Response to Coltan, Exclusion, and the digital divide

Great topic! I really like the way you bring the digital divide concept into questions of public accountability. I think you did a wonderful job showing how changes in technology are marketed to us on a much larger scale than we may care to think about. For example, your Coltan example illustrates how the divide impacts rural dwellers very differently in one context compared to urban dwellers in another, which, as you mention, illustrates how the Macro-level (international level) ends up being missed in descriptions of public consciousness. To take this a bit further, I would also argue that we don’t necessarily encapsulate this larger scale context when using buzz words such as ‘development’ or ‘exploitation’, which are used in the west to describe the major gaps that exist between say internet use in the Congo verses Canada. I think your example of how Coltan becomes viewed as an extension of the blood diamonds discourse, or simply one of many exploitative practices connects well with this. You mention, for example, how Canadians don’t have to think about the price that is actually paid (individual’s lives) because the price tag remains the market value of the diamonds as sold to the western buyer. This is not a true representation of the purchase price, and I would argue the same thing applies when we talk about technology and the digital divide.

To respond to your first question, “is it up to the consumer to boycott all electronic devices?” I’d like to bring up a critique made in class regarding Ginsburg’s analysis. One of the problems with the concept of the digital divide is how it tends to ‘other’ those deemed to be on the wrong side. For instance, there is a sense that everyone should be racing to get online, or will eventually have access to technology. The question becomes ‘how can we get everyone to the same place’. And I think our policy reflects this motivation. However, as you touch on in your blog, this method of questioning does not explain the structures that work to produce the ‘other’? This connects well with Kennedy et al., where the authors analyze intellectual disabilities and the internet. Is it enough to adopt an additive model? I would say no, that if we have to ‘fit’ people in to accessing technologies it points to a larger awareness in public consciousness of a deep rooted system of inclusion/exclusion. And we potentially camouflage our own privilege in this system as we work to add the ‘other’ in. In the context of the Congo, this process might be called a “development smokescreen”. Approaching technology and access in this way doesn’t answer, for example, why mass suicides plague factories in China, or why Foxconn installed safety nets and hired counselors to prevent suicides at work. Approaching the digital divide without an analysis of how we benefit from the ‘other’ also does not begin to provide answers to why in Indonesia factory workers continue to work in violent conditions, or why some individuals who make the pieces for IPhones that are sold in Canada will probably never own an IPhone. These are all products of the capitalist system that a Canadian audience is likely to marvel at in the media, but rarely do we question how the unconscious level it manifests at has influenced the way we approach the digital divide.

Media coverage on blood diamonds or Coltan shows that shifts in how we describe the impacts of capitalism have changed the way we talk about technology, or the digital divide. However, I think these shifts also impact the way development more generally in the African context is talked about, particularly in western media. Technology becomes a gateway into this conversation, which I think in some ways influences us to ask ‘why look at technology access when people are living without food?’ I want to challenge this question. I do think it’s important because it forces a privileged audience to think beyond their own context. However, your discussion on the Congo reminded me of Binyavanga Wainaina response on ‘How to Write about Africa’. Check out his interview on YouTube (part 1, part 2) , if interested in questions of development in the broader context I mention. I think this piece is important because it also reminds us of what is at stake when WE set the bar for the individuals that we have ‘othered’. Wainaina talks about this in the video. In response to one development project, which saw providing an entire village with food as a primary goal, Wainaina asks ‘is this the bar we should accept for ourselves?’ meaning is this enough? I don’t really have an answer to this, but I think in response to some of Ginsburg’s arguments and class critiques, Wainaina’s perspective adds new questions to a very complicated context, which the western world has called the digital divide.













About missmediawatch

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