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What I’m thinking about from time to time

Abstracts of recent readings

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Schaefer, PD and Durham, MG. “On the Social Implications of Invisibility: The iMac G5 and the Effacement of the Technological Object.” Critical Studies in Media Communication Vol. 24, No. 1, March 2007: 39–56

Schaefer and Durham argue that the iMac G5 serves as an example of how, as new technologies allow machines to blend in with their environment, the effaced design hides the role of new technology as what they call a “social apparatus.” Through its design the iMac G5 disorients the user from its “materiality,” including the circumstances of its production and the implications of its disposal, while orienting “users in line with the corporate ideology of its manufacturer” (48).

The authors utilize arguments put forth by Fredric Jameson and other cultural philosophers who explain how new technologies change the operating structure of capitalism into something “indecipherable,” what Jameson described as a “postmodern ‘hyperspace’ [which] results in spatial mutations” (45). The authors connect Jameson’s theory to “lifestyle-based technology” and draw conclusions about how this technology affects individual users.

The authors give few other specific examples of the “effacement of the technological object” and, although they discuss the evolution of the iMac’s design, they do not discuss how more traditional computer designs avoid the implications of effacement. While the iMac G5 illustrates how the “computer becomes a surface” rather than a tool (44), the authors do not fully explain why traditional personal computers are more socially responsible.

Still, “computer design… [exemplifies] a growing gap between perceptual simplicity of technology and the increasing complexity of economic structures” (46). The authors propose users approach these new technologies critically in order to be aware of unequal social structures. Drawing attention to the disparities between the production and disposal of the iMac G5 and its effaced design, the authors decode the ideology espoused by the technology’s corporate manufacturer.

Dai, X. “Google.” New Political Economy Vol 12, No. 3, September 2007, 433-442

Dai explores how Google has grown in recent years and how this growth has affected the company’s relationships with nation-states. Google’s dominating the global market for internet searches  “Googlisation [has an impact] upon the nation-state, and vice versa” (434).

Dai analyzes the growth of Google into “the most highly valued media company” (435) through its ad sales and public trading. Dai goes on to explore Google’s implications in a global marketplace by performing three case studies of the company’s relationships with France, the US, and China. In France Google is viewed as a synecdoche of American digital imperialism. In the US Google cited protecting users’ privacy as a reason to not hand over information to the Department of Justice; Dai suggests that Google was actually protecting “commercial interest” as much as protecting user privacy. Finally, in China Google cooperated with governmental policies of censorship.

These case studies showcase Google’s different responses to challenges in the global marketplace and Dai explains how Google’s responses could “be seen as detrimental to the autonomy of nation-states,” (441) so that ‘omnigooglisation’ serves as a tool for globalization. The case study approach allows Dai to reinforce this through specific examples and the example of Google’s relationship with China shows problems the company faces in disseminating its ultimate goals. However, Dai could elaborate more with deeper analysis into Google’s growth in case study countries.

Google’s growth in the global marketplace is “intrinsically linked to the control of information for the purpose of empowerment,” (441) and nation-states and Google are each attempting to guide this growth in order to protect their separate interests.

 

Mossberger, K; Tolbert, C and Stansbury, M. Virtual Inequality: Beyond the Digital Divide. 2003 Washington: Georgetown University Press.

Mossberger, Tolbert, and Stansbury suggest their survey of low-income and minority American households proves the existence of a ‘digital divide’ that can be broken down into distinct access, skill, economic opportunity, and democratic divides. This understanding of the digital divide can influence public perception and policy.

The authors conducted a broad survey of households in high-poverty areas and compared the results with the general population. They analyze their results for evidence of the shapes and sizes of each of their four digital divides to assess which results are most significant. The survey approach allows them to quantify the digital divide in order to make a case for the divide’s existence and the need for governmental response.

The survey took into account many elements of the four distinct divides the authors proposed, determining which respondents had easy access to computers and the internet, what skills users possessed, how digital access was viewed and utilized as a tool for economic advancement, and the openness of respondents to using digital access for civic involvement. The authors conclude that there is a clear access divide based on socioeconomic background, and that along with this access divide there exists a skills divide where a significant portion of the low income respondents lacked the resources to properly use computers and the internet. The authors found that the majority of respondents do believe computer and internet skills enhance economic opportunity, but while respondents were open to using the internet to access information about government they were less willing to vote or participate in electronic meetings.

While the survey approach provides clear evidence for the existence of the access and skills divide it may not be an adequate tool for explaining how digital technology increases economic opportunity or civic involvement; the respondents perception that digital access is related to these latter divides is correlational but not proof. Additionally, the survey was structured so that it was looking specifically at the four proposed divides and thus did not allow for the possibility of additional divides like social status. The approach was also limited by the veracity of the responses; the authors say there was no way to measure literacy in the respondents (116) and that “there was a low response rate to questions about income level” (10). Ultimately the digital divide is an evolving issue and while this survey lays out a comprehensive framework, five years is a long time in this field and an update would be necessary to see how the field has changed since the study was undertaken.

The survey did verify that the digital access and skills divides do exist, and the authors lay out a case for why public policy intervention is necessary to solve these divides. They suggest several potential directions for policy to alleviate these divides. The authors did find that younger respondents were more likely to have the skills necessary to utilize digital tools to bridge the economic opportunity and democratic divides and propose that education is the key to narrowing the digital divide.

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Written by Tyler Baber

November 10, 2008 at 4:42 pm

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