Unpacking The Concept of A Digital Divide

[The following was originally posted as a video response exercise in the edX MOOC, Education: OpenKnowledge Changing the Global Course of Learning, offered in Fall 2014 in which Dr. Alec Courous invited participants to respond to the question: “…as it relates to knowledge, connected learning, digital identity and equity. . .who gets to control their own digital identity [and] how does our society’s increased focus on the need for [a] positive digital identity contribute to the digital divide and to social inequity?]

Dr. Couros, thank you for the optimistic approach that seems to be at the core of your work. These are excellent questions that invite serious consideration of the materials for this and the previous module. I want to share thoughts in this post regarding digital identity.

Before we can discuss how the need for a positive digital identity contributes to the digital divide, I feel like it is prudent to be clear about what we mean by “digital divide.” Initially, I recall this term being used to describe the poverty of bandwidth available in some areas. My sense is that it has become a more generalized metaphor that is used in different contexts to point at any one of several topics in which technological options are not equivalent or equally available. As far as I am aware, we still have much work to do (especially in the United States) in making broadband available everywhere, so the original usage remains in play.

Another example of an increasingly contested digital divide would be the discourse regarding Net Neutrality. Another is the availability and quality of technology from classroom to classroom, campus to campus, state to state. Another digital divide is that of digital literacy, knowledge of how to effectively use computers and the network capacity should they in fact be available to you. Another is the linguistic tension online which is manifest in a dominance of English language content and, in a less obvious but even more powerful, dominance of English language code. More recently we have begun the “nym wars” which are a signified that is closer still to what your question addresses. With this variegated background of usage in mind, the question which you ask suggests there is also a digital divide of privilege. I think it is this field of assumptions and different uses for the concept of a digital divide which supports such a claim, one which I think is sound.

So, who gets to control their own digital identity? Those who have sufficient technology, knowledge and privilege to do so. The nym wars in particular are the contest in which this is directly at play. A range of digital identity strategies are available: anonymity, pseudonymity, “real” names, and others. I found one of the core readings from Module 1, Donath’s recent article in WIRED, “We Need Online Alter Egos Now More Than Ever“, to offer a compelling overview of this discourse. But your question implies still another level of analysis. Assuming one does have access to the creation and maintenance of a digital identity (and as your video suggests, in passing, doing so is a tremendous time commitment) there is a dubious but pervasive pressure to craft a highly normative one. (I prefer using the term “normative” because I think there are numerous behavioral dynamics at play in the process of crafting a digital identity and I wonder if perhaps the term “positive” might be vulnerable to being hijacked by a false dialectic.)

You provide an alarming example in your presentation at Fusion 2013 as to how children and young people are particularly vulnerable to this pressure when their digital identity begins being documented and controlled (by others) from very early ages. LinkedIn has recently announced that it is lowering the age at which young people may create a profile to 13. The working public has become acclimated to the idea that we are no longer entitled to initial screening interviews with employers for most administrative or higher level jobs and so our employment potential has become beholden in some ways to our digital identity. One needs only an introductory level of understanding for the works of Marx & Engels to see how the discourse on digital identity is tied to the concept of commodification of the work force in the context of the growing adoption of democratic capitalism.

In conclusion, it seems to me that society’s focus on normative digital identity formation does not contribute to the aggregate concept of a digital divide. It is, rather, a product of that digital divide.