Barney – Digital Divides

Information Communications Technology (ICT) does little to resolve the issues of democracy despite the potential, according to Barney. In fact, it is necessary for those interested in resolving critical issues around democratic engagement to solve issues offline before taking them online. There is little evidence supporting any claims that ICTs have the ability to fundamentally redistribute power in Canada, instead it reinforces and reflects what is existing inequalities. Digital divides exist, not as a result of digital technology, but as a result of the political economy. Barney suggest the struggles must take place without any reliance on easy technological fixes. The digital divide refers those who can or cannot access new technologies. These lines are an accurate representation of the same divides between existing classes or socio-economic groups. It means the unconnected people, who are unable to get Internet access or cell phone or other technology, are the same people who often face social inequality normally. But even if these people were connected, that does not guarantee a redistribution of power would take place. The ability to use the Internet, for example, is often done passively and it is not good to assume these people would be technically literate or skilled enough to take full advantage. Barney also notes the existing rights found in a democratic society do not ensure full participation. If serious economic constraints or shortcomings exist, then these must also be considered barriers to full participation. ICTs do not redistribute economic power, rather it emphasizes the existing gaps by destabilizing employment and creates non-standard work arrangements. Instead of long-term full-time jobs with benefits, ICT have contributed to flexible, part-time, contract-type work.

ICT can contribute to the formation of a public sphere, as defined by Jurgen Habermas, but once again, the full potential is left unrequited. While the Internet may idealize a sense of equality, it does not truly exist. All web sites are not created equally, nor is the ability to be an effective voice the same. A large corporation presence online cannot be seen as equal to a personal website, Barney says.

This article stands in stark contract to those reading where authors argued about the ability of technology to assist social movements in organizing and present a major tool for communicating with members and audiences. Cyberactivists would argue the ability of social movements to destabilize existing political economic structures is good, giving examples of protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and elsewhere. Also, the formulation of new forms of independent media, also potentially shifts a larger discourse as different kinds of information is accessible to audience seeking a new perspective on issues. Barney would ask, who is this audience and is it representative of all aspects of society. He would argue the poor or minorities or women or other disadvantaged groups would not be able to participate in these social movements’ online activities. Notably, these are similar groups or special interests that usually lack representation.

The digital divide remains the Achilles Hell of any discussion around democratic potential. Critics can simply cite the points raised by Barney to undermine any positive initiative or discussion regarding democratic potential. Barney clearly identifies the problems, but does little to offer a solution. Is this a matter of public policy? What role does the state play in providing access and the necessary technical literacy training to ensure full participation in digitally mediated politics. Meanwhile, there are many groups and individuals who press on with various experiments in online democracy with no regard for resolving the issues. The recent presidential candidate debates on You Tube only go to show how some are trying to utilize the technology in innovative and highly experimental ways. It must be clear; these efforts are not in vain. But, until the issue of the digital divide is fully addressed, it provide an opportunities for detractors to be critical.

First posted: 7/30/07

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