The Internet Revolution and the Digital Divide

We are currently in what is known as the Internet Revolution, a technological revolution that’s projected to have the greatest impact upon mankind yet.  Marshall McLuhan described an electronic technology that would turn the entire world into a village, where information moves simultaneously over every part of the world.  He said that, “in bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion, electric speed heightened human and awareness of responsibility to an intense degree.”  Has this global village been realized with the Internet Revolution?

Following the launch of the World Wide Web in 1991, Johannes Gutenberg, a man who had been dead for over 500 years, was brought to the media forefront.  The Web was predicted to do for the 21st century what Gutenberg’s printing press did for the 15th.  The Gutenberg revolution has been presented as a model for the current Internet Revolution.

But what had the printing press done for society?  As it is widely taught today, Gutenberg’s printing press is solely credited with the “rapid and far reaching changes in literacy, learning, and social institutions” (Cook 68).   Science historian Derek de Solla Price asserted, “By 1500… the printed book had become a quite new force.  The momentous effect, of course, was that the world of learning, hitherto the domain of a tiny privileged elite, was suddenly made much more accessible to the common man” (Cook 69).

As Cook explored in his article, this view of Gutenberg and his impact is inaccurate and misleading if it is to serve as a model for other technological revolutions.  In debunking the Gutenberg Myth, he focuses on two key factors that worked alongside the printing press that brought learning and knowledge to the “common man.”  The first of which is mass illiteracy.  From the press’ invention in 1440 to 1650, the majority of Europe was illiterate.  The illiteracy rate was about 80% in 1650.  It fell to between 65-70% in 1700.  And by 1800, almost 400 years after the introduction of the printing press, the illiteracy rate stood at about 50%.  This doesn’t match up with the Gutenberg Myth that the printing press expedited the spread of knowledge to “common man.”  The decline in illiteracy can be explained not only by the printing press, but also by a shift in the perception of social equality that occurred during this time period.  The illiteracy rates were driven down even further to 10% by 1900 due to the introduction of public education.

The second key factor was the paper used by the printing press.  Until the nineteenth century, paper was a costly and highly valued commodity.  Once wood pulp was introduced as a source for paper, printed books and materials were no longer a luxury item, reserved for the rich.  Books could be mass-produced at affordable cost.  The increasingly literate population now had the means to become knowledgeable.  Learning had come to the “common man.”

So here is the Gutenberg Myth as it has been presented.  But where exactly does the danger lie in following this false model as we move forward in the Internet Revolution?  It has been predicted that the Internet will lead to mass knowledge literacy across the globe.  The Internet relies upon content; it does not discriminate and does not recognize country borders.  It seems to be international network of information, the global village McLuhan envisioned.  However, that does not mean that discrimination is not in play when it comes to computing.  The lesson to be learned from the Gutenberg Myth is that the Internet alone will not bring about the revolution it’s predicted to.  Just as the printing press had to overcome obstacles before it was able to reach the masses, the Internet must also bridge the gap of the digital divide.

The two aspects of the digital divide to explore here.  The first being availability.  Computers and digital technology have moved rather quickly into becoming available and affordable machines.  Much more quickly than the book in it’s venture toward availability and affordability.  They went from about the size of this room and thousands of dollars to mini-laptops priced at a couple hundred dollars.  I think there’s great potential within mobile technology to connect even more individuals to the World Wide Web at an even lower cost.  Because we can see how much availability has increased over the last few decades, and is continuing to do so, the second aspect calls for more of our attention.

The digital divide plays an important role because it is not only fueled by availability, but also by computer literacy.  Computers and the Internet are not forms of passive communication technology.  You can’t simply turn it on and receive as is you do with radio and TV; you must interact with it.   Minorities and people of low socio-economic standing are the most affected groups of people in the developed world.

Education is extremely important in handling this issue.  Mass knowledge literacy simply cannot come about without mass computer literacy.  There are a variety of places where computer literacy can be taught, including public libraries, community colleges, Internet tutorials, and the public education system.  This year, private companies, such as Best Buy and Microsoft, will begin to offer free computer training to disadvantaged communities through a new pilot program, headed up by the Federal Communications Commission.  They will utilize service organizations, including Boys and Girls Clubs, 4H, and Goodwill, in order to reach out to the communities (Seelye).  These efforts to reach out to communities are especially important in order to equip those who have not grown up with digital technology with basic computer literacy.

Implementing solid computer science education programs within the public school system has the potential to greatly narrow the gap.  By focusing on teaching computer skills to children while they are in school, more individuals will be reached and can become computer literate.  Educators are, and have been, focused in this endeavor.   There are a few difficulties in implementing computer science programs.  What constitutes ‘basic’ computer literacy?  Should all students learn the basics of computer programming?  Will their digital interactions benefit from such knowledge?  How can the programs keep up to date with the rapidly changing field of computing technology?  These factors all make it difficult to structure educational computer science programs.

Acknowledging the rapid changes in the computing field, tech journalist Anya Kamenetz suggests a set of educational practices could be implemented in such computer science courses in order to encourage adaptability.  She states that these set of practices would “empower students to seek knowledge independently, to collaborate, follow their passions and to connect their knowledge with the real world” (Kamenetz).  Such direction point towards the goal of all computer literacy programs of enabling people to engage with computers and online in meaningful ways.

Perhaps outside organizations can help in putting together such an educational outline.  The Computer Science Teachers Association is a non-profit organization that advocates for strong computer science programs throughout the country.  Last year, they published their National Computer Science Curriculum.  However, each state determines their own educational curricula and standards, resulting in varied levels of computer science education.  They should come alongside organizations like Computer Science Teachers Association, who have conducted extensive research in K-8 Computer Science education.

This focus on earlier education within the public school system could also help to facilitate a social shift as well.  The Internet not only invites people to be content producers, but platform producers as well.  However, computer science is a male-dominated field.  By teaching children computer skills while they are young and offering advanced computer courses before they graduate high school, young girls can be given the opportunity to see if the reality of computer science, not the boys-club perception of it, appeals to them.

The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology claims that movable type printing “’was one of the most important inventions in human history.  It was significant, even revolutionary…[in that it] made it possible to put more information into the hands of more people in less time and at lower cost, and thereby to spread literacy and learning more widely and rapidly than ever before” (Cook 69).  The Gutenberg Myth illustrates that the printing press, while the key component, did not act alone in bringing about such change.  It is through understanding that people must be quipped with the computing tools, machinery, knowledge, and skills in order to interact online in more meaningful ways.  Until the digital divide is bridged, the Internet will not be the global community that it claims to be.



Cook, Scott D.N.  “The Structure of Technological Revolutions and the Gutenberg Myth, ” in Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metapors.  Mark Stefid, ed.  1997

“CSTA K-12 Computer Science Standards.”  Computer Science Teachers Association.  Web. <>

Kamenetz, Anya.  “When Classrooms Can’t Keep Pace.”  New York Times.  26 October 2011.  Web.  < %20literacy&st=cse>

Seelye, Katherine Q. “F.C.C. Expanding Efforts to Connect More Americans to Broadband.” New York Times.  12 October 2011.  Web.  <http://www. =1330347722-a0HEVA92syno73VhySn5Qg>

The Paradox of Privacy

Our own era is often described as a period of rapid, even dizzying change. But this notion is not new. The turn of two other centuries (the 19th and the 20th) were also described as periods of intense change and subsequent confusion. Maybe it is something about reaching the century mark that throws people for a loop. One issue that concerned people in these eras, as well as our own, is the notion of privacy.

