Digital Inclusion or Digital Expansion?

Yesterday I wrote about the racial and economic implications of digitizing the public sphere (and spoke about this at the MuniWireless conference). I mentioned a distinction between “digital inclusion” and “digital expansion.”

Digital inclusion has gained a lot of traction as a phrase, especially in Philadelphia where Wireless Philadelphia has all but branded it to describe the social programs they are planning to close the digital divide.

But to me (and to other people I’ve spoken with) it carries an implication that people who are offline are being brought into a perfect world. That’s clearly not the case.

What we see in the online world is the result of a land rush where English speaking white men had first crack at the virtual real estate. Digital inclusion is like saying poor people, people of color, and non-English speakers are allowed to shop in white neighborhoods.

(I’ve heard that the phrase “digital divide” was first promulgated by the US Department of Commerce, which makes a lot of sense in that regard.)

People talk about the entrepreneurial opportunities that will come from “closing the digital divide.” They’re there, but anyone who is arriving now to the online world is working at a disadvantage to those who came before. It’s one more example of government policies perpetuating economic divisions based on race.

We want to do more than just include people in the online world as it currently exists. We want that new involvement to transorm that world. This is what I hope to imply with the phrase digital expansion. It’s also what I want to imply when I talk about “open internet.”

I had a conversation along these same lines yesterday with Brownfemipower, who writes the Woman of Color Blog and will be at the AMC this weekend.

She comes at it from her experience with INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and a desire to use online tools to bolster grassroots base building offline. But she’s now developing a women of color blog ring and working to build a base in the online world, not focusing on pure quantity of hits or email addresses but on finding the allies and people in need of support that she or INCITE! would not find offline.

It goes without saying that this is needed. As BFP described with telling examples, the online world is no less racist or violent towards women than the offline world. In many instances it is more virulent. It might provide some physical security at times, but can expose private information in other instances. Women of color are online and they need support, especially from other online women of color.

This stands on its head a common assumption in online activism, one that was particularly prevalent within Indymedia when I was active in that network: that to reach poor people and people of color you need to go offline.

The divide is real so of course this is partly true. But it is also self-fulfilling as it removes the motivation to provide meaningful content and safe, useful spaces for those folks who are online.

So rather than working to include people in this world as it currently exists, we need to expand the digital world and our imaginations of it.

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1 Comment

  1. [...] It was billed as a “no cost” way to get some community benefits in the form of “digital inclusion.” Because it is being pioneered in Philadelphia, this type of corporate-owned network is sometimes called the Philadelphia model. Its ascendance has less to do with the merit of the business model than with specific circumstances surrounding Wireless Philadelphia. [...]

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