Abstract: Get a laptop. Learn to code. Close the skills gap. Since the Clinton administration popularized the "digital divide" policy framework in the 1990s, these mandates have dominated our discussions of how to solve the problem of persistent poverty in the information economy. Even as critics continue to raise both the organizational (i.e., skills training is more complicated than just handing out PCs) and structural (i.e., most job growth is in low-wage service work) problems with this framework, it remains strong. Schools, libraries, and other social services are transformed in the name of closing the gap between, as Al Gore said, "information haves" and "information have-nots". But how did we learn that we need to learn to code? And why do very different institutions stick to the same script about technological solutions to socioeconomic problems?
This lecture locates the origin of the digital divide policy framework in the poverty debates of the 1990s, and then demonstrates, ethnographically, why these mandates persist and how they restructure public institutions. I draw on a year of fieldwork within a STEM-focused, minority-serving charter school in Washington, D.C. to explore what I call "bootstrapping": Public institutions under financial and political duress look to technological solutions to garner much-needed resources and legitimacy, and to simplify the complex problems of urban poverty. As the first senior class at W.E.B Du Bois Charter High School approaches graduation, a conflict arises between teachers and administrators. The school must decide whether its social justice values fit within its social mobility mission; a mission built into its free laptop program, mobile phone policy, and student data infrastructure. Struggles over the design of these systems become struggles over the nature and purpose of education for Du Bois' working-class Black and Latinx students. I conclude by reflecting on new, sociotechnical approaches to the problem of poverty in the information economy that focus not on individual access to technological resources but institutionally-embedded technologies that act as levers for racial and economic stratification.
Bio: Daniel Greene is a Postdoctoral Researcher with the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England and an Affiliate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. His research focuses on the technologies behind the future of work, the values built into them, and the institutions that dictate who is included in—or excluded from—that vision of the future. His current book project, tentatively titled The Promise of Access, is an ethnography of the urban spaces that turn the problem of poverty into a problem of technology, and how that changes the nature and purpose of public institutions. Other projects employ a mix of qualitative methods to investigate sociotechnical problems such as how platforms teach mobile developers what "privacy" means or how large retailers automated hiring. His research has been published in venues such as the International Journal of Communication, Surveillance & Society, and New Media & Society. He received his PhD in American Studies from the University of Maryland, where he also worked in the Ethics and Values in Design Lab in the iSchool.
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