Privacy as a right 

Private Sphere

Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, of Supreme Court justice fame, wrote a piece titled “The Right to Privacy” in 1890, where they argued that privacy was the hallmark of a civilized time and place. Privacy was the core of individual freedom in the modern age. With the rapidity of change, the growth of cities, and the spread of new technologies (many of which intruded into the traditionally “private” sphere of the home), it makes some sense that Brandeis and Warren would consider privacy as something both precious and needed.

Public Sphere

 Going back to another period of rapid, and globalizing, change in the early 19th century, we can see privacy debates and concerns being expressed in a variety of mediums, and with a full range of complexity.

Privacy, the gaze, and the other

In Elizabeth Alexander’s poem about the Hottentot Venus, a woman who was the recipient of not one but a whole host of imperial gazes which judged and dissected her, the “Cuvier” voice of the poem concludes by exclaiming “Small things in this world are mine.” Coming off of his graphic discussion of Sarah Baartman’s body, the contrast between Sarah as a person and Cuvier’s dismissal of her as a scientific specimen is extreme.

 Cuvier, and the others who “studied” Sarah Baartman, acted as if she were a scientific specimen, not a person. As a specimen (fittingly stored in jars and put on display after her death), she was not entitled to privacy. Nature, including the specimen of Sarah Baartman, existed so that scientists like Cuvier could dissect them. The mysteries of the universe were there to be solved.

But there is always something inscrutable about the “other,” as Edward Said first argued in Orientalism. How do we know what we know? We can see the same sort of anxieties today in discussions of online anonymity. Who are these people? And can we ever really know?

As in earlier eras, privacy is something that we want and prize, but we do not always appreciate or even acknowledge the privacy of others. We both want and do not want privacy, and this confused relationship with the notion of privacy has grown even more complicated today. In earlier eras, privacy was something to be protected in the “civilized” world and overcome in the “uncivilized” world. And yet, this seemingly absolute dichotomy was filled with doubts and concerns, be it from the tenuous nature of “knowing” or the unstable boundaries between self and other, public and private. Then, as now, privacy was part of much larger debates and concerns about culture and society at large.

Social networks 

Considering the socially constructed nature of privacy, Dourish and Anderson write that the flow of information provides “a means to negotiate, demonstrate, and sustain patterns of identity, membership, and affiliation in social groups” (322). I would argue that privacy, and its cousin, knowledge, are simultaneously socially and individually constructed; the two are not mutually exclusive.

Our views on privacy are continually in flux. We want it for ourselves, and not for others. We both prize it and question it as an individual right. We both celebrate it and disavow it as a community feature. By considering what privacy is in historical context, we can hopefully better understand what it is we want privacy to do today. And our views on privacy can shed some light onto who we are as a society – from the imperialist dismissal of Sarah Baartman as a person to Brandeis’s celebration of privacy as a pillar of progressive civilization, we can see that privacy has been, and continues to be, a very complex concept.

Surveillance can be a two way street 

One of the scariest scenes in Hitchcock’s film Rear Window, a film all about issues of sight and knowledge and surveillance, is when the creepy man that Jimmy Stewart and company have been observing suddenly looks back at them. Jimmy and his friends freak out accordingly and quickly dim the lights in the futile effort to remain unseen. But Rear Window is not just about the scary aspects of being surveyed; it is also largely about our desire to survey others. Before getting caught, Stewart and his friends become addicted to watching his neighbors. Stewart wants his own privacy but he’s not very concerned with preserving the privacy of others.

Hitchcock would have made a great commenter in the digital age, as someone who understood the complicated relationship we have long had with privacy. We love to tear privacy down even as we love to uphold it as a virtuous and desirable state. We want to have privacy ourselves but we also want to know things about other people. And sometimes, even more confusingly, we want to give up our own privacy (for a tangible benefit).

Our somewhat schizophrenic relationship with privacy has implications for everything from the privacy settings places like Google implement for us to the government’s treatment of “freedom of information,” from the treatment of sources in news articles to our very basic decisions about our own online interactions, and the way we assess the actions of others.

Privacy and the web

Views on privacy today run the gamut, as is apparent in two recent pieces published in The Atlantic and The New Republic, respectively.

 In a piece in The Atlantic, Sara Marie Watson argues that we need to “get real” about privacy and actively work to reclaim our privacy, and our personal data, from commercial entities like Google, which are promoting a business agenda that is not all that compatible to our individual rights to privacy and control. Watson channels something of Brandeis here, positing that privacy is a valuable right that we are currently taking for granted.

Watson writes that “users aren’t critical enough of the relationships we enter into with platforms like Facebook and Google that offer up valuable services in exchange for our data.”

This notion of “valuable services” is key, however. Dourish and Anderson outline an economic model of privacy, where someone deliberately gives up some privacy and information in exchange for a tangible benefit (326).  Sometimes we want our privacy and sometimes we willingly give it up. Understanding the privacy policies of platforms like Google is important for individuals endeavoring to make decisions regarding their personal privacy.

Privacy and social memory  

 And yet, privacy gets infinitely more complicated with groups get involved, whether it is platform policies that apply to a huge range of users or even government policies that apply to all citizens. The later case is currently under heated debate in Europe, where the European Union is considering passing a “right to be forgotten,” aimed at giving people who post something embarrassing about themselves online an “out” of sorts. This law would let people take down content they posted and now regret.

 But in The New Republic, Jeffrey Rosen argues that this act threatens free speech. Rosen points out that complications in this “right to be forgotten” arrive since no one exists in a vacuum. What if someone copies an embarrassing post about another person – do they to have to remove the content with the original poster decides to exercise their right to be forgotten?

We want to preserve our own privacy, and save ourselves embarrassment, but few people respond favorably to the idea that they themselves might be censored. Privacy for ourselves and privacy for others often come into conflict on the Internet. We want to share, and we want to hide; we want to know about others and we want to forget about them. Our turn of the century society, like those earlier turns of centuries, is challenged by new forms of social interaction, new technologies, and new considerations of privacy. Today, we need privacy policies and technologies that are fluid, in order to reflect the complex nature of our ever evolving understanding of what privacy is, should, and could be.


Alexander, E. (2004). The Venus Hottentot: Poems . New York: Graywolf Press.

Belton, J. (Ed.). (1999). Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (Cambridge Film Handbooks). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Brandeis, Louis & Samuel Warren (1890). The Right to Privacy. Harvard Law Review, 15. 

Dourish, P., & Anderson, K. (2006). Collective Information Practice: Exploring Privacy and Security and Social and Cultural Phenomena. Human-Computer Interaction , 21, 319-342.

Gould, S. J. (1985). The Hottentot Venus. In The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History  (pp. 291-305). New York : W.W. Norton &  Company.

Hitchcock, A. (Producer/‌Director). (1954). Rear Window [Motion picture]. United States: Paramount Pictures.

Rosen, Jeffrey. (2012, February 10). A Grave New Threat to Free Speech from Europe. The New Republic. Retrieved from

Said, E. (1979). Orientalism. New York: Vintage.

Sengupta, S. (2012, February 4). Should Personal Data be Personal? . The New York Times. Retrieved from‌2012/‌02/‌05/‌sunday-review/‌europe-moves-to-protect-online-privacy.html?_r=1

Watson, Sara Marie. (2012, January 25). Using Google? Time to Get Real About Protecting Your Digital Self. The Atlantic. Retrieved from


Closing the Democratic Digital Divide: Alternate Models of News Organizations as Information/Change Agents

In the past decade, Americans have witnessed an explosion of digital political content. From online extensions of traditional news organizations to web-only magazines to amateur blogs and message boards, there is almost no end to the amount of political information available to the public. However, despite this seemingly limitless stream of information, the democratic digital divide is persistent (Min 2010).

