Interview Audio: Andy Carvin, The Digital Divide Network

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Listen to the Interview with Andy Carvin, The Digital Divide Network (Length: 11:32)

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October 5th, 2005
Transcribed by Tom Hughes

Andy Carvin: It's kind of assumed by government and big business and everyone else that you've got Internet access, and if you don't, you're kind of screwed. And that's the position of many marginalised populations. They're not being given the opportunities to gain Internet access or Internet skills, but meanwhile it's still somewhat expected of them to figure it out on their own.

Kent Bye: Hello this is Kent Bye with the Echo Chamber Project. This is an interview with Andy Carvin of the Digital Divide Network. And the Digital Divide is a topic that comes up at a lot of technology conferences, especially in the context of democracy and activism and how these communications technologies are going to change the way that we govern ourselves. The paradox is that, the more that people are able to communicate with these new media tools, the more that the disenfranchised communities, who do not know how to use these new media technologies, the harder it is to have their voice be heard. And so the challenge is, "How do you get access -- Internet access, broadband access, computer access -- to all these marginalised communities?" But then, the larger issues are of literacy, of education, that's a more systemic issue, but also plays into the larger dynamic of the Digital Divide. I think in the context of doing collaborative media, it's really tricky to try to figure out how to be as inclusive as possible. So with any type of advances, there's the risk of leaving those who are already behind even further behind. So with that, here's Andy Carvin of the Digital Divide Network to talk a little bit more about some of these issues that come up.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Why don't you just go ahead and introduce yourself and what you do at the Digital Divide.
ANDY CARVIN: Sure. My name's Andy Carvin, and I'm director of a project called the Digital Divide Network. It's an online community of around 8,000 activists and over 130 countries using the Internet to share resources and strategies for bridging the Digital Divide.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Okay. So just give a metaphor for the Digital Divide, and describe where we are at with this evolution of media and why it's important to pay attention to.
CARVIN: Well, the -- The Digital Divide is basically this gap that exists between communities in terms of who has access to the Internet, who has the skills to use it, and who has availability of content and the ability to produce content that's relevant to their communities' lives. We've seen a lot of work over the last decade or so, trying to bridge the Digital Divide in the US and abroad -- setting up community technology programs, trying to create lower-cost Internet access programs. Not as much work has been as successful regarding Internet literacy and media literacy, which are key components certainly. And a lot of what I'm working on now is trying to encourage people to gain the skills to become content producers themselves. Because so much of what you see in the mainstream media targets what's generally a well-off, well-educated, white audience, as opposed to people of color, people of disabilities, recent immigrant populations, etc.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And so how do you see the big media corporations, their efforts in this issue of the Digital Divide? And how they view it?
CARVIN: In general, there's not a huge amount of big media participation in Digital Divide efforts. You're more likely to see IT companies making large-scale investments. Microsoft, for example, has a very large -- on the scale of hundreds of millions of dollars -- in a program called "Unlimited Potential." And they're just about to establish a new project called "Telecentre.Org," which is going to help community technology centers around the world gain the capacity they need to serve their communities. Other companies such as Intel and HP, just to name a few, have made considerable investments. AOL used to do it more, but now they seem to be focussed more on youth media issues. But when it comes to the big media companies -- in terms of television producers, radio, etc -- you just don't hear about it as much. And perhaps they've got some media literacy efforts going on, but it's not on the scale that you see a lot of the IT companies doing.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And so when you look at five years from now, what do you see the best-case and worse-case scenarios happening from this point on?
CARVIN: Best-case scenario, we're going to see affordable, durable, low-cost laptops and available on all corners of the globe; Lots of low cost and hopefully free WiFi in many places; A greater attention paid to encouraging low-income amd marginalised communities to learn how to blog and podcast and express themselves in public discourse. I think there are a variety of things that can go on. A worse case scenario, we're going to see the status quo in which governments and companies take the position that the Digital Divide will bridge itself, which has never been true. We've reached a point in which a majority of middle class people are online. But that puts more pressure on marginalised populations, because it's kind of assumed by government and big business and everyone else that you've got Internet access. And if you don't, you're kind of screwed. And that's the position of many marginalised populations. They're not being given the opportunities to gain Internet access or Internet skills, but meanwhile it's still somewhat expected of them to figure it out on their own.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And so -- What do you see the role of the US government in this? What are they doing, or not doing, or could be doing better?
