by Max Eternity
Is a new form of apartheid creeping in? And in this new decade—this new millennium–where lies the intersection of social justice, art and technology?
January 1st 2010 marked the start of a new year. And just after the New Year’s festivities came to a close, the first major holiday celebrated is the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., born January 15, 1929. The late Dr. King, who is remembered for his leadership role during the 1960’s civil rights movement and his overall, exalted contribution to the expansion of Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings of non-violent social change, is undoubtedly the most respected black figure in modern times.
For King, a deity of social equality, espoused a universal message that civil rights are human rights, making his birthday of utmost importance, not just to African-Americans, but to people of all colors and cultures throughout the world.
As the King celebrations wind down, another annual celebration of African-American achievement gets ushered in, with a month-long observation of February, noted nationally as Black History Month. This, when put into context that just one year ago the US seeing itself achieve a most notable milestones in its entire history, indeed in all of world history, as America elected Senator Barak Obama as the States’ 44th President, in turning that epic page in the long, painful sojourn trekked by generations of Blacks before, it supposes one to wonder, are African-Americans fully enfranchised now?
In the age of Obama, should black history be wholly embraced as bonafide American history? And if so, with the majority of Blacks in America still being working class or poor, and the majority of Africa’s black inhabitants being poor or essentially starving, how can humanity bridge the economic divide, without first confronting the 2010 digital divide? For in looking at the existing economics structures, what one tends to see is an unofficial worldwide policy of digital literacy for Whites and digital illiteracy for Blacks.
It is a social construct, however unintentional, effectively serving as the latest, most sophisticated, Jim Crow-type segregation for Black Americans and Africans, in some ways playing out as a de facto form of high-tech lynching, leaving no corpse, yet all the while resulting in intellectual and civic decay.
Robert Fairlie, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of California Santa Cruz found in a 2005 study that while 85% of Whites have computer access at home, with 77% having broadband Internet access, comparatively 51% of Blacks have computer access at home, with 40% having broadband Internet access.
Fairlie’s paper was appropriately titled “Are We Really a Nation Online? Ethnic and Racial Disparities in Access to Technology and Their Consequences”, and sadly since written, not much has changed. As in December 2009, the Internet Innovation Alliance, which describes itself as a broad-based coalition of business and non-profits that aim to ensure every American access to the critical tool of broadband Internet, presented data from a national survey showing that less than half (42%) of African-Americans use the internet regularly. And yet in that same survey, conducted by Brilliant Corners Research, three in five (61%) strongly felt that households with Internet access have greater access to commerce, education, health care, entertainment and communication.
These studies represent what’s happening in the US. So one can only imagine how exponentially worse it is in Africa. Of this conundrum, the world’s most venerated elder statesman, Nelson Mandela, said the following about this trend of digital discrimination:
“In the twenty-first century, the capacity to communicate will almost certainly be a key human right. Eliminating the distinction between the information-rich and information-poor is also critical to eliminating economic and other inequalities between North and South, and to improve the life of all humanity.” – Nelson Mandela
So how can the landscape of enfranchisement be transformed, so as to make way for digital liberty and justice for all, and what role might the arts play in creating equanimity?
First Lady, Michelle Obama, is doing her part by sometimes using her speaking engagements to advocate for the greater funding of art programs in public schools. And since her husband, President Obama, is known for comparing himself to President Lincoln, and many of his admirers compare him to President Roosevelt, might the first and most logical step to electronic equality be for our digitally-savvy, Nobel Laureate President to take it upon himself to institute a digital interpretation of Roosevelt’s Works Projects Administration? Using his lofty, Lincolnesque oration, the President could rally digital and new media artisans to paint, sculpt and dance the nation into a new era of prosperity–paving the way for a broad expansion of digital equality.
Is this wishful thinking…perhaps?
And yet there is no denying that art and design have always been the premiere tools for communicating complex ideas simply, effectively uniting a group toward a single aim.
In this century, the same can be said of Flash, HTML and the Internet. Adding to the mix, blogging and online social networking, the dynamics of all foretold illustrates that as the earth’s populations continues to grow, the intersection of each localized narrative becomes increasingly intertwined, with digital technology being at the heart of it all.
The way people relate has certainly changed over time, and yet civic engagement remains at the core of every thriving society. In today’s digital surround, a sense of electronic enfranchisement translates to urban health and communal wealth. Thus however effectively a municipality addresses the issue of digital literacy truly makes the difference between who thrives–who survives–who dies. Hence in a broader more inclusive sense of democracy, putting Blacks and Whites on the same footing while also addressing the obvious brick and mortar concerns, a sensible approach to building social capital–elevating the overall health of the cosmopolitan experience–should include abundant access to digital opportunities; particularly as it might relate to those underserved.
But Ipods are not falling from the sky, and Mimaki printers, Wacom tablets and Blackberries are not magically blooming around our feet. These things cost money, requiring capital and human investment to teach and practice the ins an outs effective use, which brings to mind a line from one of one of America’s most exalted Negro spirituals, “We Shall Overcome.” For if we are to remain a nation without a committed, institutional policy for digital equality, how much will it matter that an African-American is in the White House, if Blacks are still singing “We Shall Overcome”, instead of proudly proclaiming “Yes We Overcame!”
Close the digital divide now.
Max Eternity, Editor and Publisher to Art Digital Magazine and contributing writer to Artworks Magazine, is a polymath who creates innovative print types reflecting the Bauhaus and Mid-Century Modernism. Via a network of informational web portals, Eternity advocates for artistic and social concerns ranging from architectural preservation and digital literacy to government transparency and the Afro-Euro fine art construct. An avid inventor, he currently has over a twenty utilities in various stages of development.