The term “digital divide” commonly refers to the ability to access to information and communication technologies (ICTs). While some argue that the digital divide will, at some point, close due to the lessening cost of consumer technology, there is evidence that ICTs require more upkeep and knowledge than previous forms of technology, such as television or the mobile phone. Early adopters will continue to improve upon earlier gains in ICT knowledge, while late adopters will feel challenged by their lack of skills. In other words, “the rich get richer, and the poor remain poor or even become poorer” (Min, 2010, p. 24).

Assuming that one day the access divide disappears, there remains a second-level digital divide, or a gap in user ability to effectively operate and navigate ICTs due to various factors. As DiMaggio and Hargaittai (2001) suggest, there are five dimensions of the second-level digital divide: technical means, autonomy of use, use patterns, social support networks, and skills. These factors contribute in part to what Min identifies as the democratic digital divide.

According to Min, the Internet presents new opportunities for engaging in political discussion. The Internet is interactive, relatively inexpensive, decentralized, and accessible regardless of temporal or physical location. These characteristics suggest that online technologies could encourage individuals to participate in politics. However, as Norris (2001) proposes, there exists a democratic digital divide. This gap divides those who use the Internet for political purposes and those who do not. Instead of encouraging broader general civic participation, the Internet and other online technologies actually reinforce preexisting political behaviors. Activists and other politically inclined individuals participate in online discussions more, while those uninterested or apathetic about politics participate less.

How can the democratic digital divide be solved? One possible solution is to examine the ways that Americans receive information about politics. Using the definition of the information/change agent as described by MacIntosh-McMurray and Choo (2005), I analyzed three news media structures: for-profit, public, and non-profit. The information/change agent performs four roles: boundary spanner between different organizational levels, information seeker for a larger group, knowledge translator through education and instruction, and change champion for everyday routines. An effective information/change agent employs his or her cognitive skills, affective characteristics, and situational characteristics to best fulfill the aforementioned roles. Using this framework, I have evaluated each of the news media structures for effectiveness in conveying information, encouraging political discussion among politically disinclined individuals, and promoting adoption of digital media skills (Fig. 1).

In American society, the commercial news media is primarily responsible for delivering political information to the general public. Unfortunately, this role as a political information/change agent is a contributing factor to the democratic digital divide. For-profit news organizations are effective at spreading information, but these groups are not motivated to encourage greater political participation. Two alternate models, public-funded media and non-profit media, present their own challenges to closing the digital political divide. However, both of these models can be ideologically committed to increasing online political participation. Due to this difference in mission, the alternate models provide a better solution to the question of the political digital divide.

Compared to news media models in some other countries, public media in the United States is underfunded and expected to fill a variety of roles. In a 2011 New York Times article, various functions of NPR are listed while describing the expectations of the organization’s new president, Gary E. Knell. The article mentions fundraising, local news coverage, public service, and neutral reporting as issues that NPR must face, as well as political opposition to federal funds supporting the station and its programming. These challenges limit the power of public media in the United States and impact the ability of these organizations to encourage civic participation and spark political interest.

Another facet to the democratic digital divide conversation is the growth of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. As we discussed in class, political participation online can now take many forms, from updating your Facebook status to signing an online petition. But are these forms of political participation equal to marching in a protest, or attending a public forum? Although the Occupy movement used the Internet to organize and publicize, the media focused on the in-person protests on Wall Street and across the country. Despite the growth of interactive technologies, the media still has an undeniable hold on political narratives in the United States, but future Internet services and new technologies may shift the balance of power in future political discussions.


Works Cited

DiMaggio, P. and Hargittai, E. (2001). From the digital divide to digital inequality: Studying Internet use as penetration increases. Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies Working Paper. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

Jensen, E. (December 5, 2011). NPR Chief Faces Need For Repairs. The New York Times, Retrieved from

MacIntosh-Murray, A., & Choo, C. W. (2005). Information behavior in the context of improving patient safety. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 56(12), 1332-1345.

Min, S. (2010). From the digital divide to the democratic divide: Internet skills, political interest, and the second-level digital divide in political internet use. Journal of Information Technology & Politics, 22-35

Norris, P. (2001). Digital divide: Civic engagement, information poverty, and the Internet worldwide. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Data Retention in Public Schools: The Social Impact of Data Policies & An Argument for Workplace Studies

The shift from paper-based to digital records has presented new challenges for public school systems, which are facing an increasingly vast amount and variety of electronic data involving complex issues of access and control, concerns about vulnerability and liability, pressure to comply with state and federal mandates, and compounded budget constraints. As Blanchette and Johnson note, “… the shift to an electronic medium changed the default position from one of forgetfulness to one of memory” (p. 3). Information that was once filed away in a dusty cabinet in a warehouse is now retrievable in an instant with the click of a mouse. As a result, the retention of electronic data in school systems poses significant risks that were of less concern with traditional paper-and-ink records. In addition to affecting individuals, these risks have a broader social impact, including discouraging people from reporting information of a sensitive nature, discouraging people from seeking healthcare and other services, increasing stigmatization of groups, inhibiting rehabilitation of offenders, and the potential for targeted harassment and discrimination. In this way, “privacy as an individual good and privacy as a social good are inextricably tied” (Blanchette and Johnson, 5).

School systems and education agencies have recognized what Blanchette and Johnson concluded: more sophisticated and comprehensive approaches to data retention and disposal are required. Past decisions were often made on a case-by-case basis dictated by the limitations of technology rather than by content considerations, but this is beginning to change. Federal regulations and requirements such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act have been amended to clarify issues of data access and privacy, and new resources such as the Privacy Technical Assistance Center have been developed to provide support and guidance. However, there continues to be notable tension between the demands for accountability and the protection of privacy.  One aspect of this tension is detailed in Huffington Post reporter Gerry Smith’s December 15, 2012, article “In Push for Data, Schools Expose Students to Identity Theft.” He describes an alarming trend of children’s social security numbers made vulnerable as a result of school data practices. With the economic downturn, the potential credit afforded by a clean record has made children’s identities an increasingly valuable target for thieves. According to Smith’s article, Texas is one of 26 states that routinely collect students’ social security numbers. He quotes a spokesperson from the Texas Education Agency indicating there are no plans to stop this practice due to the widespread use of social security numbers in school databases and the need for them in connecting to higher education and workforce data, but she says that “the agency takes pains to protect sensitive student information, storing data behind firewalls and using other identifying information in most data sets.” Yet Smith cites several instances of data breaches in Texas school districts that exposed students’ social security numbers in the past year alone, including a CD from Laredo ISD that got lost in the mail, El Paso ISD’s internal network accessed by a hacker, Beaumont schools’ accidental exposure of data online for nearly a year, and San Antonio ISD’s student data mistakenly visible through a Google search.

I propose that workplace studies, as outlined by Garcia and her colleagues in “Workplace Studies and Technological Change” (2006), are needed to inform schools’ data management and retention policies. Conducting real-time examinations of how data is collected, used, and stored in authentic contexts would reveal unconscious and habitual processes involved in the “lived work” of education professionals. Analyzing the “sociotechnical ensemble,” including people in various roles, hardware, software, techniques, support resources, and information structures, would help to identify environmental interactions affecting data practices. Applying the “documentary method of interpretation” to uncover underlying patterns of common knowledge about and experiences with data among school professionals and identifying “structural properties” such as policies, procedures, norms, culture, and reward systems that influence data collection, usage, and storage in school environments would enable a more thorough and in-depth understanding of school data needs and practices. These studies would provide the types of insights that are critical to crafting a more sophisticated and comprehensive data policy for public schools, to the benefit of all.