CARVIN: I think there's a role -- Governments complain taking the leadership role and setting the agenda -- taking advantage of the bully pulpit and saying nationwide that bridging the Digital Divide needs to get back on the American agenda. And the same holds true for any other country for that matter, and their political leaders. Because when people at the -- When politicians at the national level take the Digital Divide seriously, it gets the attentions of the private sector, philanthropy, non-profits. If you look back at the Digital Divide movement in the late 90's when president Clinton was still in office, whether or not you agreed with his specific policies for bridging the Digital Divide, people were at least talking about it and taking the issue seriously. But now that it's no longer really part of the national discourse, the governmental investments as well as private sector investments have shrunk significantly over the years. There's still some highlights here and there, of course, but its not the same kind of unified, concerted effort to bridge the Digital Divide that we had five years ago. And I think the movement has suffered because of that.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And talk a little bit about the literacy divide as well, and not just access but being able to -- even if they had access, just the level of education and that angle to the story.
CARVIN: Well, it's a dirty little secret of our country that as many as 20-25% of American adults are functionally illiterate. In other words, they know how to read and write, but they can't apply it to different situations on a day-to-day basis such as filling out a job application, filling out their taxes, going to the post office and doing any kind of paper transactions. Just this past week, we heard from Fantasia, the American Idol from a year or two ago, who admitted publicly that she's functionally illiterate. And that when she signed her contracts, she really had no idea what they were saying because she didn't want to admit publicly -- or even privately -- that she had the shame of being functionally illiterate. It doesn't matter if everyone in this country -- or everyone in the world had Internet access as long as there are people who do not know how to read and write, and as long as people lack media literacy skills as well, we're in a situation where these technologies aren't going to be very useful to them.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: So do you see that this is something that might go away in five generations? Or is it going to keep on propagating? What can be done?
CARVIN: Well, the UN has set goals for eradicating illiteracy worldwide. I don't expect them to succeed. I think it's led to many national campaigns in different parts of the world to improve literacy. If you look at the history of certain countries like Cuba, they've managed to do a lot of work in improving literacy in a very short amount of time -- same thing happened with Turkey at the fall of the Ottoman Empire. And so there are historical presidents for countries to improve their literacy rates in a very short period. And I think the pressure that countries are feeling to get involved in the new information-age economy -- or whatever you'd like to call it -- they see that it's important for their citizens to become competitive. And one of the very first steps of that is they need to be literate. And so -- I think the pressure for countries to diversify their economies, and get plugged into the modern world are putting pressure on creating better literacy programs as well as IT literacy and media literacy programs. But it's not going to happen over night. This may take one or two more generations before we're at a point where the majority of the people worldwide are literate. But it still won't be eradicated, that at least I'm sure.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And as software developers are working on Web 2.0 applications, where do you -- Do see that this sort of advance and participatory, interactive technologies, where does the Digital Divide fall in to that?
CARVIN: Well -- Advances in social competing and participatory media have already demonstrated what can happen when you give everyday people access to tools to be creative, and to have their voice shared in a public sphere. And -- It's been extraordinary watching all these things happen, but meanwhile you've got large segments of the population without Internet access, without the skills to use it, with no experience or any point of reference for being part of civic discourse. And so I think -- When people talk of bridging the Digital Divide, they need to think about it as a way of improving the strength of democracy in this country, and improving the diversity of voices and the strength of those voices that exist. Because more and more of public discourse is taking place using "new media" -- if you like that term whether or not -- whether its through blogging, or through video, through social software, you need to have these skills, and you need to be able to have what it takes to be creative with these media. And as long as there's the Digital Divide, the disenfranchised groups of this country and of the world are going to become even more disenfranchised, because they're going to be left completely out of the loop.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Okay, great. Thanks.
CARVIN: Thanks a lot.