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October 7, 2001 -- Vol.6, no.1

Bridge to Nowhere: Rethinking the Digital Divide
by William H. Thornton

There is no disputing the fact that a global information revolution is taking place. But like all revolutions, this one has its winners and losers. Even on the Pacific Rim, home of so many economic “miracles,” most people live in abject poverty. In the face of these grim realities, talk of a global information age takes on a perverse, “let them eat I.T.” quality. It must be asked what benefit this “other half” can derive from expanded Web-based technology. This study is cautious not to carry its critique of IT utopianism to the point of techno-fatalism. Somewhere between McCluhan and Orwell, a new realism must be forged. Hi-tech in general, and IT in particular, turn out to be morally and politically neutral, despite the fact that they are presently in the grip of corporate powers. For now the global village remains a gated community—part of an emerging class that recognizes no national boundaries and no cultural or environmental restraints. Lacking any sense of place, this power elite feels even less responsibility for the unwired classes than yesterday’s national elites had for the unpropertied working classes. It all comes down to the question of bridges: who builds them, who crosses them, and who cares? This remains to be seen. All that can said with assurance is that there are choices. Every digital bridge does not have to be a connecting link on the information highway of TINA (“there is no alternative”) globalization.

Wiring Everest: A Class Act

In 1996 the internet almost made it to the top of the world, courtesy of Sandy Pittman, a New York socialite who paid professional climbers $75,000 to drag her along. Unfortunately that also meant lugging her 80 pound satellite phone to a camp at 26,000 feet. The unfortunate Sherpa who did the lugging, the late Lopsang Jangbu, might have complained had Pittman not been his boss’s best media link. Her importance could be measured in the extra pounds she was allowed to impose on the group’s Sherpa carriers. Her gear included several cameras and tape recorders, two IBM laptops, an expresso coffee maker, and an ample stock of women’s magazines, none of which she carried. Indeed, she herself had to be “short-roped” (literally pulled) for five or six hours by an obliging Lopsang, whose exhaustion left him unable to perform his crucial task of securing the route for the later push to the summit (Krakauer 169). The resulting delay cost many lives, including Lopsang’s boss and close friend Scott Fischer (Fraser 62).

This tragedy suggests in microcosm the commercial exploitation that goes by the name of globalization. When the disaster was called in from Everest on Saturday morning, May 11, internet enthusiasts could not hide their elation at having the first case of a major international story breaking live on the Web. On Monday, NBC’s Everest Assault Site had more than a million visits. Not until Tuesday did The New York Times print edition give the story full coverage (Dam 19).

It was a class act from beginning to end. The Pittman/Lopsang relationship was emblematic of the global class structure that shapes today’s E-topian dream of a completely wired earth. The idea is to close the digital divide by linking the periphery of the current World Order (Lopsang’s Everest) with its commercial core (Pittman’s New York). Part of the globalist baggage that Pittman and NBC Interactive took to Everest was the fatuous notion that this top-down “wiring” constitutes a worthy chapter in universal progress. What it actually accomplished was a giant step backwards in the evolving relationship between "sahib" climbers and their Sherpa baggage carriers.

In her insightful anthropological study of the Sherpas (Life and Death on Mt. Everest, 1999), Sherry Ortner tells of the long Sherpa struggle not only for better wages and treatment, but for respect. In part this effort grew out of the Sherpa's native sense of basic equality with any employer. In Sherpa culture it is common for one to seek advancement by way of a zhindak, or patron, who is given loyal service but is not regarded as innately superior. Quite naturally, therefore, the Sherpa employee came to see his mountaineer employer, or sahib, as simply a better funded zhindak. It has taken many decades for even the most enlightened sahibs to share this view, but many now do. Two practical policy changes stem from this hard-won enlightenment: a) so far as possible, the sahib is expected to pull his or her share of the load, literally speaking, and b) no unnecessary baggage, such as Sandy Pittmann's fashion magazines, will be hauled. The fact that Pittman herself was excessive baggage could be forgiven if she had bothered to play by Sherpa rules--the rules of an essentially classless climb. Pittman, however, was not so much climbing a mountain as a social ladder which came with its own rules. What she brought to Everest, besides her utter incompetence and needless weight, was an attitude and an ideology to match: the new unbounded version of capitalism that goes by the name of globalization.

