to consider the impact of being a digitally dependent society without being digital savvy. There are numerous ways that digital technologies reduce inequalities and exacerbate them at the same time. This is not a morally neutral tool. We need to increase our critical digital literacy. We can do this in everyday ways that collectively impact systems of inequality and lead to greater liberation.

I call this approach hacking! Hacking includes the ethical call to gain access to the ecosystem of digital technologies by honing digital literacies and defines the vulnerabilities of the system to be patched as the perpetuation of social inequalities and injustices. (See chapter 5)

 

One of the pervasive inequalities built into the system of digital technologies is called digital disparity.  For some, digital disparity is a lack of access to hardware and internet connectivity. From the perspective of the digitally saturated, locations away from cell towers and slower paced communication is often romanticized. These are the oases of “unplugged” life. On the contrary for those living in such locations, there are significant economic and social ramifications.

The common narrative of digital disparity tends to focus on an urban and rural divide. There is truth to the claim that rural areas lack network connection influenced by remote landscapes and long durations of repairs and upgrades. As well, economic challenges limit acquisition of computing devices and thus, users ability to learn how to use digital technologies. “The paradox is that rural communities are most in need of improved digital connectivity to compensate for their remoteness, but they are least connected and included,” note authors Salemink, Strijker and Bosworth in their review of “Rural Development in the Digital Age.

 

When I hear “rural digital disparity,” my bias envisions white farmers across open midwestern landscapes. That image carries some truth, but only a sliver. The demographics of the rural farm country of my youth has drastically changed. Large populations of Latin@ migrant workers and immigrant communities as well as Black communities in the southern U.S. comprise a significant portion of those facing racial and rural digital disparity. A recent Brookings Institute story suggests, “Digital exclusion comes with costs. Already facing diminished life chances, people with lower incomes, people of color, the elderly, and foreign-born migrants in rural areas run the risk of being on the wrong side of the digital divide that further exacerbates their economic, social, and political marginalization.”

The response appears at first pass to be simple–increase connectivity in these areas. Companies are not going to invest in infrastructure that benefits a few, and a few that are poor. There are also real limitations of landscape and environmental concerns that are not to be quickly dismissed. Instead, Jenna Burrell, an associate professor in the School of Information at UC Berkeley, suggests we think relationally.

A transition to relational thinking instead of instrumental orientations call forth a different type of theological engagement as well. When we pull from theologies of relationality, those that build off of trinitarian notions of God, we increase our awareness of interdependence, between God and humans, humans and humans, humans and the earth, God and the earth.

Burrell proposes a move beyond digital disparity as the “haves” and “have-nots.” She invites us to use a ‘spectrum’ approach “noting that non-use can be voluntary, and that the relevance of the Internet may also be unclear to some prospective users.” For those who want and need digital technologies, we will have a better chance at reducing digital disparities if we focus on:

  1. the effects of a changing internet that is comprised of various applications rather than a single search engine portal
  2. access and instability of the network,
  3. bias in how platform builders, content distributors and standards-setting bodies influence the design and user experience.   

Burrell reflects liberation language in her observation that “connectivity expectations are imposed from network centers.” The center determining the unequal experience of the margins has been a liberation theology concern for decades.

Local responses demonstrate the importance of relationality and interdependence. Faith communities, small businesses, libraries and barber shops install Wi-Fi hotspots to serve as a community hub which remedies lack of home based connectivity in rural areas. It may also reduce the absolute dependence on being wired (and the social and developmental issues that it causes) too which many suburban and urban homes have acquiesced. Community hubs also provide space for learning digital literacies together and making collective decisions about digital engagement rather than giving into ecological and economical wired unsustainability.

 


Dr. Kate Ott is a feminist, catholic scholar addressing the formation of moral communities with specializations in technology, youth and young adults, sexuality, pedagogy and professional ethics. She is Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Drew Theological School. In addition to numerous articles, chapters, and two co-edited books, she is author of Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice, Sex + Faith: Talking with Your Child from Birth to Adolescence, and the forthcoming, Christian Ethics for a Digital Society. To find out more, visit www.kateott.org.