Technology as Diversion from Social Inequality

tech fears

W.J. Astore

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.

5 thoughts on “Technology as Diversion from Social Inequality

  1. Wonderfully compassionate and wise Orwell. His ‘radio’ has been replaced by TV and then internet.
    When once visiting a beneficiary of an aid programme for poor women in Almaty, I was surprised to see a TV set in the otherwise virtually bare room. I was told that having a TV set did not mean someone wasn’t poor and needy, it apparently had become a basic necessity. In the ’90s TV conquered even the remotest African villages, provided there was someone with a generator, the same happened in Afghanistan over the last 10 years, supported by increasingly popular solar panels and Wi-Fi.
    Not only this creates sheer schizophrenia in the minds of local youths who suddenly find themselves having to reconciliate traditional respect and obedience to their elders and diametrically opposite western ‘values’ (TV ones…) they discover without any warning or mitigating comment.
    Few here seem to realize to what extent convincing people that they cannot live without TV and now increasingly the even more pernicious internet – of course produced & sold by us (before the Chinese took over, that is) – has contributed to mass migrations.
    One cannot expect an energetic young person with no prospects whatsoever in his/her own country to watch us on TV being well fed, our children being educated and treated in fancy hospitals, having shiny cars, paved roads, shops full of attractive goodies etc etc etc and not ending up sooner or later wanting even a modest share of that pie. If not for him- or herself, then at least for their children. For lo and behold, they love and cherish their children at least as much as we do …

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    1. Interesting points! You’ve added another aspect to “digital divide.” Once people get the technology and become aware of the great gulf separating the haves and have-nots, they become keenly aware of a divide that they want to bridge, if not for themselves then for their children.

      I hadn’t thought of technology like this as exacerbating a sense of impoverishment and thus the desire to migrate to that “better world” shown and sold on so many First World TV shows and Internet sites.

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  2. Some years back I thought I would look into the changes in computer programming since I dabbled with it in the very early years of the PC (my introduction was Microsoft’s MS/ASM assembler for the Z80 microprocessor on cassette tape).

    I discovered that if you want to educate yourself, the internet is fabulous. There is so much help available that in concert with a few pricey reference books on software languages one can get up to any level desired. The resources are high quality and voluminous. Forums are available that have people more than happy to help with a problem or to let you in on what it is best to know for a job. It’s all free.

    For the individual, it requires dedication and self control. If one is easily lured away by social media and TV, forget it. You must be strict with yourself. If one burns to succeed by learning and considering what college costs these days, he/she can bypass the bricks and mortar and get into a technical field through hands-on experience. Proof of your ability lies in the quality of the work you can produce. Sites such as Khan Academy are free. Mighty Microsoft offers free software for learning and developing Windows programs. The sky is the limit and the starting point can be from scratch.

    With universities getting into online education in a big way another door is open into a far less costly education than the classroom. Any kid, from any family of any race in any city and any state can dive in. It is a very exciting time for the curious, eager mind. There is no gatekeeper on the net. Equality of opportunity to learn is here.

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    1. Good point. It requires a lot of discipline. You also have to be able to judge the reliability of material/info on the Internet. Consider trying to learn history on the Internet. There are many sites you’d definitely want to avoid! I’ve had students mix up fictional “alternative” histories with real history, e.g. one student had the Nazis defeating the Soviets in World War II, based on a web site he visited.

      The Internet, sadly, also makes plagiarism easier. I’ve had my share of papers that were “cut and paste” jobs from Internet sources.

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      1. Yes, I think something like history would be a more difficult subject online than math or programming. BTW, last night I decided to peruse what Northwestern University has online and signed up for a (free) history course: “Luther and the West” to check the quality of what they offer. I have taken several undergrad NU courses in the flesh over the years so have a standard for comparison.

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