Posts Tagged ‘Digital divide’

Today, as I went to Google something, I was met with the Google Doodle below. It honours Emmy Noether who, I learned with one click, “was an influential German mathematician known for her groundbreaking contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics.”

Google doodle Emmy Noether.

So like millions of others today, I learned about another great white, European contribution to modern Western society. More broadly, I had the idea that white, Europeans are accomplished and valuable, reinforced.

This got me thinking about the digital divide and how few Doodles, if any, I’ve ever seen about non-white folks.

To check my assumption, I typed a query under Ms. Noether and found I wasn’t the only one thinking about this.

A February 2014, MailOnline article, Are Google’s doodles racist and sexist? discussed the campaign by the women’s group Spark to get Google to diversify its Doodles.

The team analysed Google Doodles from 2010-2013, and found that Google celebrated 445 individuals on its various homepages throughout the world. Nine were women of color, 54 were white women, 82 were men of color, and 275 were white men.

It called for Google to include all races and genders in its Doodles, “demanding that Google make a concerted effort to change such a blatant imbalance.”

“Google Doodles may seem lighthearted, especially when accompanied by quirky games and animation, but in reality they have emerged as a new manifestation of who we value as a society, a sign of who “matters.” Just like statues, stamps, and national holidays, you know that if someone is featured on Google’s homepage, they’ve done something important.”

Now, although I like Spark’s goal, I have a different reason to offer Google why they should take action: because the world needs all the diversity it can get to deal with the challenges facing it. We need people to think broadly about solutions to today’s complex problems. However, if Google reinforces the idea that only people who look like Emmy Noether and Albert Einstein are the sources of valuable insights, they are limiting the abilities of people, including their own employees, to think out of the white box.

One of the many parental lectures I give my kids has to do with defining terms.
(I often think of just giving each of my lectures a number so when the kids are doing something out of line, I can just yell, “Lecture # 59 A!”, but that’s for another post). In this lecture, I tell them communication is a two way street. And I’m not talking just since the advent of fancy, interactive social media. I’m talking since the dawn of time. Communication is two way because it requires a sender and a receiver. And since the sender can’t open his or her head to let the receiver peer in, they have to use the next best thing to get their point across: symbols. Those symbols might be cave drawings or Morse code or smoke signals – or language. The thing is, the symbols aren’t the thing – whether the thing is an idea or a cat. The symbols are a representation of the thing – and everyone can have very different ideas of what the symbols mean. Now, if everyone understood this, things would be better. But the problem is that too many people think everyone has the same idea of what symbols mean and it doesn’t occur to them to question this assumption. This is a particular problem with complex terms like “the digital divide”. If you ask 10 people what it means, you’ll probably get 10 different answers.
So who’s right?
Googling the term yields this definition first:
The Digital Divide is the gulf between those who have ready access to the internet and computers and those who don’t.
Seems simple enough – until you start asking some basic questions:
* What is “ready access”? Does that mean having a smart phone or having access to a computer at your local library?
* What kind of “computers”? Desktops or laptops? PC’s or smart phones? Are video game consoles computers?
* What is “ready access to the internet“? Is that access to private WiFi you or someone else pays for or public access? Is that high speed? Does it mean not having external barriers to access, like not being able to afford internet access or living somewhere where it’s not available, or internal barriers like lack of education?

When you start considering the complexity it becomes clear that the term “digital divide” may be too black and white. It’s more like a digital spectrum – or spectrums – with different groups,  or members, falling somewhere along them. For example, ask most North Americans which side of the digital divide Africa is on and 99% will say “the wrong side”. Yet Africa has one of the highest rates of mobile penetration in the world – and growing.
Or ask kids from the West Bank, brought up on images of the wired West, what side the US is on and they’re bound to say “the right side”. Yet kids in inner city schools struggle along with 10-year old desktops while kids in rich ones are downloading the latest iPad app.

We need to talk about digital spectrums and get more people closer to the good end of more of them. Our future on this planet depends on it.

January 28-29, I attended the Institute on Governance’s Digital Governance Forum in Ottawa and it’s a good thing I did because the event had a lot of great things but there was one big thing it didn’t have: diversity. Let’s just say, I was one of seven specs of pepper in a sea of salty participants (OK, maybe a little over 100 grains isn’t a sea but you get my point). However, compared to the speakers, the participants looked like the United Nations as, of the more than 30 speakers, not one was non-white.

And that was just cultural diversity. Several speakers and participants noted the lack of young people and there were scant, if any references, from the stage or the floor, to the potential impact of these crucial, global issues on people with disabilities, gay people, or aboriginal people (there were lots of women attending, and some speaking, but the podium was heavy on testosterone).

I asked one of the organisers why all the speakers were white and he said it came down to availability. Really? Not one brown person qualified to speak on digital governance was available for a conference that was months in the planning? I then asked how his team had chosen speakers and he said they discussed it among themselves. Finally, I asked how they got out of their own bubble since they’re all white…

Now let me be clear: I’m not implying the organisers purposely chose all white folks. In fact, I’d be happy if that was the answer because then the solution would be easy: replace them. No, the reasons are more complex – and systemic. It’s about how the networks we use to do things, whether finding a good movie to see or finding speakers for a conference, are often too homogeneous. It’s about staff being too homogeneous – and too busy – to take the time needed to find out how to get outside their networks (and let diverse groups know about their events far in advance). And it’s about how social networks are making this all worse, not better.

However, it’s also about underrepresented groups advocating for themselves, getting the word out to their communities about learning opportunities so people can attend, and letting organizers know they have great people who can speak on a variety of issues.

Smart organisations don’t pursue diversity out of guilt. They do it because they know it’s crucial to achieving their objectives faster than their competitors. Just ask the Montreal Canadians. 😉

So here are 3 ways you can help narrow the digital divide – and help your organisation’s bottom line in the process:

1) Diversify your networks – and your perspective. At conferences, seek out folks who look, walk and talk different than you and connect with them. Set up Google Alerts for things the dominant ways of thinking in your field (i.e if you’re conservative, have things with progressive points of view sent to you daily and vice versa).

2) Diversify your organization – when hiring, seek out great people who look, walk and talk different than you – and hire them.

3) Diversify your outreach – get the word out to underrepresented groups about your events and job offerings via the online channels they frequent (start by simply Googling the name of the group and your city).

I did my part. After the conference, I congratulated the organisers on a great event then sent them the name of a brown friend of mine, a Harvard lecturer on globalization, social change and technology, as a possible speaker.