Blanchette, J.-F. and Johnson, D.G. (2002). “Data retention and the Panoptic society: the social benefits of forgetfulness.” The Information Society 18:33-45.

Garcia, A. C., Dawes, M. E., Kohne, M. L., Miller, F. M., & Groschwitz, S. F. (2006) Workplace studies and technological change. In B. Cronin (Ed.), Annual Review of Library and Information Science, 40, 393-487.

U.S. Department of Education, (accessed February 2012)

Johnson, J. “Know When to Hold ‘Em: Data Retention Policies.” Knowledge Quest, v36 n2 p50-53 Nov-Dec 2007.

Sparks, S. D. “Ed. Dept. Proposes New Student Data Privacy Rules.” April 7, 2011.

Wrozek, B. Electronic Data Retention Policy. August 15, 2001. SANS GIAC, GSEC Security Essentials (version 1.2 e).

Smith, G. “In Push For Data, Schools Expose Students to Identity Theft.” December 15, 2011, Huffington Post.




Categorization: A Tool for Communication

Reference Article: Difference Engine: Luddite Legacy

“The nature of what constitutes work today—the notion of a full-time job—will have to change dramatically.”[i]
This article from the Economist explains that social perception of what may constitute “work” has changed over the past century as a result of advancing technology. Ever since the automated car plant of Henry Ford’s era, which revolutionized the industry, our job profiles and work scope has always been in a state of flux. From farmers, technicians, mechanics and doctors we have become user-interface designers, consultants, business managers etc. From using the machine as just a tool, we have now allowed the machine to replace us and the Economists questions if a time will come in the near future, where robots will take over, leaving us absolutely jobless.

Technology may or may not snatch our jobs and robots may or may not take over our jobs. But what they certainly have done, is triggered a change in our perception of “work” and “job” and have made us realize that things change rapidly and significantly. Even dictionaries go beyond just one definition or one classification of a word and seem to classify such concepts in ways that might hold true in the future. For example, a job can mean “a responsibility or duty” or “informal a difficult task” or “ an operation or group of operations treated as a single and distinct unit.” (Oxford Dictionaries[ii])

Leo Marx put forth that technology is an ambiguous term – and thus hazardous – which we use in a matter-of-fact way, without much scientific understanding of the term and oblivious to the significant social and cultural ramifications it has. However, technology has gone onto to encompass different things and since it does not have a precise definition it has remained relevant to every social context. Similarly, there are many such terms that are under the radar for having fuzzy definitions, but yet they were and are central to social and academic conversation. For example, the concepts of “work” and “job” have changed so dramatically, especially over the last century – but the terms still stand, as relevant and applicable as they were in the past. Again, that the boundaries of this “work/job” were not restricted allowed it to adapt to changing social circumstances. Today farming is work as is mining, as is business management as is teaching – as a society we accept that all of them can qualify as work and will not discard any other notions that become a part of this category. This reinforces that there is no single way to define and categorize something. Categories mean different things to different people. The ambiguity associated with certain terms actually makes them an effective tool for communication and the fact that they can work together with changing course of society makes them a mark of a progressive society.

Immanuel Kant, said, “categories are a way of organizing perceptions in knowledge” (Wikipedia[iii]) and Heilbroner[iv] using the “machine” as an example illustrated how social and cultural changes have influenced the way we categorize. Similarly, the advent of the “information age”, and strategies like open source, we no longer need to go to work and can undertake as many “jobs” as we like. Jobs are becoming tasks and vice-versa. Categories change! And are reflections of our social and political context. Thus, what is socially recognized as a “job” and “work” has evolved with society. Trying to establish a single definition for them would make most categories irrelevant in no time, while an open-ended definition allows them to work with their context and accommodate changing social and cultural circumstances.

Categories are cognitive entities and as Darton says almost never a “neutral compendium of information”[v]. We saw that The Trees of Knowledge were a quest for power: the way each tree is conjured clearly reflects the influence of its social setting which included the Church, God, their profession as philosophers – and even if there were loopholes in each perspective the authors seemed satisfied if they catered to these social criteria. Categorization is our response to our social circumstances – a way of showing that we have control on the world by asserting our interpretation of the way it functions. Things that we do not identify are a “violation of our conceptual boundaries.”[vi] Thus the way we categorize is our understanding of our everyday circumstances and that these terms are more or less generic allows them a universal existence.

“Advancing technology, in the form of automation and innovation, increases productivity. This, in turn, causes prices to fall, demand to rise, more workers to be hired, and the economy to grow.”[vii]

So we see terms like knowledge, technology, information and machine are not mutually exclusive but strongly interlinked. The incorporation of machinery, in the early 1900s, by Ford changed perceptions of work, production, technology and knowledge. For example workers needed training, new job types were created and “never-heard-off” terms like mass production were now mundane. So we see that an attempt to define or redefine one social concept has a significant impact on the way the rest are perceived and has important collective considerations. If we pin down technology to mean a single thing, like a book – the 19th century reference[viii]– it would have an impact on the categorization of other related terms and would inhibit social changes associated with it?

The changing “job/work” scenario highlights that we do live in a “knowledge society[ix]”, which has encouraged mobility in terms of jobs, housing, marriage, and citizenship. With Ford’s innovative operations in the early 1900s, people from all over the world came to American to work for them. This trend is even more rampant today where we travel the world for work, education, and leisure. We are exposed to different cultures and informed by diverse, mixed and multiple experiences. Values vary from place to place depending on the knowledge you are exposed to. So assuming that people with different values are now communicating and exchanging information, it is only constructive that words such as technology that are central to most conversations today remain flexible.

Another essential thing to remember is that the audience is always varied; no two people are the same, which means varied perceptions. So for every topic, every society will have the Luddites and the technologist, with their contrasting opinions and within each group there will be subgroups and further divisions. The ambiguity provides a common platform for the chaos. John Dupre in “Scientific Classification[x]” states “there is a highly questionable implication of there being some uniquely best classification. Classifications are good or bad for particular purposes, and different purposes will motivate different classifications.” Similarly with ideological concepts like technology, which are so pertinent and recurrent today, to allow a certain level of abstractness (rather than academic precision) actually helps information exchange by catering to individual agendas.

Also, through our knowledge society we are always a part of the learning process and if these concepts, which are the basis of this learning, do not evolve with us, they will become archaic and slow down the learning process. The potential of these terms lies in their ability to expand their boundaries based on new information and social changes. This also makes them integral to education.

As the Economist[xi] article identifies, “The things that make people human (and different from machines) is the ability to imagine, feel, learn, create, adapt, improvise, have intuition, act spontaneously – and these are what make our responses (to the same situation maybe) individual and unique. Ambiguous terms work parallel to these sensibilities and allow a modern and lasting categorization.

Darton explained how King Henry regulated things – his word was final – he organized society the way he wanted, the rest followed. In the 18th century it was the philosophers who were trying to propagate the “best” definition of knowledge – pretty much based on their own individual social philosophy. But nowadays we are struggling to find a precise definition? And we certainly want no king to help us! Here is why a certain amount of abstraction in fact helps categorization. Referring back to the knowledge society again, we have now become thinkers, and do evaluate the repercussions of our actions (at least most of the time). We question things and that’s how we progress. So each one decides what is best and most apt for them. There is no one right answer. But what we appreciate is that there is certain leeway within a structured system that allows us to take individual decisions. Also here we must not discount that we are always learning new things and there is an obvious trend in education today to “question things”. We are essentially trained not to take anything as a given. So in a certain sense the fuzziness in fact gives us an opportunity to find a way of contextualizing the term. (Here it is appropriate to recognize that we might fall into the trap and as Marx feared “make ourselves vulnerable to the feeling that it is uncontrollable.”)

