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Cultural Identity in the Digital Age

“One of the major problems with popular debates in this field is the tendency to regard technology as the driving force of social change. Social theory of the kind I have discussed here reminds us that technological change is often merely part of much broader social and historical developments.” (Buckingham 10)

“We can understand literacy as a set of practices and values only when we properly situate our studies within the context of a particular historical period, a particular cultural milieu, and a specific cluster of material conditions.” (Hawisher et al. 646)

As we see in the quotes above, both David Buckingham in “Introducing Identity” (2008) and Gail E. Hawisher. Cynthia L. Selfe, Brittney Moraski and Melissa Pearson in “Becoming Literate in the Information Age: Cultural Ecologies and the Literacies of Technology” (2004) contend that social and historical conditions shape technological changes, rather than seeing technology as a one-sided agent of social change. Both authors are concerned with the impact of digital media on young people, with Hawisher taking a broader approach that compares the experience of digital literacy across generations. While Hawisher concludes that “people can exert their own powerful agency in, around, and through digital literacies” (644) and that often this agency occurs outside of the parameters of academic institutions, Buckingham seems to take this line of inquiry further in his conclusion that “Critical literacy is … about understanding who produces media, how and why they do so, how these media represent the world, and how they create meanings and pleasures” (17-18). This point seems to move beyond the more insular focus in Hawisher’s article on expanding composition instructors’ notions of “literacy” and on increasing gateways for young people to become digitally literate. Rather, Buckingham focuses on those who produce new media and the cultural changes that accompany it. He notes that there are very real social implications stemming from the emergence of new technologies and digital media, including “questions about social power and inequality” (19).

Buckingham and Hawisher are concerned with unequal access to digital media among diverse socioeconomic and ethnic groups, but only Buckingham gestures toward the social and political implications of this divide, and of the technology “revolution” in general. What I am interested in exploring here is the way in which the rise of digital media has also given rise to a particular ideology, or way of viewing the world, espoused most prominently by the tech innovators of Silicon Valley. The New Yorker reporter George Packer has explored this emerging ideology in his article “Change the World: Silicon Valley transfers its slogans – and its money – to the realm of politics” (27 May 2013). Packer traces both the growing wealth divide in Silicon Valley, and the attendant libertarian ethos that has accompanied the rise of wealth in the Valley, showing that as the divide grows between haves and have-nots, a libertarian-inspired suspicion of government and bureaucracy has enabled Silicon Valley executives to deflect questions of social justice and equality. The insular focus of these executives is guided by the belief that government can only impede the climate of freedom that is essential for technological innovation to occur.

George Packer, a Palo Alto native, notes that when he grew up in the 1970s, the

Valley was thoroughly middle class, egalitarian, pleasant, and a little boring. Thirty-five years later, the average house in Palo Alto sells for more than two million dollars. The Stanford Shopping Center’s parking lot is a sea of Lexuses and Audis, and their owners are shopping at Burberry and Louis Vuitton. There are fifty or so billionaires and tens of thousands of millionaires in Silicon Valley; last year’s Facebook public stock offering alone created half a dozen more of the former and more than a thousand of the latter. There are also record numbers of poor people, and the past two years have seen a twenty-percent rise in homelessness, largely because of the soaring cost of housing. After decades in which the country has become less and less equal, Silicon Valley is one of the most unequal places in America.

This growing inequality and divide in wealth is accompanied by an ideology that seems to be shared by Silicon Valley’s elite, which holds that “collective problems are solved incrementally, through the decentralized activity of countless interconnected equals—a process that mirrors the dynamics of the Internet.” This belief might be called the myth the digital age, the notion that innovations in technology hold the cure for solving societal problems such as inequality. This myth assumes, in other words, that if tech innovators are granted the freedom to innovate, societal problems will be solved without the need for government intervention. This has fostered a libertarian outlook among many of the Valley’s tech innovators, and in Packer’s view, has enabled them to turn a blind eye to pressing questions of inequality. As Packer states:

Like industries that preceded it, Silicon Valley is not a philosophy, a revolution, or a cause. It’s a group of powerful corporations and wealthy individuals with their own well-guarded interests. Sometimes those interests can be aligned with the public’s, sometimes not. Though tech companies promote an open and connected world, they are extremely secretive, preventing outsiders from learning the most basic facts about their internal workings.

It is this clash between the purported “open,” “transparent,” “egalitarian” tech culture and the hierarchies upon which it is actually constituted that strikes me as important to consider in any discussion of technology and identity. That is, we can ask what kind of cultural identity is fostered by the tech “revolution,” and we can also question how the lack of transparency that characterizes the operations of many tech companies might clash with the myth of liberation and accountability that they promote. Packer asserts that “technology can be an answer to incompetence and inefficiency. But it has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value.”

Both Buckingham and Hawisher encourage us to critique the myth that “technology [is simply] a force of liberation for young people” (Buckingham 13), a sentiment that George Packer seems to agree with. Yet as they focus on the formation of identity among young users of digital media, neither Buckingham nor Hawisher seems to shed light on the identities of those who are developing these innovations, namely the tech leaders of Silicon Valley. As a whole, this group has, as Packer shows us, cultivated an ethos of insular libertarianism that often deflects attention from broader social inequities. I would argue that we should examine the cultural identity as much as the individual identities that have emerged alongside the rise of technological innovations and digital media, as this distinctive tech identity is profoundly affecting the era in which we live.

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