Dust or Magic

“Make them eat chips”: the digital divide and Big Tech’s new Reserve Army of Consumption.

by Bob Hughes


This a review of Anthony G. Wilhelm’s influential but amazingly little-criticised book on the “digital divide”, Digital Nation: Toward an Inclusive Information Society (MIT Press, 2004). I was asked to write it for TEKKA – “a Web magazine about enjoying new media and creating beautiful software”.


In his 2004 book Digital Nation, Anthony Wilhelm expresses great concern about

“... the acute needs of disadvantaged populations. Young people with learning disabilities, immigrants, the indigent, victims of war and civil unrest, the disaffected, and the incarcerated...” (p95).

Yet this is an extraordinary book. We never actually get to hear these needs described by the people themselves, or by the teachers, health workers and campaigners who work with them or fight for them. But we do hear what the CEO Forum on Education and Technology thinks they need, the OECD, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, ex-Chancellor of Germany Gerhardt Schröder, and the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC). And a remarkable degree of unanimity emerges. It turns out that there is just one, dramatic, solution to all their problems:

“It is imperative that countries and regions step up their efforts to migrate into cyberspace” (p129).

This must be done urgently. “Lag time ... can be lethal” (p5). It is a matter of survival, even.

In mundane, practical terms, Wilhelm’s vision seems to boil down to a major diversion of public resources into Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs), and a coercive policy (in which “charismatic leadership is essential” – p40) to force teachers and health workers to use the technology. Wilhelm wants a statutory minimum slice of public funding for tech projects (in US education, 5% of the federal spend) and “these goals need to be tied to real foreign aid and investments” (p34) – which presumably means that poor countries will be forced to spend scarce resources on “information infrastructure” (i.e., buy ITCs from the “donor” countries) as a precondition of aid. There will be real sanctions for the laggards and resisters. and “It is critical that benchmarks be established to ... hold decision makers accountable for their actions (or inaction) over time” (p32).

Wilhelm acknowledges that the scenario has its dark side. He is not entirely happy about “euphoric speculation about the effects of unfettered markets” or that “the idea of human improvement has fused with commodity exchange” (p55-56) and he alludes briefly to the cautionary insights of Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx. But these are interludes. The main thrust is mass-evacuation into “cyberspace”, for our own good, with “no person left behind in the old paradigm” (p7).

Digital divide, or carve-up?

Wilhelm is one of the architects (with Clinton-Gore e-illuminary Larry Irving) of the philanthropic-sounding concept of the “digital divide”, which says that the problems of the poor are not caused by lack of money, decent housing, schooling, medical care, pensions, sickness and unemployment benefit etc, but by their lack of access to computers and the internet. The concept has been warmly received in the upper reaches of the US government, the EU and the World Bank: it gives such a plausible-sounding excuse for avoiding the thorny issues of wealth-redistribution and welfare provision, while diverting billions of dollars and euros that would otherwise be used for public services into the coffers of the electronics giants. Which need the money very badly, plagued as they are by the frequent, spectacular crises and blood-lettings that are so characteristic of their work.

It has seemed to me for a while that much of what passes for academic writing on ICTs is really high-class, generic advertising for “Big Tech”; its main purpose being to sustain stock-market enthusiasm, discipline the skeptics and generally keep the show on the road[1]. What I hadn’t appreciated till reading Wilhelm is how the technoptimist orthodoxy, plus “digital divide” logic, are helping Big Tech to do something quite unprecedented in the history of capitalism: turn the public sector into what might be called (adapting Marx’s phrase[2]) a “reserve army of consumption”: a large, captive market that can be relied upon to buy up surplus production at a nice, steady rate, at nice, steady, high volumes and prices.

Big Steel and Big Oil must be terribly envious. For them, public education and healthcare are at best annoyances: necessary insofar as one needs satisfactory workers but otherwise dead money.

But computerisation makes the whole public domain available for control and commodification. That is what the new managerial jargon of “performance targets” and “performance indicators”, “milestones”, “outcomes” and “deliverables” is about. For Big Tech, there is nothing metaphorical about the “electronic frontier”: public education and health are huge, new virgin lands, ripe for commodification and re-commodification in a myriad different ways - and they can do this with almost no opposition because they have the killer argument on their side: all this effort is for the public good.

Is there any harm in all this? Yes, massive harm – not least because of the obsolescence factor. As the economists Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy explained in 1966[3] obsolescence is no mere side-effect; it is modern capitalism’s life-support system. Since the 60s, Big Tech has brought the magic of obsolescence to just about every kind of product known to man. As PC users know all too well (and a Dell spokesman put it into words[4]) computer hardware now “has the shelf-life of a lettuce”. Once you’ve bought it, you are condemned to buy it all over again, and again, and again. There is no reason in principle why this should be the case; the miracle is that it is so widely accepted as normal. But the fact is, giving people the kinds of computers Big Tech produces is less like giving them a Mercedes than giving them a serious drug habit. Wilhelm alludes to this uncomfortable fact at times (“what happens to libraries after the one-time grants wane?”; “the challenge of sustainability looms...” - p92) but never confronts it.