So, categorization is a tool for communication and a way we standardize things by giving them tags we already know of. It helps us evolve from Henry Ford’s world to Steve Job’s world. The constant debate about the ambiguity of words like technology, work and knowledge, and an attempt to find an exact definition for them seems futile. A precise definition seems irrelevant. The fact that they are still a bit arbitrary prevents them from being rendered obsolete while giving them room to keep pace with their rapidly evolving framework.

Marx says, “The emergence of a term – whether new or with an altered meaning – is a marker of far-reaching developments in society and culture”[xii] – and he is spot-on!

[i] Difference Engine: Luddite Legacy, Economist, 04-11-11

[ii] Oxford Dictionaries,, Accessed 02-09-12

[iii], Accessed 02-10-12

[iv] Heilbroner Robert, Do Machines make History

[v] Darton, Philosophers Trim the Tree of Knowledge: The Epistemological Strategy of the Encyclopedie

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Different Engine: Luddite Legacy

[viii] Marx Leo, Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept, 1997

[ix] Peter Drucker, The Social Age of Transformation, Atlantic Weekly, 1995

[x] Dupre John, Scientific Classification, Theory, Culture & Society, 2006

[xi] Different Engine: Luddite Legacy

[xii] Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept

Alleviating Library Burdens Created by the Narrowing of the “Digital Divide”


Now that libraries have successfully increased public access to the Internet for the “digitally disadvantaged,” helping to narrow the “ digital divide,” librarians are shouldering new burdens and responsibilities that accompany the increase in Internet users. While increased Internet access has been the source of these problems, this essay will argue that this increased access can also be the solution. This essay will examine a possible approach librarians can take to alleviate some of these burdens by utilizing online tools with embedded training and feedback to satisfy the additional responsibilities and alleviate some of the burdens. Additional risks associated with this approach will also be discussed and recommendations on how to deal with these risks will be given.


The “Digital Divide”

In the 1990s, the “digital divide” was recognized as the space between individuals with or without access to the Internet. As more people across cultural and economic groups gained access to the Internet, this “digital divide” narrowed. Another divide began to appear, this time between individuals with or without broadband Internet access. As each “divide” narrows, it seems to morph or give rise to another “divide” concerned increasingly with quality of access and less with basic provision. This progression does not appear to be a new one, rather it can be seen in the rise and evolution of any new technology (e.g. videocassette to DVD to Blue-Ray).

Over time, different parties were responsible for bridging the “digital divide.” In the 1990s, government took some responsibility for providing access to the “digitally disadvantaged.” This was seen in Clinton-era policy-making that pushed for increased Internet access in low-access communities around the nation (Kinney, 106). Libraries across the nation also took a leadership role in this push with the result that many low-income and minority groups gained first-time access to the Internet at their public libraries throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

Now that the gap has been narrowed, and more and more people are using the Internet than ever before, new responsibilities have arisen to encompass access quality, usability, privacy, individual autonomy, and quality of life. It seems policy making has declared “mission accomplished” with regards to access and is allowing the responsibility of increasing the quality of Internet access to fall on the librarian and user. Librarians feel a responsibility to educate, train and assist patrons, but often do not have the resources to do so. Lack of funding for librarians to execute this Internet training and education strains library budgets and staff. Therefore, libraries must grapple with these problems while continuing to fulfill their more traditional roles.

Are These New Roles Appropriate For Libraries?

Does the responsibility of providing Internet access and training fall within the scope of the library mission? Why should libraries shoulder this burden instead of other organizations?

In the beginning, it may have been a matter of timing. Libraries began providing Internet access to the “digitally disadvantaged” at a time when Internet access was not as affordable or accessible in many parts of the country. The library was an established public institution in which Internet access could be inserted with relative ease. Additionally, studies have “demonstrat[ed] the increasing role of the Internet in solving everyday information needs” (Kinney, 136). Providing Internet access allows libraries to continue fulfilling their role as a free access point to information.

Increased Access ≠ Increased Quality of Life

As libraries’ role as an information source diminished, their role as an active participant in the community expanded. These community roles include coordinators of adult and children literacy programs, as well as providers of Internet access, training, and guidance (Kinney, 132).

The Internet is no different from any other tool, insofar that a process of education and training must occur before the user can fully utilize its potential. By itself, a basic increase in Internet access does not bring to pass an Internet-based skill set or an increased quality of life for the user. A new user must learn to perform Internet searches, manually enter in website URLs, set up and check e-mail accounts, and so on.

Developing individual autonomy, and subsequently increasing quality of life, is a mission that will likely become more common to libraries in the 21st century (Barbakoff, 6). It is also central to the mission of decreasing inequalities among the “digitally disadvantaged” (Kinney, 113).

New Strains on Libraries

Providing free and public Internet access is accompanied by increased budgets, resulting from initial costs (e.g. equipment investment) and long-term costs (e.g. staffing, data service packages, equipment maintenance).

“ Heavy demand for training services” (Kinney, 133) has been reported as a significant strain on libraries offering public Internet access. The types of training varies. Some users need simple assistance with setting up e-mail accounts or performing web searches. Some users need help with more advanced, time-intensive tasks such as searching for jobs online and building and submitting resumes. Each user interaction inserts additional tasks into librarians’ already busy schedules, potentially decreasing the amount and quality of work produced by the library’s staff.

In addition to training, librarians feel somewhat responsible for managing the user experience and content viewed. Librarians must coordinate timed terminal usage to allow more patrons accessibility. In some cases, librarians have also taken on the role of screen monitors in conjunction with requirements accompanying federal funding (Kinney, 140). Internet filters can relieve some of the burden of monitoring, but sometimes the installation and training costs required for the filters do not balance out the federal funding. Some libraries have declined funding due to this imbalance (Kinney, 140).


Online and Desktop Tutorials as Virtual Library Assistants

To relieve some of the burden shouldered by libraries offering free and public Internet access, librarians should utilize online tools and applications that have built-in training and feedback. This approach can serve the dual purpose of increasing individual autonomy and reducing library’s current Internet-related staffing and budget strains.

A trend of desktop software, and more recently online tools and applications, is to make the user experience more explanatory and self-educating. This can be traced at least as far back as the installation of Solitaire on computers running Windows 3.0 in 1990 (Levin). The intended purpose was to develop users’ manual dexterity with the mouse, a skill necessary to mastering other applications on the operating system. Since Solitaire, computer applications are increasingly designed with built-in training and feedback, becoming increasingly easier to install and use. This trend of embedded training and feedback is frequently appearing on the Internet as more applications become Internet-based.

One recent example is Google Docs. Google Docs, a free service provided to Internet users, allows users to create rich-text documents, spreadsheets, drawings, tables, and presentations. In essence, it provides for free what Microsoft Office has charged for for over two decades. Admittedly, Google Docs has fewer advanced options than MS Office, or even its open-source competitor Open Office. For the basic user, though, Google Docs is more than satisfactory. What is even more crucial, is that when a user signs up for Google Docs, they are walked through the creation of a new document, step-by-step. The web-based application provides feedback along the way, training the user.

