A Matter of Equalization

Ever the optimist, I ended a recent online group hangout about danah boyd’s new book, “It’s Complicated” with hopes that we would someday find something in our tools that would help move us towards the equalization of voice and representation on the Internet. I don’t consider myself a techno-utopian and hopefully by the time you read to the end of this post, you will realize I’m not a hardcore technological determinist either. But, isn’t there some chance of shifting just a little closer to equalization through the Internet?

What factors do we need to alter in online spaces as we move towards equalization? Are they age? Race? Gender? Anonymity? And what factors can be hidden or manipulated so that others are not aware of them in online public spaces? The massive online role-playing game Second Life was supposed to do just that before it turned into a wasteland of virtual sex. In SL, participants create an avatar, most going in with hopes that their experiences may change from those they have had in real life, experiences that are shaped by their defining characteristics of age, race, gender, and even ability. A female avatar may be operated by a human male and vice versa. A person in a wheelchair has legs through an avatar. Inevitably though, we end up giving ourselves away…our use of language, our beliefs and values still end up coming through our mediated avatars. So does our knowledge of the world. And for many left in the virtual space of SL, some of our basest desires.

Most people using the Internet have accepted the belief that we should be the same person online as we are in the real world, though we do construct our identities in ways that are favourable to us. The Internet still affords us access to others we may not have met in RL. Ask any tech-savvy teacher who goes to an educational conference and they’ll point out any number of people they met through Twitter before meeting them in person. The Internet affords us wider audiences. They are there for the taking if we know how to navigate them.

A few years ago, students at a local high school in Waterloo started a Facebook campaign to save a custodian’s job who was being moved to the night shift. The popular custodian was known to whistle tunes in the halls and smile and talk to the kids. Hundreds of kids signed online petitions, organized rallies and the distribution of promotional items for their cause, such as t-shirts. Although Facebook afforded students opportunity for public discourse, a wider engaged audience, and access to people of all ages, the campaign failed and the custodian was moved back to the night shift. The students felt disempowered. What they failed to recognize were the existing power structures that live outside the Internet. You see, the custodian was being moved to the night shift because he was only filling in temporarily. The regular full-time employee was coming back from leave. The students had no understanding of the power structures of a union. They thought their voice and numbers would be enough. They thought wrong.

Equalization does not come through the tools. Until age, gender, and race are no longer a shaping factor in our knowledge and beliefs, we will not achieve any advancements in equalization. Until existing societal structures can be navigated, we will not achieve equalization. Until the digital divide of access to technology is erased, we will not achieve equalization. Tools aside, it’s really about shifting pre-existing judgement. That’s why Media literacy and education will always be the cornerstone of any of those shifts, however slight, that we make towards equalization.

You can view the original hangout here on danah boyd’s book. It was a great opportunity to share thoughts on the book with educators from all over.
It’s Complicated

6 thoughts on “A Matter of Equalization”

  1. Hey Jane,

    I’ve been reflecting on similar issues the past year, as I have found my own techno-utopian ideas turning more into disillusionment (but not necessarily in a negative sense). I highly recommend you read Alice Marwick’s (a colleague and collaborator of body’s) Status Update. Her thesis problematizes the notion that tech and social media can ever equalize, when the tools are built and modified by a small, but powerful minority in Silicon Valley.

    Thanks again for participating in the Hangout!

    1. I’ll have to pick up a copy of her work. Thanks for the recommendation. Jaron Lanier has a great book out that focuses on “lock in”. It’s titled, “You Are Not a Gadget”. He addresses many issues around our tools being built by a small powerful minority. Here’s a quote:

      “Something like missionary reductionism has happened to the internet with the rise of web 2.0. The strangeness is being leached away by the mush-making process. Individual web pages as they first appeared in the early 1990S had the flavor of personhood. MySpace preserved some of that flavor, though a process of regularized formatting had begun. Facebook went further, organizing people into multiple-choice identities, while Wikipedia seeks to erase point of view entirely.

      If a church or government were doing these things, it would feel authoritarian, but when technologists are the culprits, we seem hip, fresh, and inventive. People will accept ideas presented in technological form that would be abhorrent in any other form. It is utterly strange to hear my many old friends in the world of digital culture claim to be the true sons of the Renaissance without realizing that using computers to reduce individual expression is a primitive, retrograde activity, no matter how sophisticated your tools are.”
      ? Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget

  2. Oh, Jane:
    Thanks so much for digging deep with this one. You are so right, and it’s a hard, hard lesson for those of us who are techno-utopians at heart. Your story of the kids and the custodian is a perfect example – our heart and soul and wanting to change the world aren’t enough, if we’re not willing to look at the systems that we work within. I can’t imagine how painful it must have been for those kids who worked so hard, to see that “the man” was still stronger, because they didn’t have the knowledge and understanding of the ecosystem in which they were operating.

    Lots and lots to think about here. And as someone who’s been digging away at the system for a long time, a reminder that that work doesn’t stop because we have some very shiny new tools that make me feel like anything is possible.

    1. Thanks Lisa. It’s a hard lesson to learn. I just hope some of the students push past the experience and use what they’ve learned as issues pop up in the future instead of being turned off completely.

  3. Perhaps our expectations are too high. McLuhan, and many since him, have said that ‘the media work us over completely.’ We might expect those words to mean that the world is remade in profound ways by our mediated experiences, and while that is true, maybe not remade in the ways or extents that we would prefer.
    It is more realistic to expect media to enhance experiences than to revise them. They often make phenomena easier to notice and reflect upon, but not necessarily to change. McLuhan said that media extend our perceptions and actions. They don’t, however, change them as much as we ourselves do. If we want equalization, we need to achieve it offline. Then the online communications can extend the equalization.
    Alternatively, we could try to cloak our identities by using avatars or ID numbers instead of headshots. But as you observed, our language would betray us. I am a white male Canadian. It would be hard for me to represent myself otherwise. If I change, I must change my offline self. Then any equalization that I have achieved will be represented in my online activities.
    What mediated experiences provide well is teachable moments, which we might be able to use to affect personal changes. The students’ failure to keep the caretaker on the day shift is a great example, because their myopic world view that online activism would succeed could be understood to fail in the face of union regs, etc. They needed to consider contexts, and maybe @zephoria’s ‘collapsed contexts’ would be a most useful concept for them.

    1. Neil, I like what you say about “teachable moments”. It makes room for that reflective moment that is important in affecting personal change. I agree that it is more realistic to expect media to enhance (and even amplify) experiences, rather than revise them. Social determinism wins out over technological determinism. Sorry McLuhan. I guess we’re sitting in the same camp as David Buckingham.

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