A shortage, not of skills, but of decent jobs, and too many employers “flushing the toilet too many times”

Please don’t run away with the idea that I’m against ICTs. On the contrary, I would urge Wilhelm and all of us to explore the capacities of computer technologies to support the common wealth and empower its producers. However, that might require a root-and-branch re-think of our digital technologies. Even more, we need to identify the causes of our social problems; and review and then either utilise or eliminate all possible, simple solutions to them, before applying complex ones.

But Wilhelm does not seem to have looked at any solutions that do not involve computers, and almost none from outside the USA, apart from Finland – a society whose health is arguably less attributable to high mobile phone ownership than to its traditions of solidarity and egalitarianism. Even so, a feast of valuable research exists, from US sources, that could have led him to very different conclusions.

For example: Wilhelm rests much of his case for dramatic increases in e-learning on the assumption that there is a huge shortage of skilled workers in the USA, which is holding back growth and threatens future prosperity. But if we look at what’s actually happening in, for example, Silicon Valley, as Chris Benner has done[5] that shortage is not what it seems, and neither is that region’s alleged prosperity. Fewer and fewer people have secure careers. More and more, work is becoming casualized and short-term – and this is even truer in the supposedly high-earning, high job-satisfaction, high tech sector than it is in the low-wage “MacJobs” described, for example, by Barbara Garson[6] and George Ritzer[7].

In all industries (and this is replicated in the UK and other economies) there is a strong trend among employers to shed responsibilities for training and retraining staff, and to expect the public sector to provide the staff they need (with exactly the skills they think they need) on demand. Employers, especially in the “new economy” industries, are continually changing their minds about where their businesses should be and what skills they need, laying off staff with what they believe to be "old" skills and fighting each other for workers with the new skills (which often aren’t so very different from the “old” skills).

This is how the chancellor of one Silicon Valley community college, described the situation to Benner:

“[Industry] has been yelling and screaming at education recently that we’re not providing sufficient numbers of people. Finally I said, it’s not just a pipeline issue. What you’re asking me to do may be in fact antithetical to my own values, and that is give you a crew of 25-35 year olds who you can burn up, use up and discard. Maybe part of the problem is not that we’re not filling the pipeline, but that you’re flushing the toilet too many times.” (Benner p199)

And far from there being a genuine demand for well-educated workers, all the evidence I have seen suggests that the neo-liberalizing economies are creating a superabundance of low-grade jobs that mainly require obedience. This does not contradict Wilhelm’s observation that income rises with education; UK research[8] suggests that it reflects employers’ tendencies, when faced with queues of applicants, to use education as a crude selection criterion. Which is why so many commentators believe the US, UK and Australian education systems are caught in a "race to the bottom" – with the notable exception of a few rich, elite institutions like Princeton, Harvard, etc, who are quite happy with this situation because it preserves their own special status.

How about equality?

Most of the societal problems with which Wilhelm is so concerned arise, not from lack of ICT investment or inadequate teachers, or even from low income as such. The real villain of the modern world is income inequality. This is possibly the most potent epidemiological discovery of our time and it has massive policy implications[9]. In the USA (whose spectacular inequalities fueled some of the most important studies) states that have less income-inequality, such as New Hampshire and North Dakota, enjoy lower mortality and morbidity, have less violent crime, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, drug-abuse and mental illness than states (like Louisiana and Mississippi) that have large gaps between rich and poor. The same is true of countries: more equal ones, like Finland, Canada and Cuba, do better for their citizens than less equal ones, like the USA, the UK and post-Soviet Russia. It also applies if you “turn up the magnification” and look at cities, towns and even districts within towns: the extreme inequality experienced in Harlem NY explains that district’s third-world style mortality-rate: it is higher than in rural in Bangladesh, and has the same causes: the “low-status” diseases, of which the main killer is heart-disease.

If we look at countries that have made inequality their “Public Enemy No 1”, we find some quite staggeringly successful solutions to the key problems identified by Wilhelm. (Some of these, as it happens, have technological aspects, but not ones that would be of much interest to Dell or Microsoft.)

Wilhelm is particularly concerned about illiteracy. According to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy 14% of adults in the USA are "functionally illiterate" (i.e., can’t read a food label or an application form) and Wilhelm tells us that nearly half of all US adults have literacy problems. His solution is a massive investment in e-learning systems. E-learning might certainly help – but why not look at other solutions as well?

For example, in Cuba literacy-rates were raised (these are very conservative figures, from UNESCO) from 76% to 96% during 1961 by a well-planned effort involving thousands of volunteer "brigadistas". As Théodore MacDonald has explained[10], this was not merely "functional literacy" (MacDonald, p16). The Cuban model has been improved and deployed all over South America, in Asia, in Africa and even in "western" countries such as New Zealand.

