Technology and Inequality

There is a question that has haunted me for a while. Will advances in technology create more inequality in our society?
I’m not an expert in this area. This is a difficult question to answer. In fact, I have nothing close to an answer. What I do have are concerns.

My journey

I’m writing this article from my local library. I’m doing that by choice, because it’s quiet here. There was I time where I worked at the library by necessity, not by choice. Once upon a time, I was a middle school student without a modern computer or Internet access at home. I had to complete Internet research and type school assignments at my school library or the local branch of the free library. As you can imagine, this was a frustrating ordeal. This was a time before flash drives. There was no cloud storage. I didn’t even have an email address.
Remember these old things? Not long ago, they were the gateway to the world. Now, they belong in a museum.

What made things extra difficult for me was that I had little to no computer skills. In seventh grade, I transitioned from being home schooled to attending public school. At home, there was no modern computer. At school, there were computers everywhere, including the homes of many of my peers. We were expected to use the computer. I was lost. I was normally a good student, but that year I got Cs in computer science. My lack of computer skills dragged my grades down in other classes, as well.

Thankfully, I adapted. By 10th grade, I had my own (very pitiful) web site. In high school and college, I began tinkering with graphic design. I now manage social media and a lot of design work at the non-profit organization where I work. Needless to say, I’ve come a long way.
I took a long journey from digital ineptitude to digital competence. Looking back, however, the journey was not that hard. Back in seventh grade, one of the assignments that every kid in our grade had to complete was a basic HTML site. When I say basic, I mean really basic. Basic, however, wasn’t that far from normal back then. Compared to today, new technology was neither as complex nor as essential at the start of the twenty first century.

What lies ahead?

I get really excited when I have the chance to read up on new technology. Our world is being transformed by artificial intelligence-powered digital assistants, virtual reality, and the Internet of Things. In the mainstream (read: white, educated, middle and upper-middle class), access to all or at least some of these technological advances is sometimes taken for granted. I’m often shocked by the things labeled as the “new normal.” How many of these things are out of reach for large swaths of our society?
Technology and Inequality
Do people realize that this picture is not normal?

Now, to be fair, not all these things matter. Affording expensive virtual reality equipment isn’t exactly a major quality of life issue. However, I can’t help but wonder what type of social, cultural, and economic divides we will create or widen as technology advances. What uncommon experiences will we assume to be common? What unequally available tools will dominate the classroom? What uncommonly taught skills will limit employment options for some? What technological inequities will we use to shame, separate, and segment disprivileged people?

The digital divide was easy for me to cross a decade and a half ago. I could go to the library and use a computer similar to what my more privileged peers used. Wait times weren’t long, because Internet access wasn’t as essential as it is today. Not everything was done on the computer. People still used actual books back then. There was no social media (unless you count AOL Instant Messenger).

Tech matters because we matter

Eventually, my family got a computer and dial-up Internet, which was shared among six people. Today, each of those six people has their own smartphone and computer, among other devices. So what happens if you are digitally disprivileged? What happens if you don’t live in an affluent suburban municipality like I did? What if your local school district or free library doesn’t have the same level of resources to help you bridge the digital divide? If black, brown, poor, urban, and rural lives matter, and if technology is going to be so deeply embedded into our lives, then technological justice is a moral, cultural, social, and economic imperative.
Maybe I’m stressing too much. After all, while the upper echelons of high-tech are increasingly out of reach for many people, there are other ways in which technology is becoming more accessible. Still, I wonder if twenty years from now we’ll look up and realize we’ve created digital ghettos.