Google Docs is by no means singular in this approach. Developers of many new Internet applications take the time to build in training so that the user may self-educate while using the application. Another service commonly provided by librarians, resume building, is provided, for free, by many websites. One example,, offers free accounts to users. Account holders can access resume templates and build resumes using simple forms and drag and drop features. Furthermore, it allows account holders to download their resumes and even post their resumes directly to job sites such as

It appears that emerging Internet-based technology is attempting to reverse the trend of the “digital divide.” Instead of bringing a more elitist status to new users, new applications are shouldering the responsibility for training the consumer, in many cases effectively turning the consumer into a producer. Librarians should take full advantage of this trend to relieve the strains put on staff and costs. If librarians do utilize this approach, the problem then becomes finding quality, free applications and directing the library patron to these tools.

How Can Librarians Effectively and Efficiently Guide Users to These Tools?

As “guides to the Internet” (Kinney, 132), librarians acquired the responsibility of navigating through the expansive online world to lead their patrons to the correct information or application. By identifying, in advance, online applications that are safe, possess built-in training, are easy to use, free, and produce a high quality product, librarians can efficiently and effectively satisfy this role. Simultaneously, they can begin to relieve the burdens related to their roles as Internet trainers and educators.

Librarians will need to exercise caution in selecting the online tools they will promote. One pitfall that must be avoided is promoting an online application that is only temporarily free. Some websites offer “trial” versions of a tool, during which the tool is free for a limited time. The terms of agreement are not always clear to the user and sometimes mislead them into thinking that their account will be deleted after the trial period. If this is not the case, the website may have enough personal information to begin extracting payments, unbeknownst to the user.

Once librarians select the online tools, one method of quickly informing new users of relevant applications is by creating reference sheets. These reference sheets could be located at each computer workstation and contain enough information (in multiple languages) to direct a user to the most relevant application. The information on the sheets could be sorted in multiple ways. For example, one sheet could sort applications by name, another by task. If a user wants to build a presentation, the task sheet section on “ presentations” could instruct them on how to sign up for a Google account, navigate to Google Docs, and begin editing a new presentation. Google Docs’ tutorials could then begin training the user to produce a final product.

Networking tools can be used to coordinate the approach between libraries. If a librarian discovers a new online application that satisfies the goals and guidelines of the approach, organizations such as the American Library Association can help disseminate the information to other librarians. This will help keep all librarians up to date on emerging applications that will assist them in their Internet provision, training, and guidance responsibilities.

Will Library Patrons Accept The New Approach?

Even if every effort is made by librarians to implement this new approach, it is likely that some users will prefer face-to-face interactions. This is a preference that individuals may never, and perhaps should never, change. It is likely that the confidence a live phone call or face-to-face interaction can give is will always outweigh computer-based feedback.

The goal of this new approach is not to entirely replace the librarian, but only to lessen the amount of time a librarian needs to spend answering questions and training Internet users. The desired outcome is that fewer librarians will be needed to manage the computer workstations, allowing more librarians to fulfill other roles in the library.


The Internet as a “Public Place”

Patton defines a public place as a place that “form[s] a material basis for transportation, recreation, performance, shopping, political activism, opportunities for informal exchange, and chance meetings” (Patton, 182). Additionally, Patton speaks of public places as malleable places owned and maintained by the public (Patton, 182).

With the exception of transportation, the Internet satisfies these criteria. Recreation (online gaming), performance (YouTube), shopping (eBay), political activism (, informal exchange (social networks, online forums), and chance meetings (online chat rooms) are all represented. The Internet is malleable in that is used for a variety of purposes. Access to the content on the Internet may be thought of as owned and controlled by government and business, but the vast majority of Internet content is owned and maintained by the public. The Internet meets Patton’s criteria and can therefore be considered a “public place.”

The “public place” perspective of the Internet is echoed in a recent New York Times article, How Privacy Vanishes Online, written by reporter and author Steve Lohr. The article examines the increasing capability of Internet surveillance and statistical analysis to identify people through Internet usage patterns. The article ends with a quote by Cornell University computer-science professor, Jon Kleinberg:

“‘When you’re doing stuff online, you should behave as if you’re doing it in public — because increasingly, it is.’”

Surveillance On The Internet

The Internet is a unique tool insofar as it allows a user to simultaneously perform and be the subject of surveillance. New technologies are allowing surveillance to infiltrate even the most private settings. The “audience” watching the product of this surveillance (i.e. Internet users) are concurrently being monitored by parties, such as government, website trackers, businesses, and in some cases librarians.

Prevalent applications such as YouTube and Facebook combine with mobile devices that possess the capability to record audio and video in any place and at any time to vastly expand electronic surveillance. For better or worse (often depending on your role in the act of surveillance), this brings transparency to the world around us. Electronic surveillance is traditionally thought of as something akin to closed-circuit camera surveillance, but now many individuals carry surveillance devices inside their pockets. Thousands of hours of audio and video captured on mobile phones, voice recorders, and camcorders are published to the Internet daily. Sometimes this content brings us an already public event such as a concert or speech, but sometimes it brings incredibly private interactions, such as business conversations behind supposedly “closed doors” or an intimate interaction between two people.

Social networking sites also provide users the opportunity to unintentionally release personal information of others. “You may not disclose personal information, but your online friends and colleagues may do it for you, referring to your school or employer, gender, location and interests” (Lohr). According to Lohr, the ability to cross-reference thousands of pieces of data across multiple websites to decipher a person’s identity is still only in the realm of research, but what begins in research can become commonplace. As the technology advances, it could move these data mining tools into the realm of “identity thieves and marketers” (Lohr).

In some cases, marketing is already catching up. Lohr references a recent example with Netflix, in which the company “awarded $1 million to a team of statisticians and computer scientists who won a three-year contest to analyze the movie rental history of 500,000 subscribers and improve the predictive accuracy of Netflix’s recommendation software by at least 10 percent” (Lohr).

Other data mining examples include search engines tracking search words and government attempting to track sites visited. The stated purposes of this surveillance is often better user experience or public safety, but Internet users who are aware of this surveillance can never be entirely sure the surveillance will only be used to “track murderers, paedophiles, save lives and tackle crime” (Casciani).

Risks such as identity theft begin as acts of surveillance and often go unnoticed until negative repercussions are experienced. Research done by Alessandro Acquisti and Ralph Gross, in which they “ reported that they could accurately predict the full, nine-digit Social Security numbers for 8.5 percent of the people born in the United States between 1989 and 2003 — nearly five million individuals” using “statistical correlation and inference” with publicly available data, brings a new dimension to identify theft (Lohr). Individuals who never release their Social Security Number over the Internet could face serious problems, all because someone was able to use their Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr, or a combination of other public accounts, to reveal more private information about them.

Expanded electronic surveillance and Internet surveillance bring an unprecedented level of ambiguity to the world around us. People are unsure of what actions are being recorded, who will eventually have access to these actions, for how long, and in what context the actions will be taken. The Internet is the unidentified third party that makes the whole world a “theatre” where the actors are unsure for whom they are performing (Patton, 184). Because “one’s perception of a place is transformed by the realization that the place is being viewed from another perspective” (Patton, 184), this transformation can drastically affect people’s behaviors and interactions with the world around them.

What Responsibilities Do Librarians Have With Regard To Internet Surveillance?

It seems that librarians do have some responsibility to educate library patrons about the risks of electronic surveillance, but the level of that responsibility is still unclear. If librarians increasingly rely on Internet tools and applications to train and perform tasks otherwise performed by themselves, librarians should attempt to inform users of risks associated with such an approach.