Some Choice

There is no disputing the fact that one part of globalization is the information revolution that Pittman claimed to pack along with her expresso coffee. But like all revolutions, this one has its winners and losers—its Pitmanns and its Lopsang’s. Even on the Pacific Rim, home of so many economic “miracles,” the vast majority of people live on less than two dollars a day (see “Asian”). That is what nearly half the world’s population subsists on (see “America”), while the poorest 1.2 billion get by on less than one dollar (see Chanda). In the face of these grim realities, talk of a global information age takes on a perverse, “let them eat cake” quality. What possible benefit could this “other half” derive from expanded Web-based technology? They are to info-globalization what Lopsang was to the “wiring” of Mount Everest.

The notion that the internet will mainstream the world’s underprivileged fits a pattern of technological fantasy that reaches back at least to the mid-nineteenth century. In 1858, when the first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid, many believed that global communications were paving the way to universal progress. Now, in the same vein, Michael Pertouzos looks forward to “computer-aided peace” (see NTIA), while Nicholas Negroponte expects digital communications to uproot the evils of nationalism by creating “digital neighborhoods where physical space is no longer relevant” (qtd. Halmi 6 of 7). A more immediate effect, unfortunately, has been an expanding communications gap between the rich and poor (“What” 1 and 2 of 5). With 90% of internet traffic in English (Kim 5 of 12), and native language skills eroding among non-Western internet addicts (e.g., see Lee), 95% of the world’s Web users reside in developed countries (Galeano 274). .08% of Latin Americans had Web access in 1999, which is double that of South Asia (Halimi 4 of 7). Insofar as rapid information flow translates into power, this Great Divide is integral to the knowledge-based and culturally driven geopolitics that Joseph S. Nye terms “soft power” (see Mattelart 6 of 6).

Undeniably there is a brighter side to the info-power revolution. Witness its debilitating impact on totalistic systems of both left and right. According to Manuel Castell (The End of Millenium, 2000), Soviet industrial statism collapsed due to its inability to keep pace with the emerging information age. Likewise, grassroots internet resistance to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment kept this blueprint for global capitalism from being ratified early in 1998 (Galeano 319).

The most dramatic instance of cyber-resistance, however, grew out of the international ground swell of support for the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. Whereas anti-NAFTA communication over the Net mobilized hundreds of NGOs, yet remained a North American affair, the Chiapas crisis attracted networks of support spanning five continents. The “Tequila Effect” on the economic side (the calamitous flight of hot money from Mexico) was thus met by a “Zapatista Effect” on the political side (Cleaver 1 & 2 of 15). The idea was to give voice to those on the bottom of the social and economic pyramid. International pressure forced unusual restraint on the part of the Mexican government and led to broad calls for reform domestically. Meanwhile pro-Zapatista channels of resistance helped lay a foundation for the “bottom-up” counter-globalism that culminated in the Seattle anti-WTO demonstrations of late 1999.

Nonetheless, the bulk of internet traffic, and the main thrust of cyber culture, serves commercial interests that have no use for the old reformist baggage of liberalism. The tinge of conscience that postwar American liberalism still harbored vanished with the “lean and mean” 1980s. This neoliberal transformation was virtually complete before the fall the Soviet empire. Eduardo Galeano points out that Soviet influence did at least contribute to a global balance of power (Barsamian 8 of 9). In the 1990s the Third World found itself with just one choice: accept the New World Order or face the world alone, like North Korea or Cuba. Some choice.

The New Economy

Whether globalization is construed as informal imperialism in the form of “Americanization” (see Williams 2) or as a less specific cultural “logic” that just happens to have taken shape in the U.S. first, the American “information revolution” carries special global significance. Until recently there was a solid consensus among media insiders that the IT (information technology) boom was both revolutionary and emancipatory. Technology in general was credited with having sparked America’s New Economy, thereby refurbishing the long forgotten view of capitalism as a sphere of creativity and dynamism.

