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Podcast: Professor Virginia Eubanks Talks About Digital Deadends

“If we don’t want the information age to deliver widespread economic and political destruction, we must commit to including all citizens in a dialog about creating a just and equitable future.  In the end, our liberation is bound up in each other; we all sink or swim together.”

Professor Virginia Eubanks wrote the book Digital Deadend from her time living and working with a YWCA just outside of New York.  Her experiences trying to provide free education, support and span the ‘digital divide’ led her to write this book.  Her studies show the myths which are perpetuated around the rhetoric of the digital age – i.e. computers will make us all free; it will make education accessible to all; the ‘poor’ lack skills whilst the rich have them…

Digital Dead End

Virginia talks about the “magical thinking” that accompanies the digital age and how we need to reconsider the way we approach communities and community education. The idea that technology will pave the road to prosperity has been promoted through both boom and bust. Today we are told that universal broadband access, high-tech jobs, and cutting-edge science will pull us out of our current economic downturn and move us toward social and economic equality. But how realistic is that expectation?  Digital Dead End explores the magical thinking that often accompanies high-tech innovation and economic development, asking the question:  How do we build a truly just information age?

Having met Virginia when she was visiting Blackburn College as a keynote speaker, I was instantly taken with the fact that she had lived the realities and worked up against the barriers which community projects, and communities have to work against.  I was fortunate enough to have had an evening of conversation with her about what Ragged University was trying to achieve and what the successes and rethinks were of her time at the YWCA which informed her work.

I walked away from this with a deep impression that she is one of the important voices to listen to in a technocratic age in which societies are re-designing themselves around the technology of silicon valley.  This brings as many big problems as it does solutions.  The imaginary scenarios which pepper policy are not reflective of the realities on the ground, just as the possibilities and opportunities which could be realities are often not being engaged with.  Here is an excerpt from her book:


“And then came the rumblings of the information revolution. There in the heart of the Silicon Valley, while working as the development director for a community radio station, I discovered this fascinating new thing called the World Wide Web. I hacked my way through HTML, started making Web sites (for the Mosaic browser!), and moved up the coast to San Francisco to start my post-college life in 1995. Those were strange days in the Bay Area. For a young woman like me with racial and economic privilege, a college degree, no family obligations, and some working knowledge of computers, it was a remarkable time of freedom and excitement. I set myself up as a freelance Web site developer, found a $300 per month room in the Mission District, and started one of the first cyberfeminist ‘zines, a short-lived snarky online periodical called Brillo.

But even in the heady atmosphere of the dot-com boom, it would take a powerful brand of denial to not see that something was amiss in the middle of the Silicon Valley miracle. Though my vision was limited by my privileged social and economic position, I was not blind. It was clear to me at the time that I was part of the massive wave of gentrification that swept through San Francisco neighborhoods like the Mission, South of Market, Hayes Valley, and the Western Addition. Public housing began to disappear, replaced by coffee shops, Internet cafes, and the kind of stores that display two items of clothing in a big white room. In the three and a half years I lived in San Francisco, the vibrant diversity of the city waned visibly and rents in my neighborhood tripled.

In the mid-1990s, in the circles I was running in, it was not unusual for people to ask you at parties, only half ironically, “Have you made your first million yet?” It was, many believed, the American Dream manifest: all you needed was a good idea, some sweat equity, and a garage, and the digital economy would bestow on you its mighty gifts. I understood the itch for the million. Straightforward greed was not what was tying my brain in knots. What I had trouble wrapping my head around was Silicon Valley’s unique way of combining utopian fervor with blatant dissociation from reality, a cognitive dissonance that led me to a personal crisis of conscience and eventually drove me out of the Bay Area.

People around me seemed to believe that the high-tech economy was going to lift all boats-lead to better outcomes for everyone-but they were ignoring the obvious evidence of increasing economic inequality that I saw around me every day. How could people simultaneously think they were all going to get filthy rich and make the world a better place for everyone? The people commending the economic miracle in Silicon Valley seemed to be suffering from a kind of collective, consensual blindness, blocking out the gentrification, the skyrocketing rents, and the toxic environmental toll of the high-tech industry. The increasing disparities were evident if you only had the will to look.

The solutions I found at the time, and the contributions I thought I could make, focused on access to technology. I believed that one of the key ways to mitigate the more disastrous impacts of the high-tech economy was to make the tools of the information revolution more widely available across disparities of gender, race, class, language, ability, and nationality. I began volunteering at Plugged In, a well-known community technology center in the Whiskey Gulch neighborhood of East Palo Alto, the poorest city in San Mateo County. Whiskey Gulch was an economically challenged but culturally rich neighborhood down the street from Stanford University, a community squeezed by gentrification pressures, education system shortcomings, and a lack of stable, living-wage jobs. Plugged In provided youth from the community computer access, technology classes, and employment training at its University Avenue address until 1999, when developers razed East Palo Alto’s downtown, including Plugged In’s original home, and replaced it with a Four Seasons Hotel, a convention center, and an IKEA store.

Back in the Mission District, I started free Internet and World Wide Web literacy classes for poor and working-class women through a community arts organization called Artists’ Television Access. The classes concentrated on larger social issues-the Internet’s birth in the defense industry, economic justice issues in the neighborhood, and gender issues online-as well as practical skills, such as using the Internet and the Web to find information, HTML authoring, and graphic design. But I had doubts that these piecemeal efforts could address the systemic, widespread economic inequalities I was witnessing. What drove me back east and into graduate school was a combination of this concern-that my activism was not really addressing the root causes of economic disparity in the high-tech economy-and the steadily increasing feeling that I was going crazy. Why did I insist on examining the goose laying the golden eggs while everyone else was drinking lattes, doing yoga, and cashing in their stock options?

So, in 1997, I fled the triumphant arrival of the “new economy” in Silicon Valley and went to live beside the Hudson River in the historic city of Troy, New York. My experiences in the Bay Area traveled east with me and remained on my mind. These formative experiences-my work in community technology centers, the publication of Brillo, and my experiences with magical thinking during the Silicon Valley “miracle”-mark the beginning of this book. I was a committed community technology practitioner for nearly ten years, and I believed that access to technology was a fundamental social justice issue in American cities.”

“If we’re to move forward as a society we’ll need to abandon many of the platitudes and utopian musings that characterize computerization and actually start doing the work that needs doing. This is what Virginia Eubanks lays out in Digital Dead End.  Is she the Jane Addams of the digital age?”

Douglas Schuler, author of Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution

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