Digital Inclusion · Liberation · Social Justice

Why Digital Inclusion

I’m now in my second month serving as the Interim Director for the Center for Digital Inclusion (CDI) in the iSchool at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. But I’ve also served as a senior research scientist with the Center since it’s inception a couple of years ago. It might be asked why this focus on Digital Inclusion specifically, rather than Inclusion more generally? Could it not be argued that the Digital qualifier puts us at risk of technocentricity (the social myopia putting digital technology at the center of all initiatives, which Seymour Papert has equated to the egocentric stage of child development)?

New definitions of the terms digital inclusion and digital equity have been put forward recently by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance that I think can be helpful in considering these questions (full disclosure: CDI is a partner with NDIA, and two of the authors of the definition, Angela Siefer and Colin Rhinesmith, are colleagues and CDI alum):

Digital Inclusion is the activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). This includes 5 elements: 1) affordable, robust broadband internet service; 2) Internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user; 3) access to digital literacy training; 4) quality technical support; and 5) applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration. Digital Inclusion must evolve as technology advances and recognizes that access to and use of ICTs are an essential element for participation in our society, democracy and economy.

Digital Equity is the ultimate outcome of full digital inclusion, with focused action and investments to eliminate historic, systemic and structural barriers that perpetuate disadvantaged individuals and communities. Digital equity recognizes our moral obligation to harness ICTs to address the needs of disadvantaged individuals, as well as community or neighborhoods, community-based organizations and small businesses.

I personally appreciate greatly in these definitions the emphasis on full participation in our society, democracy and economy tied with a moral obligation to harness ICT to address the needs of disadvantaged individuals, communities, neighborhoods, etc. But I do think we can find ourselves in a bit of a rock/hard place bind. Without social, political, and economic equity and inclusion, I believe it is extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve full digital equity and inclusion. To the extent that primacy is given to the things enunciated as necessary for access and use of ICT, then we have succumb to technocentric and techno-utopian thinking. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., warned of the consequences of such a thing orientation in relation to computers almost 50 years ago:

We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

Beyond Vietnam“, April 4, 1967

We know we’ve crossed a line putting computers ahead of people when we ask questions like, “How is wide-spread, affordable, robust broadband Internet service changing the lives of people?”, or “How is wide-spread access to Internet-connected devices reshaping education?” We can have some confidence we are putting people first when we ask questions like, “How are people working to change their neighborhoods, and how are they leveraging wide-spread, affordable, robust broadband Internet to make that hard work more effective?”, or “How are teachers striving to reshape education, and how are they using wide-spread access to Internet-connected devices to make their hard work more effective?”.

In an age when digital tool use can often provide an advantage to the wielder, digital inequity can and often does lead to greater social inequity, reinforcing and widening historic, systemic and structural barriers that perpetuate disadvantaged individuals and communities. But as noted above, without social equity and inclusion, it’s difficult or impossible to fully achieve digital equity and inclusion. Simply shoveling technology and technical skills training into “have-not” neighborhoods isn’t going to magically resolve historical, systemic, and structural inequalities.

An oft-noted problem with the old digital divide framework is that it readily lends itself to a sense of largesse on the part of the haves to save the have nots from their deficits through distribution of material and educational resources. This dehumanizing approach to what is at root a social issue is a symptom of oppressive systems and structures within society. Paulo Friere points out that these oppressive structures both arise from and further foster a strictly materialistic understanding of existence. In counter to this materialistic certainty of reality, Friere suggests:

The radical, committed to human liberation, does not become the prisoner of a “circle of certainty” within which reality is also a prisoner. On the contrary, the more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can better transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or enter into dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed: but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2011), page 39.

I see at the heart of the new definitions put forward by NDIA a firmer understanding of digital inclusion and equity, one that counters previous thing-centered digital divide rhetoric. Rather, these more human-centered definitions highlight the leveraging of Information and Communication Technologies by ever wider groups of people in support of their own hard efforts to achieve social, democratic, and economic goals.

For me, the answer to “why Digital Inclusion?” is that it is a way to bring my talents to bear as I commit, within history, to fight at the side of the oppressed as an ally to know reality better, and to thereby transform it.


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