Information Accessibility & Upward Mobility

Note: This post originally appeared on my blog for the course Social Informatics.


upwardmobility

The idea that people can “climb the ladder to success” often ignores that the ones on top make it difficult to follow them. (Image from: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21571417-how-prevent-virtuous-meritocracy-entrenching-itself-top-repairing-rungs)

Technology can save the world! Can’t it?

The idea that technology is able to drastically change economical circumstances around the world is the running theme throughout the required readings for today. Many of these readings reek of White Savior complexes, especially the start-ups mentioned in Charles Kenny’s “Can Silicon Valley Save the World?” article. Charles Kenny writes of several start-ups meant to ‘fix’ impoverished countries, all of which began with the idea that a simple invention can solve the problems of entire countries. He speaks of a claim made by broadband companies that access is linked to an increase in GDP, outright ignoring the fact that China has many impoverished citizens while also having some of the most ubiquitous broadband access in the world. Another great point that he makes is that accessibility to the internet means nothing in countries like Liberia where the literacy rate is very low.

Some most egregious examples of failed western inventions meant to fix poverty abroad include a soccer light ball called “Soccket” that costs 10 times more than an effective solar-powered lamp while also requiring the ball to be played with before the light will work (because, you know, all African children love soccer and need to play more than they just need working lights). PlayPumps, a water pump backed by influentials like AOL and Laura Bush, cost four times what a regular working water pump does. It was also prone to breaking and required 27 hours of “play time” in order to meet the water needs of the community. Because, again, African children love to play, more than they love accessibility to water.

I’m digressing here. I suppose this desperate need that (mostly white) westerners feel to fix the rest of the world doesn’t sit well with me, especially since we so often ignore that most of the structural issues within these countries come from our direct involvement in these countries via colonialism. (See: “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” by Walter Rodney. I’ll even give you a link to a pdf! Click.)

Of course, my initial cynicism and distrust does not do well to comment on how technology has served to help improve society around the world. In Kenny’s article, he lists many successful companies that have helped countries via accessible medicine.

The very idea of social informatics is that society affects technology and vice versa. Consider the political cartoon at the beginning of this article. American culture pushes this idea that disenfranchised citizens can become successful, when truthfully the wealthiest only seem to get wealthier as the poor become poorer. This economic divide, and its continuing widening, is reflected within information science. The digital divide, as defined in the Kerry Dobransky article as “a gap […] within and between societies in the degree to which different groups have access to and use information and communications technologies,” widens as technology helps facilitate communication.

Consider the situations in Africa I referenced with Liberia’s failing literacy rate. Kenny described a push to give laptops to African children, despite evidence that shows laptops do not significantly further education. What good is a laptop if children can’t read? What good is accessibility to this technology – when gifted – if literacy isn’t accessible as well? Technology, though it has given us unprecedented access to information, causes this gap to widen. Poor, uneducated people do not have access to the technology nor the ability to use it, while the wealthy and educated gain more and more knowledge and benefit from these technologies at skyrocketing rates.

Of course, there is another side to this argument, as there always is. Sure, giving technology blindly does not solve poverty just as putting a bandaid on a broken dam would not stop a flood. However, reasonable expectations can be met by making information technology more accessible to disenfranchised persons. Consider public libraries – they strive to meet the needs of even the poorest of the community. My father, who grew up in poor, rural Mississippi, told me that he would spend hours reading books at the library on any subject he could get his hands on – and today he’s a successful orthopedic surgeon.

Yes, rich people do benefit from information technology at rates much higher than poor people. However, this does not mean that this technology is at all wasted on disenfranchised members of the community. It can still help them. It is when people have extremely high expectations of technology when it does less to help and more to hurt a community. If you make exorbitant claims that a iPhone app is going to solve world hunger, then of course your app will fail. Technology can help. We just need to be realistic about it.