An early prophet of this revolution, George Gilder (Wealth and Poverty, 1981 and 1993), contrasted oldstyle monopolistic capitalism with the new techno-egalitarianism—the presumed marriage of right-wing conservatism with the residual counter-culture (see Wolfe 11 and 12 of 15). Typical of this postindustrial hybrid is the magazine Fast Company, which Scott Stossel sees as part Fortune and part Rolling Stone. Much like Wired, Fast Company indulges in endless self-commentary in support of its central theme: that today’s revolutionary vanguard is none other than the high tech entrepreneurial class (Stossel 1 and 3). These are the inside-track iconoclasts that David Brooks (Bobos in Paradise, 2000) dubs “bobos,” for bourgeois bohemians. As a kind of New Age Protestant elect, they join the meritocratic values of corporatism with flower power taste. So long as the digital “force” is with them, they can think of themselves as having one foot in and one out of the capitalist order.

Only recently have the bobos themselves begun to wonder if perhaps they have it wrong. Maybe they have both feet inside the new order. Maybe their revolution is not so much “right” as “on the right.” One of their core assumptions has been the democratically “interactive” character of the new media. Its presumed “pull” of information has been contrasted with the coercive “push” of centralized media such as T.V. and radio. It came as a shock, therefore, when a 1997 issue of Wired took the growing “push” of the Net itself as its cover story. When corporate monoliths such as Time/Warner and Microsoft/NBC get into the digital act, attracting advertisers away from the smaller competition, a new wave of “pushed” content threatens to co-opt the revolution (see Stevenson).

Another kind of “push” recently raised doubts in several avant-garde communities in San Francisco. Residents of these working class and bohemian neighborhoods staged protests against what they saw as an invasion of “dot-commers.” A huge influx of internet business around the Bay area sent real estate prices so high that older residents were being pushed out. Dot-com workers were torn over the issue, for most prefer to think of themselves as egalitarian reformists. Proposition L, a measure to block the further encroachment of internet enterprises into working class areas, found considerable support from some idealists, but self-interest drove others toward a more pro-development Proposition K (see Goldberg). This schism was not decisive, but did kill the stock assumption that the new techno-politics is inherently on the side of social justice and diversity.

Diverse it is not. Any genuine community involves an organic linkage of very different social types. Such “pluralism-within-unity,” as Amitai Etzioni calls it, points the way towards a postmodern “community of communities.” Etzioni distinguishes this from the inordinate homogeneity of the traditional American “melting pot,” but also from the cultural balkanization that goes by the name of “multiculturalism” (154-57). If a synthesis is possible—let us call it a “multi-pot”—one of its embryonic sites might be Leicester, England, which is known for its cultural tolerance, and expected within a decade to become the first British city with a nonwhite majority (see Hoge). While such a community respects difference, it also bridges gaps, assuring not only acceptance but opportunities for real dialogue and understanding.

Not all communal bridges are intercultural, however. Some are intergenerational, for every true community must find a way to link the young and old. Although celebrants of the World Wide Web, such as Negroponte, regard communication as the Web’s primary virtue, they cannot deny that the internet revolution has amounted to a triumph of the young over the old—old meaning over 35 (see Breton 3 of 4). In the name of global communication and harmony, the Net has done more to widen America’s generation gap than anything since the Vietnam War. Youthism is just one more dimension of the digital divide. The dialogic claims of digital revolutionaries are at best half truths. To the extent that the Net unites its winners, it removes them from any community worthy of the name.

Negroponte acknowledges this growing divide, but fails to register its cultural significance, which is the assumed insignificance of the kind of knowledge that comes with long experience and was once respected as wisdom. Michael Heim notes that the internet generation, with its shortened attention span, amasses information in fragments: knowledge bits that have little use for the long view, let alone wisdom. At first this loss seems to be compensated by the great volume of information flowing through the Web. But in the absence of meaningful context, the flow of would-be knowledge is diverted into static processes of management rather than critical thinking or dialogue (Heim 10). The radical possibilities of language give way to the same monologic “push” of content that the internet was supposed to rectify. The “Net effect” of the information explosion, then, is all the more monolithic for being fragmented, and all the more unilateral for having no cultural direction. What is exploded is not the existing system but its competition—the alternative systems that critical thought and dialogue might have spawned.

