Archive for April, 2011

April 21, 2011

The High-Tech Equity Agenda, Part 1…

One of the things that audience members at readings and events for Digital Dead End seem most eager to know is what they can do. If technology isn’t the solution to our social justice struggles, what is?

The women in the YWCA of Troy-Cohoes community had amazing insights into the structural nature of high-tech inequality, and offered innovative solutions. In their spirit, I offer a nine-point plan, what I call the “High-Tech Equity Agenda,” in the last chapter of the book.

In the next few weeks, I’ll offer some key point from the agenda. In light of recent events, I’ll start with the top:

Point 1: Protect Workers in the Lower Tier of the High-Tech Economy

The information economy is a bifurcated economy. While we have a tendency to think about the new economy as being made up primarily of creative and knowledge-based jobs, most of the economic growth from the high-tech economic development is in the service sector.

We can use the Capital Region of New York, where I live, as an example. Between 2001, the peak of the regional economic development scheme known as “Tech Valley,” to 2008, the beginning of the recession, we saw a growth pattern that is distinct to the information economy.

Attempting to replace the collapsing manufacturing and construction sectors, which lost nearly 5000 jobs in those seven years, regional chambers of commerce and municipal government officials aggressively courted high-tech industries: chip fabrication, biotech, nanotech, media, creative and financial businesses.

They had some success. There was growth in “top-tier” information economy occupations. While there were losses in the NAICS industry classification “Information,” which includes publishing, broadcasting, telecommunications and internet service providers, the area added jobs in financial activities and professional and business services. These well-paid, education-dependent occupational categories grew by 3387 jobs, about 500 jobs per year.

But the most exponential growth was the service sector—education and health services, leisure and hospitality, and other services—which grew by more than 12,300 jobs. That’s nearly 2,000 jobs per year added in low-wage, high-volatility, insecure and difficult industries like retail, healthcare, education, and food service. Most of the workers in these classifications make close to minimum wage, and few have access to health insurance, pensions, paid sick leave, and other employment protections and benefits. 78% of job growth in Tech Valley is in the service industry.

The most rapid job growth between 2001 and 2008 was in the lowest-paid NAICS classification, “Leisure and Hospitality.” The Capital Region gained 4282 jobs in this category, a growth of 14.7%. The average weekly wage for these workers is $262 (in 2000 dollars), and the category has the slowest wage growth of nearly any category, only 5.4% in those seven years.

If nearly 80% of the job growth in the new economy is in these low-paying and insecure occupations, any attempt to create high-tech equity must include protections for vulnerable workers. Work in the information economy—in both the high-tech and the service sectors—tends to be less reliable and lacks institutions for effectively organizing on workers’ behalf. The increasingly anti-union political climate is, thus, especially dangerous for information economy workers.

Though service occupations have presented especially difficult challenges to collective bargaining, impressive gains have been made in the past decade. For example, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the largest and fastest-growing union in North America, boasts more than 2 million members who provide for America’s health care, public services, and property services needs. SEIU is also the country’s most diverse union: 56 percent of SEIU members are women, 40 percent are people of color, and SEIU represents more immigrant workers than any other union in the United States.

So one thing you can do to fight for social justice in the information age? Sign on to the Employee Free Choice Act, support attempts to protect employees’ rights to collective bargaining in your state, and never cross a picket line.

April 18, 2011

If Technology Is Not the Answer, What Is?

My very bright grad student, Megan Rolfe, recently forwarded me a link to Kentaro Toyama’s provocative article, “Technology Is Not the Answer,” in the March issue of The Atlantic. I’m intrigued by his experience, and sympathetic to his point that technology serves as an amplifier of underlying values and social structures.

In fact, I was trying to make much the same point when I wrote about the use of new information technologies in the social service system in my book, Digital Dead End. Information technology could certainly serve to connect poor and working families to community resources, make the process of applying for benefits more transparent, and ease caseworkers’ cumbersome paperwork to free them up to spend more time with clients. But under the new, hyper-punitive regime of post-1996 public assistance, it largely serves to proliferate sanctions and intensify surveillance.

Similarly, the information economy, rather than leveling economic and political economies (as Thomas Friedman et al. might argue), can amplify historic inequalities while adding a bruising shot of new insecurity and rapid change, a phenomenon I call “volatile continuity” in my book. So rather than creating sweeping social change, new technologies often magnify underlying social arrangements. Rather than sweeping away old power relations like a digital Noah’s flood, new ITs act like Hurricane Katrina, following existing socio-economic cleavages with devastating effects for those living in valleys of poverty and inequality.

This brings me to the thing I like most about Toyama’s brief piece: a simple chart that traces the rates of poverty in the United States against a time line of major innovations in communications technologies such as the internet, the personal computer, and the world wide web. No big surprises here, but the image is incredibly effective for breaking through some of our more magical thinking about technology and social justice.

Graph of Poverty in the US and Technological Innovation

I start to get frustrated with Toyama’s argument when he starts to talk solutions — for him, the focus should be on (individual) human intent and capacity, on virtue. If what he means is that we in the US need to realign our political and economic practice with our national values of liberty, justice, equality, and democracy, I agree. I think Mark Robert Rank, in his book One Nation, Underprivileged, makes a compelling argument that this kind of realignment is necessary if we are ever to take the epidemic levels of poverty in our country seriously.

Explaining that technology is just one thing we put undue faith in, Toyama coins the acronym TIPS — technology, institutions, policies and systems — to describe what he considers the most visible parts of cultural change. The real iceberg, he claims, is the invisible but more significant bulk of “individual and societal intent and capacity.” I got Marxist base/superstructure flashbacks when I read this, but in reverse.

As I’ve traveled throughout the northeast on my Spring book tour, audience members have asked again and again for specific solutions to the wide variety of social, economic and political problems Digital Dead End describes. So I respect Toyama’s attempt to look beyond the tools to the problems that underlie high-tech inequity. But solutions to the pressing social justice issues of the information age must be systematic and structural, not just individual and organizational.

I’m not sure “virtue” is a good platform for systemic social change. So in the next few weeks, I’ll tell you what I see as the “real iceberg” under the social, political and economic challenges faced by the United States. And I’ll provide some solutions and suggestions for how we go about creating an information age that works for everyone.

Stay tuned…