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Digitally Disenfranchised

In a brief moment when I wasn’t lamenting my own involuntary abstinence this past week, I was struck by an aside made by some political flunky regarding the already roaring presidential campaign. (Seriously, do these politicians ever take a breather from the campaign trail to govern anymore? There must be embryos declaring for the 2044 election.) Your humble correspondent is rather too fond of the journalistic sauce to recall the exact reference, for which I crave pardon, but the flunky’s observation was something to the effect of youthful, web-based organizations such as MoveOn gradually replacing labor unions as the organizing backbone of the American left.

I don’t doubt it. Union participation and influence has declined for decades, leaving the working classes without a coherent champion in American politics, while the internet is clearly becoming the key medium for political information and participation. Don’t believe me? Shortly after having his face re-shined, presidential candidate John Edwards announced his intention to run on You Tube, asking viewers to join his campaign by text messaging. Dreamy political hope machine and tobacco-lover Barack Obama let us know about his launching an exploratory committee via viral internet video. And if that’s not proof enough I’ll even throw in a mind-numbing statistic: according to a study of congressional representatives and their staffers nine out of ten in those offices were reading blogs, and 64 percent believe that blogs are more useful than mainstream media for identifying future national political problems and debates. (hat-trick-tip: MediaShift).

Now I love the ole’ interwebulator as much as any boozehound scraping together a living in part by being published on it, and I do believe that said interwebulator has tremendous potential to democratize political participation. Indeed, I believe it is already doing so. But what troubles me about these developments, about the rise of online democracy, is the fate of those left behind. The digital divide is not merely an economic phenomenon, but a political one too. Another mind-numbing statistic for you: 41 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t use the internet at all, of which about half remain offline because they have no computer or can’t afford one. And here’s another: As of August 2003 64 percent of whites and 61 percent of English speaking Hispanics had used the internet compared to 51 percent of African-Americans.

According to yet another study, 56 percent of internet users visited government websites as of November 2002. But those with higher incomes and education levels are far more likely to have used government sites compared with those of lower income and education, and the largest proportions of political information seekers are in the highest education and income gaps. Fifteen percent of Americans used the internet as their primary source of news about the 2006 mid-term election campaigns (compared with 7 percent for the previous mid-term) and a post-election survey noted the emergence of a “new online political elite” of online political activists – internet users who created or forward political content to others. (Hey, can anyone guess what global digital information network this overeducated Caucasian used to find all this data?)

The upshot of all this is that a significant proportion of poorer and less educated Americans is falling behind in digital political participation and so will gradually lose whatever weak voice it has in political affairs. Again, when trade unions were major players in political economy – however shiftless or mobbed up they may have been – working class Americans could have real impact on the political process and make their desires and concerns felt. Today, as we move increasingly toward a service and knowledge-based economy, working life is far more unpredictable and the divide between the haves and the have-nots (excluding from the argument for now the have-almost-everythings of the new economic order) is becoming ever more of a question of who has the education to stay adaptable. Most people are increasingly “insecure” but those cut off from the knowledge economy remain insecure while never being able to rise above a certain wrung – moving from menial job to menial job rather than between relatively well-paid but perhaps diverse professions.

The irony of course is that the one thing that can improve the lot of the digitally disadvantaged – greater access to education and internet literacy – has no natural political constituency other than those who need it. And if those who need it are increasingly cut off from power, they will be cut off from the opportunity to change the playing field. The results will not be pretty. Inequality of opportunity is perhaps even more toxic to a political community than material inequality, especially for a society like America – founded on the notion that anyone can get ahead. We would do well to ensure that large numbers of Americans don’t start looking upon that same notion as nothing more than an internet scam.

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