Blog Post

The Digital Desert: Social Media & the Oligarchy of Access

As a food scholar working in New Orleans, my work focuses a lot on the question of who has access to food and why.  Extending that question to digital media is not as strange as it seems.  Inequalities in food tend to converge in something called a food desert, a place where this is little or no access to healthy whole foods.  In post-diluvian New Orleans there are food deserts in some predictable places: the Lower 9th Ward and New Orleans East are the most obvious examples.  These neighborhoods were also the places where primarily black, poor, and eldery people were sent into the diaspora that followed the initial flooding of the city when the federal levees failed in 2005.  Many of the folks were sent to other states without knowledge of where they were being sent, and with no clear indication of how they would return home.

As the city has repopulated since 2010 many neighborhoods have reached nearly the population levels they had before the flood, but many have not.  One of the results of this spotted repopulation has been a dearth of amenities and resources in certain neighborhoods in the city; food deserts are one example of this.  I'd also suggest that there is another kind of desert in New Orleans: a digital desert.  These are places where people do not have access to emergent social media because they don't have the knowledge of how to use the technology that supports that media, or they simply lack the interface- computers, wireless connections, and smartphones. This is a function of race, class, gender and age.

In the recent crisis in the Gulf coast following the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April of 2010, websites like the Louisiana Bucket Brigade ( integrated the newest smartphone GIS technology through the smartphone platform, Ushahedi, to engage citizen journalists in recording the effects of the oil spill in their world.  This is a fine use of technology, and the effort is noble and should be supported, but the question remains: what about the folks who dont have a phone that can utilize the technology?  In 2010 twenty-five percent of the cell phones sold in the United States were smart phones, but only account for eighteen percent of all cell phones in use (Nielsen, 2010).   There are 223 million cell phone users in the United States, and over 182 million of them, the vast majority, dont have the technical capacity to engage mobile computing.  

There are some statistical groups that quickly jump to mind: those economically unable to afford the technology, older users, and those who do not know how to use the technology.  'Smartphone owners continue to be predominantly male, are 65% more likely than the average mobile subscriber to be between the ages of 25 and 34, and nearly two times as likely to make more than $100,000 a year' (Nielson, 2010).

At the core of the question of access is another symptom of inequality: educational disparity based on race and class.  Which raises the question; if you dont have access to the technology how can you leverage its benefit in representing your experience in the online environment?  At the foundation of the digital desert is the power of representation in the predominantly white, male, affluent world of influence.  The potential impact of this access places at risk groups already disparately affected by disaster by denying them an important technological tool in the resiliency against disaster.

When people left New Orleans in the Diaspora that followed Katrina many folks liked to say that the city only really existed on the internet.  Communities once spatially located in a neighborhood were now geographically dispersed across the world.  Even before Facebook and You Tube people used the internet to bridge this divide.  If you had someone's email you could reconnect and keep the connection of community alive.  In my interviews with people who were in the city at that time they almost always refer to the aftermath of Katrina by referencing the first time they used their cell phone to send and receive texts.  The technology was the bridge to maintain and ultimately, rebuild community. 

Technology is a form of social capital where 'social resources are resources accessed through an individuals social connections' (Lin, p. 21, 2001).  Interactive social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are a type of mediating structure where 'interactions among people and organizations create horizontal networks of civic engagement mediating structures provide the building blocks of horizontal and vertical networks that social capital binds together into a foundation for democratic practice' (Couto, p.51, 1999).   Social media networks are a virtual space in which people can connect and maintain both thick and thin relationships. 

Facebook and Twitter allow users the ability to quickly share and access information about one's life with people and organizations they may only tangendentally know or care about, but these thin relationships are still important parts of network building. 

Information about businesses that are open, relatives that are safe, and areas that are dangerous are all quickly and easily shared among friends and followers who send out blips of information to those interested in receiving it.  A Facebook update that tells you your favorite restaurant is closed for the Saints game may not be critical information, but it builds relationships.  And when that status update is about whether or not that restaurant flooded in a storm it binds thin relationships into social context and meaning.

Residents who returned to New Orleans after Katrina often reference those thin relationships as critical parts of their community experience.  Farmers markets, cafes, bookstores and bars are all places we go to form these thin relationships and when they are bifurcated by disaster they generate a rift in our understanding of our community.  Using social media to replicate those community spaces is not the real thing, but it'll do in a pinch. 

Social network technologies also have the power to be a sustained community when the geographic space is damaged or destroyed, allowing for a return route for those forced into diaspora.  Your neighborhood may be sixteen feet underwater, but if you can see a brief video clip of your neighbor on their Facebook page you know there are alright, and you can engage them in a conversation about: if, when, and how to rebuild.  That conversation is a form of social capital that has immense power in the face of disaster.  But it only works when the technology is engaged and the network is active and operational as a part of daily, embodied rituals of practice for individuals and communities.

