“One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers… Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.”
— Arthur C. Clarke, 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey
The Stratifications of Information Access in the Digital Age
As social psychologists, we know that access (and its lack) to many different resources affects the well-being and development of individuals. We discuss discrepancies in the availability of housing, money, food, energy, education, and medicine and how these can impact individuals and society as a whole. Another resource often falls through the cracks in this conversation: information. Information encompasses all knowledge, not only that which is formally taught. Psychologists readily discuss formal education and have entire branches devoted to its study. Relatively little attention has been given to the broader resource of information and the impact of its presence or lack of availability.
The entire internet grew out of the desire and need to digitally share information. Its culmination was a huge leap forward for people who wanted or needed to be able to access lots of information quickly and efficiently. Jump forward a couple of decades and we are having conversations about how internet overuse is affecting youth, how the society is suffering, and how we are using the internet to make ourselves more depressed, lonelier, more disconnected, and lower in self-esteem. What in the world [wide web] happened!?
Information is very different from other resources in one key way: it does not get used up. The more it is shared, the more it growsrather than suffering depletion—whether for the betterment or detriment of those who consume it. Constructive information, when accessed, feeds the initial individual andthat individual’s ability to contribute to their society. But what happens when a resource has no bounds? The easiest comparison here is to equate the resource of information to that of food. Pretend that you have access to your very favorite foods, 24/7, no wait times, no questions, and the concept of “using up” a food or its source no longer exists. … Might you gain some weight in the next few months? Conversely, though, what if access to this limitless supply of food was still available, just not to you? And any other sources being to disappear? Though we are becoming all-too-aware of the negative effects of binge-level internet use, there are also those who are starved by the same system.
While development of information and communications technologies (ICTs) have created ways for information to easily be shared across the globe, by allowing money to sway the flow of information, they have also widened the gap between the rich and poor—both in terms of individuals and of entire countries (Britz, 2004). We have had to generate language to name the phenomena that followed their integration into society: information-poor, information-rich, digital divide, information poverty.
This year, Net Neutrality (U.S. Federal Communications Commission [FCC], 2015) was repealed in the United States (FCC, 2018). This allows an internet service provider (ISP) to give preferential treatment to any company and to slow the use of others. Although the administration termed this “Restoring Internet Freedom” (FCC, 2018), what this does is allow the companies which are able to funnel the most money into an ISP to receive better, faster service while slowing service to others. And that might not seem completely unreasonable, at first. In the U.S. we’ve grown accustomed to everything coming at a price—whether it is one we can afford or not. But this ability of an ISP does not only affect simple things or entertainment, as some tend to think of it. Internet service is much more than an individual user’s ability to catch up on streaming episodes of favorite shows.
In this same year, Verizon interfered with the functioning of fire fighters in the Mendocino Complex Fire of northern California (Dwyer, 2018). Being in the midst of a raging fire, it would make sense that teams would not be able to rely on landlines to coordinate efforts. Instead, they use the internet. But as they fought, their internet connection slowed to the point of being unusable. When Santa Clara County firefighters contacted Verizon for help, it was suggested they pay for an upgrade (Dwyer, 2018). Is this a type of information gap we can afford?
This also affects our ability to obtain current news. Most news sources are losing their ability to sustain printing practices, moving instead to online platforms (Bell, 2017; Ell, 2018; Grabowicz, 2014; Thompson, 2016). Limiting access to news restricts how informed the population is able to become on every variety of topic—whether it is medical advancement, natural disaster updates, or political issues on which a citizen is to vote. With every citizen in the U.S. having an important stake in upcoming elections, can we afford for some citizens to be less-informed than others? As hurricanes build and move toward us, can the country afford not to have access to the paths of these storms and shared information on how to escape them?
I am not so naïve as to posit that internet use is only for reading the news or fighting fires. But, even when taken in a much broader sense, internet availability not only affects individuals, but we teach each other how to use it as a group, as a community, and as a society (Tikhomirov, 1974). Along these same lines, as a society adopts new innovations, we collectively let the infrastructures which made possible whatever preceded them disappear. It isn’t only that we are alloweduse of the internet, it is expected. As internet use becomes the norms in schools, students with home internet access have better academic performance than those without, even when adjusting for economic status (Attewell & Battle, 2006). As it becomes the norm of society, unless previously informed otherwise, we expect others to be available to us at all times, within a matter of minutes (if not seconds). Previously-used modes of doing things may still be possible, but are reserved for those who have the time and other resources to purposely unplug from the demands of modern society. I love to write letters by hand, to cook over camp fire, to walk when I could drive. But if I used these methods exclusively due to an inability to access modern ones, I would soon lack any form of functioning within my community. It is the same for those to whom information access is limited.
As societies continue to evolve, if basic resources continue to be readily available to some and purposely withheld from others, we will be actively creating an ever-widening gap between those who are able to be a functioning part of their communities and those who do not have the tools to do so. In the case of information, there is no reason anyone should have to go without. This is not a zero-sum game. One person is able to have 100% of this resource while every other person around them also has 100%. If we do not want to actively create a population even more-prominently split between the havesand the have-nots, this resource, more easily than any other, can be made available, equally, to all.
Attewell, P., & Battle, J. (2006). Home Computers and School Performance. The Information Society: An International Journal, 15(1), 1-10. Retrieved October 20, 2018.
Bell, M. (2017). Viewpoint: We broke the news media, how can we fix them?. In Newman, N., Flethcer, R., Kalogeropoulos, A., Levy, D. A., & Nielsen, R. K. (Eds.). Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017 (pp. 28-31, Rep.). Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
Britz, J. J. (2004). To Know or not to Know: A Moral Reflection on Information Poverty. Journal of Information Science, 30(3), 192-204. doi:10.1177/0165551504044666
Clarke, A. C. (1968). 2001: A space odyssey. New York, NY: New American Library.
Dwyer, C. (2018, August 22). Verizon Throttled Firefighters’ Data As Mendocino Wildfire Raged, Fire Chief Says. Retrieved October 20, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/2018/08/22/640815074/verizon-throttled-firefighters-data-as-mendocino-wildfire-raged-fire-chief-says
Ell, K. (2018, February 13). New York Times CEO: Print journalism has maybe another 10 years. Retrieved October 20, 2018, from https://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/12/print-journalism-may-last-another-10-years-new-york-times-ceo.html
Grabowicz, P. (2014, October 17). The Transition to Digital Journalism. Retrieved October 20, 2018, from https://multimedia.journalism.berkeley.edu/tutorials/digital-transform/
Tikhomirov, O.K. (1974). Man and computer: The impact of psychological processes on the development of psychological processes. D.E. Olson (Ed.), Media and symbols: The forms of expression, communication, and education, University of Chicago Press, Chicago (1974), pp. 357-382
Thompson, D. (2016, November 03). The Print Apocalypse of American Newspapers. Retrieved October 20, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/11/the-print-apocalypse-and-how-to-survive-it/506429/
U.S. Federal Communications Commission. (2015). Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet. FCC 15-24. retrieved from http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2015/db0312/FCC-15-24A1.pdf
U.S. Federal Communications Commission. (2018). Restoring Internet Freedom. FCC 17-166. retrieved from https://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2018/db0104/FCC-17-166A1.pdf