Or, Gutter-Diving Isn’t Enough
I live my life with my feet (or more so, fingers) firmly planted on the internet. But, this morning, I read an article about the other side of the digital divide. (Yes, ironically, I read it online.) The premise was that Paul Miller, a tech columnist for The Verge, had given up the internet for a year. Through this abstention, he explored how the other half lived and how living like “them” might change his perspective on the world.
Every year, many of these pop sociology/experimental journalism projects crop up. And, every time, they irk me. I’m enough of a member of the chattering classes (yes, I know blogging about being a member of the chatter classes is beyond meta – don’t think I’m missing the irony), to understand the desire to take on one of these projects. There’s something that feels rebellious about it, like you’re really out there doing it – and also something that seems Real. Oh, and the fact that you get to finish your adventure by riding off into the sunset on the back of your sure-to-be-secured book deal isn’t too bad, either.
But, ever since I read Nickel and Dimed in college, these kind of experiments have bugged me. They strike me as self-aggrandizing and a bit paternalistic. Like the author is slumming in otherness and yelling “look at me” the whole time – pretty much the journalistic equivalent of taking pictures with beggar children. That’s not to be say that there’s no way to explore divides or otherness. This just isn’t the way to do it.
Personally, I am very interested in the digital divide. I’ve studied it academically and explored it personally. But, my world is so wrapped up in technology that it’s hard for me to conceive of my life on the other side of it. My phone is my calendar, my camera, my alarm clock, and so much more. Having recently just moved, the internet is my main lifeline to the people and places that I care about.
But, in my daily life, I do think about the digital divide, what it means, and how we can change it. And I don’t take on self-aggrandizing projects to do it. (I do, however, write self-aggrandizing blog posts about it.)
As previously mentioned, I work in digital marketing for a credit union. A large part of my job is building awareness of and driving members to our digital channels. In trying to drive adoption of online services, it’s hard not to seem like you’re pushing a sort of manifest destiny. To say, “If you only knew…” or “Why don’t you get it?” We talk about barriers to access, but really, we don’t understand them. By the very nature of our being people who’ve chosen to make their lives in the digital world, we don’t understand the people who have shunned it.
Being a stranger in a not-so-strange land, I’m working very hard to build a life for myself. (Seriously, being new in town is the opposite of being on a reality TV show. I am so here to make friends.) As part of my efforts to get out there, I signed up to teach digital literacy classes at a job training center downtown. (Beware: self-aggrandizement incoming!) Now, I spend every Tuesday night at the Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC), an off shoot of Hull House. (C’mon history nerds, freak out about the coolness of that!) At JARC, I’ve helped people to send their first emails, learn how to Goggle, and sign-up for social media.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to say that I learned more from them than they did from me. That’s a lie. But, I did learn something. These complex social issues: they’re a lot harder to understand than “me and my journey into otherness” books make them to be. Gutter-diving journalism isn’t enough. To understand them means to lives them, to get the otherness of it, and to do your (small) part to change them.
Questions of the day: What do you think about experiential journalism? Have you ever seen it done well? (I’d ask what side of the digital divide you’re on, but by the very fact that you’re reading this post, I guess know.)