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Rethinking Complexity

No Shortcuts to Social Justice

By February 19, 2015February 19th, 2018No Comments

Are you old enough to remember when “the Internet” was just getting big?  Do you remember what people thought it was going to be?

It was going to revolutionize democracy and do away with racism (because we’re all one color behind the screen);  it was going to level the playing field between rich and poor because we’d all have access to the same information superhighway.

Now that we’ve got Facebook, Twitter, and the Huffington Post, how’s the future working out?

Not as predicted, except perhaps by the cynics.  According to a recent survey by UC Berkeley professor Jen Schradie, less than 10 percent of the population is participating in most “online production activities,” and as a result the internet has become a playground for the upper classes, representing their concerns and fixations and ignoring the issues of those on society’s bottom rungs. 

“Conventional wisdom tells us that the Internet is leveling the playing field and broadening the diversity of voices being heard,” Schradie said. “But my findings show the Internet is actually reinforcing the socio-economic divisions that already exist, and may even heighten them, which has all sorts of implications as more of civic and economic life moves online.”

Effectively that makes the internet a propaganda machine for the upper classes.

Is this a bombshell?  Only to utopians.  The upper classes have migrated almost entirely to “the information economy.”  To move up in socio-economic status is to move into the world of online conferences and data management.  The very existence of the term “digital divide” is a confirmation of the fact that internet access and internet-cultural familiarity go hand-in-hand with education and income.

The more interesting question is:  could it have happened any other way?

Was there ever a scenario in which a powerful new communications tool wouldn’t have become dominated by the socio-economic elite?

What would that have looked like?

While it’s always possible to come up with a “what if?” scenario, the realistic answer is “no” – no there was never a scenario in which the internet wouldn’t become the propaganda machine for the “haves.”

There are two primary reasons.

The first is that this is what it means to be in power.  You get the right education to use the tools of the day;  you get to rig the system to support your interests;  and when a bright new invention comes out of university laboratories, your positioned to put it to use.  The classes in power get to exercise large control over important resources because they are in power, and knowledge resources are no exception.

But more importantly:  the real trouble was that we were looking to the internet as a shortcut.  How was it going to usher in a new age of democracy and social justice?  It would do so automatically.  There was no need for us to take any additional steps.

That’s the problem right there:  we weren’t looking at the internet as a new tool to use to support our ongoing efforts to create social justice – we were hoping it would do the work for us.

That attitude guaranteed that the internet would become a propaganda machine for the already vested – because all of the things we could have done to prevent it would have required extra effort.

But it turns out the internet is not a shortcut to social justice because there are no shortcuts.  No matter what our technology, no matter what our new advances, we can never sit back and let the system work for us:  if we want social justice, we have to get our hands dirty doing the work ourselves.

That’s why the internet’s biggest successes supporting democracy and social justice have come from people already taking risks off-line.  Twitter and Facebook, on their own, have done nothing to spread democracy:  but activists already engaged in democracy-building have been able to utilize them as effective tools.  A billion blogs have done nothing to uncover government corruption – but people already working at exposing government corruption have been able to use blogs to get their message out.

Doing the work yields results – and the internet can help.  But letting a new tool or system lull us into the complacency of thinking that everything will be fixed even if we do nothing … that ends up looking a lot like the internet today.