Beyond Technological Determinism

To give up on high-tech utopianism is not to surrender the concrete potential of the new media. The ‘digital divide’ would be made even wider if today’s E-topianism were to give way to techno-fatalism. Somewhere between McCluhan and Orwell, a new realism must be forged. As Gertrud Koch puts it, freedom is threatened by politics, not computers (30). But the reverse also holds: one of the greatest sources of hope lies in the political appropriation of technology for worthy causes.

The idea that open channels of communication guarantee democracy has a venerable tradition, reaching back past J.S. Mill and Thomas Jefferson to John Milton (Kumar 140). Before, this liberal mission was vested in the press. That turned out to be a double-edged sword. It empowered a literate minority even as it gradually expanded the range of literary and press access. Just as the battle seemed to have been won, through mass literacy, the advent of mass communications turned victory into defeat through “culture industry” manipulation.

The new media recycle that same conflicted pattern: first the Orwellian tendency to solidify power structures, then to circumvent them, and finally to reinforce them anew. Myth has it that cyberspace is so much at odds with political closure that authoritarian regimes such as China’s cannot survive the proliferation of online media. That notion is put to rest by the China Democracy Party, which reports that its online publications have been effectively wiped out by government-engineered viruses. Meanwhile the Chinese Communist Party is fast developing a special “intranet” system through which global information will be made readily accessible, and readily monitored (Mosher 127).

To be sure, this trend does not go unopposed. We are witnessing the formation of a new mode of international agent: the transnational advocacy network (TAN) which includes NGOs, charities, alternative media, etc. What distinguishes these counter-organizations from transnational corporations is their non-instrumental ends (Hawkins 119). The best indication of their recent success is the degree to which the globalist Establishment is embracing the outer shell of objections raised against it. The Group of 8, for example, addressed the digital divide in their July, 2000 meeting; and in his millennium report, U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan spoke of building “digital bridges” to help poor countries cope with their lack of infrastructure. Nevermind that in most of Africa, where access to pencils is a more realistic goal than access to computers, the limits of such bridge-building are patent. Even Bill Gates reversed himself—to the chagrin of many listeners at a recent “Creating Digital Dividends” conference—by pointedly asking if digital utopians “have a clear idea of what it means to live on $1 dollar a day” (see Verhovek).

The globalist co-optation of anti-globalist reformism reached its hypocritical zenith with a recent editorial by Thomas Friedman, the resident guru of market populism at The New York Times. After attending the World Economic Forum in Davos—a veritable College of Cardinals for multinational capitalism—Friedman noted accurately enough that the Forum “is always useful for gauging global trends. In recent years much of the buzz at Davos was about what technology will do for us. This year, more and more, the buzz has been what technology is doing to us. If Davos is any indicator, there is a backlash brewing against the proliferation of technology in our lives” (see Friedman).

What may have prompted this globalist reversal on IT was a sense of betrayal. Not only has the tech sector of the market, as represented by NASDAQ, let down its trusting investors, but there has been a growing recognition that cellphones, the internet and other New Economy toys can serve as effective tools of resistance. Ever since Seattle, an increasingly global anti-globalism has turned the Net to contrarian advantage. Like a torpedo doubling back on its sender, the Web has come full circle, putting multinational capitalism on the run from its own products. That is not to suggest that a reverse teleology has set in, but one thing is clear: the techno-utopianism of previous Davos globalization was as erroneous as Orwellian or Heideggerian techno-dystopianism ever was. Hi-tech in general, and IT in particular, turn out to be morally and politically neutral. They can help or hinder the cause of human development, according to their application.

This brings us back to the issue of “pull” and “push”—the question of how to use the Web rather than be used by it. The myth of an automatic “pull” always contained a gross contradiction, which cuts to the heart of the globalist sales pitch. On the one hand the New Global Economy advertises itself as the ultimate vehicle of free choice, while on the other it celebrates itself as a fast track for one-way, take-it-or-leave-it development. Thomas Frank spotlights this contradiction in Friedman, who warns Malaysia’s Mahathir to get “back into line”—back, that is, into the line. In Friedman’s words, “Globalization isn’t a choice. It’s a reality” (qtd. Frank 345). It is, moreover, a wired reality, allowing no escape from what Kevin Kelly (New Rules for the New Economy, 1998) calls “the transforming fire of machines” (qtd. 345). Kelly quite simply sees the Net as “our future,” which is “moving irreversibly to include everything in the world" (qtd. 345). These statements are, paradoxically, made in the name of giving the world more freedom of choice!