For researchers the issue of access is important when we study the use and impact of social media.  In addition to looking for the place where social media and emergent technologies are in use we also need to be aware of, and actively seek out, the spaces and populations where it is not in use.  Is there a discrepant experience (Said, 1994) of technology between different communities, and if so- why?  Why aren't people in this place using technology, especially if it would benefit them to do so?  The answers transform the statistical invisibility of under-represented demographics into stories that form a narrative about access to the resources and structures that support and encourage use of technology as a way to sustain community in the face of disaster and recovery. 

Gayatry Spivak speaks to the subaltern invisibility of communities that do not have access to the resources of the internet in her work with rural women in South Asia and the issues researchers face in understanding that invisibility:

'[T]o understand the virtualization of the rural as a huge systemic change, a recoding, a reterritorialization. But at the same time, in order to understand the terrifying power of the abstract as such, one must supplement it with the human beings within these kinds of situations. The enthusiasm for these abstract groups of women accessing the marketplace through the Internet leaves completely untouched what happens to these women on the ground.

Then, you come to the third point: have these people made a broad-range qual- itative analysis of what group has access to global markets through the Internet? What class stratum? Where? In what kinds of societies? Because I can assure you, I have had a good deal of experience over the last twelve years with hundreds of women with whom it has been my good fortune to associate myself; the bottom layers of the rural poor have no access to the Internet. They dont even know what the Internet is. This is the largest sector of the electorate in the global South. And to access the Internet without infrastructural accompaniments does not lead to a just society (Spivak in Sharpe, p. 613, 2003).'

To answer the questions Spivak raises, I suggest that we need to return to Foucaul'ts understanding of the intellectual in the production of power, where academics are linked to the general functioning of an apparatus of truth, and truth is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which induces and extends it (Foucault, p. 132, 1977).  The investigation of social media in the academy must necessarily question its own position in the system of power in the digital desert, and how it contributes to the regime of truth Foucault reveals to us.

I work closely with the immigrant Latino population who came to the metro New Orleans area immediately following Katrina.  Often referred to as the FEMA immigration: Find Every Mexican Available, these people came to the city to assist in the demolition and rebuilding of the city.  Five years later they are still here, but now they face new challenges; one of which is assimilation into daily life in the city.

In the food surveys I have conducted we ask several questions not directly related to food, including cell phone usage, and: do you feel a sense of discrimination in the city?  The vast majority of respondents have a cell phone.  Those who don't were over the age of 50, and used a relative's phone.  We did not directly ask if those were smartphones, but my own observations in the field saw only one smarphone in use- the founder of the group I was working with who had lived in New Orleans for twenty years and had a college degree.  For them, using smartphones applications like the Ushadi interface: MoGO to map their experiences is impossible.

As I've continued to visit homes and stand on streets administering surveys I've had many of my own firsthand experiences with discrimination and violence directed at Latinos in the city.  I've been verbally, and physically assaulted doing this work, and I've listened to many stories from Latinos about violence and hostility that is almost never reported to the police, and even more rarely is covered in the media; these experiences raise obvious road-blocks for Latinos who are trying to integrate into life in New Orleans, and they render this group nearly invisible to the vast majority of people who have access to resources that could help.

One of the recurring responses I get to the question: 'do you feel a sense of discrimination' concerns accessing resources.  Several of the Latinos I've spoken with have talked about how difficult it is to enroll a child in school, fill out job applications, apply for a state I.D., and access healthcare because of three reasons: difficulties with English, and either no access to computers, or not knowing how to use the internet to access the resources they need.  As governmental and private entities increasingly move their services to web based interfaces many of us find greater convenience in doing things like getting a drivers license, or registering our cars.  But this convenience is costly if you dont speak English and you have no access to computers or don't know how to use them. 

It's not just a challenge for immigrants, residents of the city face similar challenges.  I also do work in the Lower 9th Ward, a predominantly black neighborhood in the city.  At one point I was trying to help a resident work through some tax forms from 2006, which are only available online.  He had no wireless access and was only minimally proficient using the internet.  His experience was devastating.  The man was trying to file back taxes for a year he was physically displaced from his home, sent into diaspora in another state with no way to get back to New Orleans, and he couldn't access the forms or the information he needed because of challenges with the technology.  He hadn't been taught to use computers in school, and there was no clear human interface for him to resolve his issue, or help guide him through the online process.

Technology can be a tool to help those affected by disaster if it is accessible and used by those populations.   We must look for those individuals which technology renders invisible, and ask the question: why, so that we may also ask the question: how?  This is the departure point for harnessing the power of technology to build more resilient communities.  Researchers need to leave the confines of the academy and journey outside to places that might feel very uncomfortable, even dangerous if they want to understand people who live in circumstances truly different than them and take the trouble to actually engage with 'the structures of feeling' of the groups who are supposedly being helped (Spivak in Sharpe, p 614, 2003).  If the academy has anything to offer in this effort it requires scholars to enter the field and see the landscape firsthand, laying aside assumptions about how media is used so they may observe where and how it is not used as well.



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