The digitization of the public sphere is the new Jim Crow

I am speaking today at the Muniwireless Conference in Santa Clara, CA, on a panel on “How successful community projects can help to develop, implement, & expand municipal wireless networks.”

The other people on the panel are awesome and I’m honored to be sharing the stage with them: Becca Vargo Daggett from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Richard MacKinnon from Austin Wireless, and Matt Rantanen of the Tribal Digital Village Network; Jeff Perlstein from Media Alliance is the moderator.

The panel is part of a track on community issues and open source tools organized by Sascha Meinrath. As I wrote yesterday, we form a narrow sliver of community advocates at a conference with many hardware vendors, venture capitalists, industry consultants, and municipal officials.

I expect Richard and Matt to discuss their specific community projects and Becca to focus on the economic implications of municipal ownership. I want to talk about how we’ve gone from community to municipal to corporate control of the networks and what we are losing as a result.

In an age where companies like AT&T are attempting to use their ownership of a portion of the network essentially to close the entire internet, it seems to me that we need to look at wireless networks as a critical opportunity to regain some leverage. If we hand this opportunity over to corporations like Earthlink, we will be outsiders looking in, forever hoping to be included.

This comes at a moment when more and more of our public life is taking place online. This is a standard argument for closing the digital divide, but the implications are much broader than that when we consider the way poor people, people of color, and non-English speakers are excluded from the Internet in the United States.

To the extent we digitize the public sphere, we exacerbate the racial and economic divides already prevalent in our society. It’s the new Jim Crow.

My friend Antwuan Wallace recently observed this at the YearlyKos conference in Las Vegas, where Democratic Party heavyweights addressed the “netroots.” The netroots is whiter and more male than the offline “grassroots” it is supplanting or, at best, augmenting. The experience motivated Antwuan to start blogging. In his first post, he writes that “telecommunication policy is the new civil rights legislation.”

I would not argue that we should halt the process, even if we could. The internet still offers the promise of a broader, more participatory democracy. That’s what I mean by “digital expansion.” It’s the two steps forward we need to take now, as the prioritization of online civic engagement over offline takes us one step back.

This is why it is so important that we secure wireless networks as public spaces and it shows the importance of community wireless.

Community wireless – and not just civic projects, but networks with true community involvement and ownership – is the vehicle for bringing people online and into the digitized public sphere. In my view, this is how they can “develop, implement, & expand municipal wireless networks.”

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9 Comments

  1. […] 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." […]

  2. My friend Antwuan Wallace recently observed this at the YearlyKos conference in Las Vegas, where Democratic Party heavyweights addressed the “netroots.” The netroots is whiter and more male than the offline “grassroots” it is supplanting or, at best, augmenting. The experience motivated Antwuan to start blogging. In his first post, he writes that “telecommunication policy is the new civil rights legislation.”

    this is a great point, one that i hadn’t thought of. if a mother is online looking for a way to end her isolation/lonliness, she’s not usually going to go to the democratic party, she’s going to go to breast feeding support groups or other mama friendly places. can there be some way for grass roots radical organizations (hell, even the green party) to approach mama friendly spaces/woc spaces/race conscious places etc to create a bigger broader movement?

    Also, i’m wondering if “civil rights” legistlation is the best solution to jim crow laws–that is, if civil rights only barely affected real change within the real world, why would radical/progressives continue to use that model within the context of online liberation? (haha, as much as i believe in online activism, even i have to snark at the thought of online liberation)

    why do we always get ourselves backed into such a corner that the only solution we have is the “quick” remedy that prevents total destruction?

  3. Anonymous said

  4. […] the digitization of the public sphere is the new jim crow (Antwuan, Brownfemipower) […]

  5. Interesting look at race and political blogging, resulting from a not-diverse gathering of New York liberal bloggers.

    See the photo of Bill Clinton with the bloggers or this commentary.

  6. […] Josh Breitbart notes: To the extent we digitize the public sphere, we exacerbate the racial and economic divides already prevalent in our society. It’s the new Jim Crow. […]

  7. I’d like to hear more on Digital Expansion…. my move has been towards Digital Excellence. We’re promoting that at http://digitalaccessalliance.org

    My concern is that with much of the language on Digital Inclusion we wind up with a tiered approach… we shouldnt settle for that.

  8. You can read a more detailed explanation of Digital Expansion here: https://breitbart.wordpress.com/2007/01/12/digital-expansion/

    I think settling for tiered access is a major problem and I think Digital Excellence is a good way to encourage a sense of shared investment in our communications future. But Digital Excellence puts the focus on achievement, as I see it.

    I’d rather emphasize the process. I also think we need to discuss how the Internet will change as those who have been excluded from it get online. If everyone had the same, full package of what’s currently available, it wouldn’t be enough.

  9. From my vantage, Digital Excellence focuses on the process, as excellence is an ongoing endeavor. Excellence is not about the technology or the infrastructure, it is about our relationships to the technology and infrastructure, and our relationships with each other. Excellence is about character.

    The technology of the day, however high-end, can never be the barometer of excellence. Excellence moves us to what is best in being human, not to superficialities.

    I will look to your other writing on the subject, and invite you to consider further this view on Digital Excellence.

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