Building Better Bridges

The real question is whether the “freight train of history”—as Frank calls this internet variant of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history”—can be turned around. Can it serve the cause of diversity rather than totalism? Can it rejuvenate the local by shifting the direction of Third World development? Perhaps on a limited scale the internet can be a boon to underdeveloped areas, if and when net access is provided free to public schools, post offices, etc. (see “Tapping”), or very affordably to private citizens, as Brazil is undertaking through its Fund for the Universalization of Communications (see Rich).

Efforts are now underway to establish an internet bridgehead with a sampling of small Asian communities that otherwise would be left behind by global communications. Retired journalist Bernard Krisher, with assistance from Shin Satellite of Thailand, is working to establish internet connections for private schools in north central Cambodia. For 150 years development has meant urbanization on the one hand and rural social erosion on the other. Krisher’s project attempts to halt that erosion by putting rural communities on the communicative map (see Markoff). (For the moment we bracket the question of what’s in it for Shin).

By no means are such efforts pertinent only to marginal communities of the Third World. The digital divide is a problem in the U.S. as well (see NTIA). A case in point is the Mescalero Apache Indian tribe in New Mexico. Not only have the 4,000 inhabitants of this reservation been left out of the nation’s revolution, but only 40% of the tribe’s households have simple telephone service. In fact, only 47% of Indian households nationwide have telephones (see Romero). The “wiring” of these reservations could be a big step toward the revitalization of native American and Alaskan native communities. Indeed, as an agent of the Dept. of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service proclaims, it could be a step toward “one nation, indivisible” (see McLean).

Another name for indivisibility, however, is homogeneity—the blanket sameness of late capitalist consumerism (see Galeano 252). Negroponte famously declares that the internet will make tomorrow’s children unaware of what nationalism is (“What” 1 of 5). But by the same token it could make Apache children unaware of what it means to be Apache. Will the boomtown riches of Bangalore (India’s version of Silicon Valley) bring more hope or despair to those on the outside looking in? This digital boomtown has increasingly connected itself with Wall Street, producing hundreds of millionaires in what has been called a “nouveau-riche parallel universe” (Wetzler 1 of 3). The bigger question is whether it can forge a meaningful link to India. (That question being reducible, needless to say, to what’s in it for Bangalore).

Technology alone cannot establish such a linkage. Closing the digital divide, whether in Bangalore or on the Mescalero Reservation, would itself be a daunting task, but the real issue is whether it is possible to bridge the global communications gap while preserving local identity. Globalists assume that the flow of communication will be from the world of commerce to the village—or, to borrow Wallerstein’s terminology, from the core to the periphery. Since any viable cultural dialogics must be a bilateral process, the question is whether a different kind of globalization can be implemented. Can an effective interface be established between the geocultural ‘other’ and the global center? To remove the digital divide without that dialogics in place would be—under the guise of cultural inclusion—an act of cultural eradication.

Globalization as we now have it is precisely that. Its vaunted global village is in fact a gated community—an emerging class that recognizes no national boundaries and no cultural restraints. Lacking any sense of place, this power elite feels even less responsibility for the unwired classes than yesterday’s national elites had for the industrial working classes. In that sense the digital divide may be, paradoxically, the last bastion of place. The eradication of this last pocket of resistance is the secret agenda behind Davos-style programs to bridge the communications gap.

The Zapatistas of Chiapas are not alone in seeing this brand of globalization as a bridge to nowhere. In the name of progress, it would “open” the underdeveloped world much as the Old World “opened” the New: through a “join us or else” ethnocide that the U.S. still celebrates on Columbus Day (for more on this see Zinn 7). For indigenous cultures there is no place left to hide. Globalization offers them an acronym, TINA, for “there is no alternative,” while Mexican President Vincent Fox promises them a sliver of the globalist pie (see “Mexican”). He is saying, in effect, “come and join us, but leave your wretched native identities outside the door.” The Zapatistas have other plans. They are starting to build their own bridges, complete with their own websites. Some of these sites are:,,, and They are saying, in effect, “join us, but leave your wretched TINA outside the door.”


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