At the most basic level, Internet users need to know that there is risk associated with Internet use. This basic knowledge alone could have an unpredictable effect on the user’s experience, though. Observed surveillance can “simultaneously intimidat[e] some people while reassuring others” (Patton, 185). The goal should not be to frighten people into a heightened state of self-regulation, leading to an “informational panopticon produc[ing] under-developed and less-faceted people” (Patton 186). Rather, the goal should be to guide them safely through a process of personal growth toward individual autonomy.

For example, a library patron who sits down with a librarian with a pencil and paper need only rely on the librarian’s confidentiality when discussing personal information added to a resume or job application. When the user builds a resume or applies for a job online, the risk of identity theft arises if the user does not know what information is safe or appropriate to use in an Internet application. The librarian should attempt to inform patrons about what personal information is appropriate to share over the Internet and what personal information should be withheld.

How Can Librarians Effectively and Efficiently Educate Patrons About The Risks?

The goal of using Internet-based tools and applications is to reduce burdens currently shouldered by librarians. So how can librarians work toward this goal, while effectively informing patrons about Internet-usage risks? The creation of “understanding of risk” and simple reference documents could be a start in the right direction.

Libraries could install “understanding of risk” agreements on library computers that an Internet user must read before access to the Internet is granted. Paper copies of the agreement could also be located at each workstation for continued reference throughout a user’s session. Alternately, video tutorials could be screened at computer workstations before Internet access is granted. Additionally, screen-based and paper documents could classify personal information as public or private. This would clarify differing levels of risk associated with sharing public personal information (e.g. driver license number) versus private personal information (e.g. Social Security number).


Libraries can alleviate some of the burdens that have accompanied their new role as public Internet access provider, trainer, and educator by utilizing Internet-based tools and applications with built-in training and educational features. Beginning steps could include identifying online applications that are safe, possess built-in training, are easy to use, free, and produce a high quality product. Next, easy-to-understand, multilingual reference sheets could be created to help inform patrons about these tools and help them navigate to them on the Internet.

At the same time, libraries must be aware of the increased risks accompanying an increased reliance on the Internet. Librarians must therefore be aware of their additional responsibility to inform patrons about the surveillance risks of using the Internet. Additional reference materials produced by libraries could help inform Internet users about these risks.

The combination of materials guiding users to high-quality online tools while informing them of best-use practices to avoid unwanted results, such as identity theft, will increase the user’s self-reliance. The user will be able to safely navigate the Internet and acquire skills that will allow her or him to make informed decisions and possess “self-governance” (Barbakoff, 2), with an intended result of increasing the quality of life for the autonomous individual.


The approach outlined in this essay could be put into practice with relative ease as a test case in a chosen public library. Measurements could be taken before and after the new approach is put into effect to determine if there is any significant decrease in the costs associated with public Internet use in the library. Such measurements could include recording the number of times library patrons need face-to-face assistance with librarians. Effectiveness of the online training tools could be measured by recording how much time is required for the built-in training of an online tool to train a new user versus how long it would take a librarian to do the same. The results of the case study could be used to make changes to the approach, or the results could show that an entirely different approach is necessary. Whichever the case, the efforts will lead libraries and their patrons in a more productive direction.

Specific goals and guidelines must be set before this or any modified approach is set into motion. Librarians must do their best to work toward these goals to avoid “mission creep,” as well as to measure the success and effectiveness of the approach.

An additional approach that could be explored and tested combines the utilization of online applications with collaboration between libraries and third-party non-profits. The number of non-profits in the United States has grown rapidly over the past decade. A non-profit organization dedicated to training and guiding Internet users could have a presence in libraries. The library would provide the infrastructure and the non-profit would supply the user training through the non-profit’s staff and volunteers. This approach would be accompanied by a new set of logistical problems. These could be explored in a separate essay and an additional case study could be performed.


  • Audrey Barbakoff, “Libraries Build Autonomy: A Philosophical Perspective on the Social Role of Libraries and Librarians,” Libraries at University of Nebraska-Lincoln: Library Philosophy and Practice (e-journal) (2010).
  • Dominic Casciani, “Plan to monitor all internet use,” BBC News, April 27, 2009 (
  • Bo Kinney, “The Internet, Public Libraries, and the Digital Divide,” Public Library Quarterly, 29:104-161 (2010).
  • Josh Levin, “Solitaire-y Confinement: Why we can’t stop playing a computerized card game,”, May 16, 2008 (
  • Steve Lohr, “How Privacy Vanishes Online,” The New York Times, March 16, 2010 (
  • Jason W. Patton, “Protecting privacy in public? Surveillance technologies and the value of public places,” Ethics and Information Technology 2: 181-187 (2000).

The Internet as Cabinet of Curiosities; 1/30 presentation follow-up post

In “Taking Stock at the End of the World” Michael Wintroub quotes Pomian about the wonders of the curiosity cabinet, stating that it “contain(s) specimens of every category of things and help(s) to render visible the totality of the universe, which otherwise would remain hidden from human eyes” (Wintroub 405-406). As a modern-day curiosity or wonder cabinet, the internet does much the same on a scale that would have been staggering to the audience of Henri II in France of the 1500s. While the curiosity cabinet showcased that the possessor was fortunate enough to have the resources to assemble its contents, access to the internet showcases a person’s ability to utilize and access the varied resources of the modern world as a whole. Unfortunately, internet access still remains a resource that is lacking for those without the means to acquire it, leaving them disenfranchised. In spite of the vast improvement in equality of information as a resource, the internet remains a cabinet of curiosities—held tantalizingly out of reach to a percentage of society’s members.

During the era of Henri II, a search for order and categorization was occurring as part of an attempt to calm and rationalize the rapidly changing world, “rules and protocols, as articulated in books of grammar, rhetoric, and courtesy, were perceived to be the means by which the increasingly turbulent social world of the sixteenth century could be successfully navigated, and by which the distinction of legitimate social status could be achieved and maintained” (Wintroub 408). The lines along which social and economic distinctions were drawn were not the only concern; scholars looked to the “strategies of social and cultural distinction based on the delimitation of order, difference and identity, and the articulation and elaboration of seemingly opposing intellectual systems based on resemblance, analogy and similitude…in the case of social identity—it was divided up, categorized and…displayed in ordered hierarchies of carefully delineated difference (Wintroub 407-408).

In the modern world, life is no less chaotic and remains susceptible to constant change. The internet allows people to navigate the world’s vast reservoir of knowledge and resources and allows them to keep up with the changes and be a part of them. In the studies cited in “The Internet, Public Libraries, and the Digital Divide” it seems likely that a lack of internet access at home ties directly to disadvantages broken down along lines of “income, race, education, and language“ (Kinney 109). It is also noted that “A wide range of studies have shown at least moderate benefits of computer access and information technology skills in several categories, including economic and educational advancement, community participation, access to government services, and access to health information (USDC 2000; 2002; Fairlie 2005)” (Kinney 112).

This relationship of access and opportunity with the internet appear to be in correlation with the statement Heilbroner makes, that “a given technology imposes certain social and political characteristics upon the society in which it is found” (Heilbroner 340). According to the studies found in Kinney’s article, “Most research is in agreement that significant divides persist along lines. There has been not one single digital divide, but rather a series of divides that attend each new technology: first computers, then dial-up internet access, then broadband access, and now mobile access. In addition, divides appear to exist in terms of quality of access, although these are less frequently measured (Kinney 111).