In Nicaragua, following the Sandinista revolution of 1979, illiteracy was reduced from 77% to 50% in one year, using the Cuban experience as a model. These gains were largely sustained in the teeth of the US-financed “Contra” terror campaign, which specifically targeted teachers for abduction, torture and murder; since the Contra victory the principles continue to be taught and developed.

No doubt it helped that these were revolutionary situations, where people felt they would have more interesting things to do with their literacy than fill out applications for dead-end jobs. They would be involved in major decision-making and planning. And they expected to be free of the constant fear of unemployment, debt and homelessness, so they could perhaps seriously contemplate sitting down with a novel, or maybe writing one.

Dividing the worker from the work, digitally.

This brings us back to another major problem in Wilhelm’s analysis. For him, the world of learning and the world of work are quite separate. Education is a preparation for something called “employment” – whose nature is determined by a capricious but all-knowing entity called “the employer”. This follows a right-ward shift in US labour policy during the past 60 years at least, which has seen public debate, scrutiny and control removed from the workplace and into education instead, with disastrous consequences for both.

There are other ways of doing things. One very obvious example missing from “Digital Nation” is the entire Scandinavian experience: a tradition of industrial “participative democracy”[11] that embraced computerisation from the very first – not for job-reduction as in so many countries, but for “job-enrichment”. Scandinavia’s and Finland’s technology-led post-WWII prosperity owe a lot to that movement.

What does he mean by “health”?

Wilhelm’s coverage of the health issue is just as narrow. There is no reference at all to the World Health Organisation (WHO), whose World Health Reports give invaluable comparative data, and hardly any reference to any other country other than Finland. Even a cursory look at the WHO reports would have shown him that, again, technology is a very minor part of the answer.

Wilhelm says that a Digital Nation would be able to administer healthcare at lower cost than the USA currently does. Almost every other nation does that already: the USA is an international anomaly in having no adequate public health service – yet it spends more per capita on health care than almost any other country.

To put things in perspective, Britain's woefully imperfect National Health Service (NHS) for years achieved comparable results in terms of overall national health, but at just over one-third the per-capita cost of US system. In the USA, thanks to the plethora of competing and overlapping companies involved, administration costs run away with 31% of the health budget (according the the New England Journal of Medicine) and fraud 10% (according to the FBI)[12]. In Britain in the 1980s (before Margaret Thatcher started the current wave of marketisation) healthcare administration took up between 5 and 6% of the total (much smaller) budget. (Draper 2005)

The NHS is still (just about) a public service, paid for out of taxes, where people are treated not according to their insurance status or wealth, but according to their illness. Most developed countries have similar arrangements. The USA is unique, in fact, in not having a publicly-funded healthcare system - and it pays the price.

Wilhelm says that his concept of Digital Nation is "shorthand for a more productive and inclusive society" (p5). We can all agree with the "inclusive", but "productive"? The question is, productive of what? Health? Wholesome food? Biodiversity? Leisure? Use-values? Happiness? Or just healthy profit?


Bob Hughes - 01/08/2006 and 04/02/2010

[1]From Useful Idiocy to Activism” (Bob Hughes 2005) – paper presented at the Fourth Decennial Critical Computing Conference, Aarhus, Denmark, August 2005: http://www.aarhus2005.org/ and http://www.dustormagic.net/Idiocy.html

[2] Marx’s concept, “the reserve army of labor” is explained at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reserve_army_of_labour

[3] Baran, Paul A. and Paul M. Sweezy (1966). Monopoly capital. An essay on the American economic and social order. New York & London, Monthly Review Press.

[4] Astill, Katherine and Matthew Griffiths (2004). Clean up your Computer - Working conditions in the electronics sector, CAFOD.

[5] Benner, C. (2002). Work in the New Economy - Flexible Labor Markets in Silicon Valley, Blackwell.

[6] Garson, B. (1989). The electronic sweatshop : how computers are transforming the office of the future into the factory of the past. New York, N.Y. ; London, Penguin Books.

[7] Ritzer, G. (1993) The McDonaldization of society : an investigation into the changing character of contemporary social life. Thousand Oaks, Calif. ; London : Pine Forge Press.

[8] Lloyd, Caroline, and Jonathan Payne (2002). "On the 'Political Economy of Skill': Assessing the Possibilities for a Viable High Skills Project in the United Kingdom." New Political Economy 7(3): 367-395.

Also, Warhurst, Christopher, I. Grugulis, et al. (2004). The skills that matter. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

[9] Wilkinson, R. G. (2005). The Impact of Inequality - how to make sick societies healthier, Routledge.

[10] MacDonald, T. (1996). Schooling the Revolution - An analysis of developments in Cuban education since 1959. London, Praxis Press.

[11] Kyng, J. G. M. (1991). Design at Work - co-operative design of computer systems. Hillsdale, New Jersey, Erlbaum.

Kyng, M., G. Bjerknes, et al. (1987). Computers and democracy : a Scandinavian challenge. Aldershot, Avebury.

[12] Draper, P. (2005). Government should stick to improving the NHS and stop commercialising it., Keep Our NHS Public campaign.


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