Today, access to technology and its services is often associated with equality of opportunity in society. In education, for example, getting computers and Internet service to low-income students is considered a vitally important step to students’ maturation and their skill sets in a competitive global marketplace. The “digital divide” must be bridged, else disadvantaged students will be stuck in the dark ages and left behind. Focusing on technology as both “bridging” mechanism and source of enlightenment has the added benefit of being easily measurable and “correctable,” e.g. by increasing the number of computers per class, the number of connected classrooms, and so on.
Spending (or, as they say, “investing”) money on classroom technology, moreover, is obviously favored by tech companies both for present and future profits (raise a child on Apple devices and perhaps as adults they’ll always favor Apple). Parents like it too: perhaps Johnny and Susie mainly play games on their school-provided iPads, but at least they’re occupied while “learning” computer skills.
Of course, the digital divide does exist, and computer skills are valuable. But hyping access to technology is often a distraction from much bigger issues of inequality, as George Orwell noted back in the early 1930s in “The Road to Wigan Pier.”
Back then, Orwell was concerned with electricity rather than computers and connectivity. But what he says about electrification could be said about any technology presented as a panacea for social ills.
Here’s what Orwell wrote at the end of chapter 5 of his book:
And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes, but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore. Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.
Orwell was rightly skeptical of technological “miracles” like electricity that were sold as mitigating fundamental inequalities such as access to healthy food and warm and adequate housing. Empty bellies and empty prospects are not filled by instant news, whether via the telegraph and wireless radio or via the Smart phone and wireless LANs.
The point is not to blame technology. The point is to highlight technology as a choice, one that often doesn’t address fundamental inequities in society.