In terms of the internet as a cabinet of curiosities it can be enlarged and manipulated as much as education, means, and time will allow. However, for those who have not had the opportunity to learn and understand the technology, simply providing access to the internet may not be as helpful because they haven’t yet gained the skill set to utilize it in the most productive manner. This translates into a need for assistance at the point of access, which is often the public library. Per Kinney librarians often provide

“‘at-the-point-of-need’ training service” (Bertot, Jaeger,Langa,
and McClure 2006b, § 3 [“Public libraries and e-government”]). Of
Colorado library users surveyed in 2002, 19% reported that they relied on
staff assistance to learn new technology skills (Moe 2004). Likewise, PACP
research found that 17% of library patrons said a librarian showed them
how to use a computer, and 30% said they learned how to use a computer
from a librarian. 67% of computer-using patrons ask librarians for
help when they have a problem with a library computer (Heuertz, Gordon,
Moore, and Gordon 2002). (Kinney 133)

While the internet can of course be used for looking at LOLCats, it can also be utilized to take advantage of job searching, online banking, and other resources that provide economic advantages. The skills used to access these services all have to be learned at some point of access, and without an education of some kind—be it trial and error, an online tutorial, or a librarian—the information will remain inaccessible.
Heilbroner remarks that it can be difficult to determine “the degree to which the technological infrastructure is responsible for some of the sociological features of society” (341), and it seems apparent that the play between technology and society are more at the crux of the matter than the simplified idea that technology determines sociologic features of society. Technology is influenced by the society that produces it, just as society is influenced by the technologies that it chooses to both embrace and ignore. In the case of the internet, it has been largely embraced as an integral part of daily life and influences the world as such.

While the common inhabitant of Rouen under Henri II may have been keenly aware of the societal differences between himself and the better off, today’s modern inhabitants who are aware of their lack of connection to the digital world likely feel their societal difference as well. These differences occur along the same lines. In Wintroub’s viewpoint “there was a simultaneous and, indeed, parasitic relation between strategies of social and cultural distinction based on the delimitation of order, difference and identity, and the articulation and elaboration of seemingly opposing intellectual systems based on resemblance, analogy and similitude (407-408). In accordance to the studies quoted by Kinney, “the digital divide is best treated as a multifaceted concept, encompassing not just access to computers and technology but telecommunications infrastructure, economic conditions, information access, and information literacy [Berot 2003] (114). These divides are quite different, but both point out the same fact that access to the same information and opportunities would provide a different structure to society.

Even while the modern day digital divide separates society into those able to access information and those who cannot, no one is able to escape the fact that their actions are likely more highly monitored than they ever have been before. In an odd twist, humanity itself has become the cabinet of curiosities to those who monitor both openly and covertly. People choose to open themselves to the public forum of the internet through blog posts, Facebook entries, Tweets, and a myriad of other interactive sites. While many of these are conscious choices, there is also the tracking that goes on whenever a site is visited, a purchase made, or a survey completed. If enough information is gathered over a long enough period of time, patterns will emerge about an individual that they may or may not have wanted to be known to anyone outside themselves. This ability to discover the private workings of an individual make it highly questionable as to whether it is possible to truly use the internet as a tool without it also using the user.

Jason W. Patton’s article “Protecting privacy in public? Surveillance technologies and the value of public places” comments on work done by Reiman and DeCew that “In the context of surveillance, data collection is framed as an intrusion on the individual by documenting information about or providing access to actions by the individual” (182), and this accessibility to the individual is unreasonable. While their argument is not specific to the internet, it is an applicable comparison. When an individual chooses to make information public, it becomes part of the social landscape that can encourage the sharing of information, opinions, and ideas. Each individual can create their own “cabinet of curiosities” to share with the world—inviting others to see what they have created and to make their own contributions.

According to Wintroub, “The wonder cabinet was a response to the apparent disorder of the world; through it the collector sought not only to win prestige, but to piece the variegated and multifarious mosaic of existence into a coherent—microcosmic—whole” (407). In today’s world, individuals have the opportunity to create order and place it in the public eye to be shared and enjoyed, judged or derided through the forum of the internet. While access to the internet may not be universal, it does present an opportunity for a single voice to be heard and gain momentum that would either take much longer or never occur without the internet. Arab Spring, Occupy, and opposition to SOPA/PIPA are just a few examples of how people who have bridged the digital divide can effect change for the whole.

This idea of internet access being equally available across the board for everyone is addressed in Vinton G. Serf’s article of January 5, 2012 “Internet Access Is Not a Human Right” ( The storehouse of information available online is not only wide in scope, it is wide in goal as well. Entities such as Wikipedia storehouse information for public consumption, research companies storehouse information for advertising, banks storehouse information for personal and business use, businesses storehouse information to make sales, individuals storehouse information for social and political use, and those with less legitimate goals storehouse information for illegal sale and download. The technological advances that have allowed such a vast quantity of intelligence to be available in easy reach are a step along the trail that Heilbroner describes regarding technological determinism. The internet has been contributed to by amateurs and professionals alike for the reasons listed above, as well as a multitude of others. While there is no centralized directory, search engines such as Google, Yahoo, Bing and others provide navigation methods just as labeling of items in a 1500s curiosity cabinet led viewers through the myriad of items it contained.

Social and political change, due in large part to the internet, has come to the forefront during the previous year. The Arab Spring and Occupy movements are heavily dependent on technology provided via internet access, and the impact of internet access on these movements is unprecedented. Heilbroner states that “What other political, social, and existential changes the age of the computer will also bring we do not know” (345), but it is apparent that without the communication provided by the internet and mobile devices that these popular movements would have been slower to gain momentum and maintain a presence in their respective locations. In the article “Internet Access Is Not a Human Right,” Serf states that “(t)he issue is particularly acute in countries whose governments clamped down on Internet access in an attempt to quell the protesters.” Those involved in protest movements have utilized online tools and resources to make the most of information sharing on a large scale. Without the level and speed of communication that the internet and wireless communication provided, it is hard to imagine that events would have unfolded with the level and speed of organization that they did.

This access is a key to understanding the importance that the internet has come to mean in our society. Heilbroner stated that it is “less easy to decide…the degree to which the technological infrastructure is responsible for some of the sociological features of society” (341), but it does seem to be a logical assumption that the technological infrastructure had an effect on the sociological features of the protests in the Middle East and the United States over the past year. While Serf doesn’t believe that internet access is necessarily a human right, he does make a case for it as an “enabler of rights” that should be used responsibly and broadly to support the greater good of improving the human condition.

In light of technological determinism, it seems logical that the internet has a large part to play in influencing many kinds of activities and how people interact both online and face to face. Unlike the curiosity or wonder cabinet that only accepted items that the owner deemed appropriate, the freedom to add to online content and categorize without oversight from a single governing entity allows for an ever-changing and adapting environment that can allow contributors to flourish and communicate, promoting equality and freedom of expression for those with access to it. It can only be hoped that access will someday be provided equally, so that everyone who desires to be connected will have the ability to do so.

Works Cited

Cerf, Vinton G. “Internet Access Is Not a Human Right.” The New York Times. 4 January 2012. Web. 4 February 2012.
Heilbroner, Robert L. “Do Machines Make History?” Technology and Culture 1.3 (1967) 335-345.
Kinney, Bo. “The Internet, Public Libraries, and the Digital Divide.” Public Library Quarterly 29.2 (2010) 104-161.
Patton, Jason W. “Protecting privacy in public? Surveillance technologies and the value of public places.” Ethics and Information Technology 2 (2000) 181-187.
Wintroub, Michael. “Taking Stock at the End of the World: Rites of Distinction and Practices of Collecting in Early Modern Europe.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 30.3 (1999) 395-424.