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Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age by Virginia Eubanks




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Chapter 1: Four Beginnings

I was born in Dallas, Texas, and brought up in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, an almost entirely white, middle-class suburb of New York City. Growing up, my experience of the wider world was pretty limited, but my mother, despite her attempts to downplay her working-class East Texas roots in the context of my dad's more patrician banking family, had a strong sense of social justice, equity, and fairness. One of her favorite stories about me concerns an incident that occurred when she was driving me to preschool in Austin, Texas. It was 1976. I was four, and she had recently become a subscriber to Ms. Magazine. On that day, I asked about a big building we were passing, one with huge columns like a temple. She told me that it was a Masonic Hall, slyly adding that Masons didn't allow women into their group. When she asked me what I thought about that, she swears that I yelled “That's not fair!” and demanded she pull the car over so that I could go in and talk some sense into them.

Despite my natural inclination toward speaking out, I was raised in a culture of silence. Middle class, white, suburban, and deeply affected by a family member's alcoholism, I always felt as though a secret lay simmering just below the surface of our outwardly calm and prosperous life. I have since found out that this is a pretty common experience for middle-class white people who become antiracist and antipoverty activists later in life. Many of us describe growing up as worried or angry kids, struggling against the shoddy logic and emotional repression that sustain illegitimate power relationships and underwrite white supremacy and economic exploitation.1 My parents are deeply decent people; they vocally challenged discrimination, worked on political campaigns, and raised two strong-willed, independent daughters. But our family was caught in the web of color-blind racism and class-blind classism: while my parents would not have tolerated a racist or classist joke, they had no close friends of color, and our family never discussed the source-or the impacts-of our money or privilege.

Growing up in a bubble of privilege made me intensely curious; explanations for the structure of our society never quite rang true. Like a little detective, I cross-checked facts, grilled witnesses, followed hunches, researched and read assiduously. I scratched surfaces, was slow to accept the party line, questioned everything. A relentless kid, I realized early that I was living in a sea of what feminist sociologists of knowledge call sanctioned ignorance, a set of culturally endorsed falsehoods and half-truths we are asked to swallow to maintain the status quo. A defiant kid, I was not about to let ignorance and lies define my life. I practiced dissent from a very early age-when I was barely ten years old I wrote a two-page newsletter arguing why people shouldn't hunt deer, duplicated it, and put it on the windshields of every car in my elementary school parking lot. I also showed early political acumen: I managed to convince the elementary school to let me use the photocopier in the front office to reproduce it!

I was bookish, so I did a lot of reading-the Communist Manifesto, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and John Stuart Mill's On Liberty were in my adolescent library, alongside Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret; Black Beauty; and A Wrinkle in Time. In seventh grade, after my parents' divorce had somewhat narrowed our economic circumstances, I mentioned Karl Marx in a discussion of inequality in an English class, only to have my teacher tell me that he was the “guy who made up the [Aryan] Superman” and that he was, more or less, a Nazi. At the time, I did not know that my teacher was mixing up Marx and Nietzsche and getting Nietzsche wrong, to boot, but I did know, unequivocally, that she was wrong. Two things became clear. The first was that people in my suburban hometown didn't want to talk about economic inequality at all. The second was that the things I was being taught in the classroom didn't reflect my experience of the world or my innate sense of right and wrong.

That radicalizing moment also earned me the nickname “Pinko” among my peers, which stuck with me for five long years. After getting the nickname, I followed a pretty predictable path for a middle-class white girl with a budding political consciousness: animal rights activism and vegetarianism in my early teens, environmental activism from age fifteen to seventeen, a quick break for black turtlenecks and moody boyfriends, and then college at a liberal, gradeless state university in California. It was during college that I got involved with community media through a local noncommercial radio station and discovered the Internet, though it was largely an esoteric and specialized realm during my college years, which spanned the early 1990s.

During that time, my activism and thinking about justice began to shift and deepen. I discovered feminism when a women's studies class gave me language to articulate long-held beliefs about sex and gender inequalities. I engaged in antiwar and anti-imperialist organizing after the first invasion of Iraq. I took my first steps into antiracist and civil rights work after hitchhiking to San Francisco to hear Angela Y. Davis speak at the Western Regional Organizing Conference Against the War in 1991; it was a profoundly life-changing experience. While my college campus was diverse in terms of race, nationality, sexual orientation, and beliefs, it was not terribly economically diverse, and though I met a few Marxists and anarchists, and sought out collectives and co-ops in town, there wasn't much of a conversation going on about economic inequality.

And then came the rumblings of the information revolution. There in the heart of the Silicon Valley, while working as the development director for a community radio station, I discovered this fascinating new thing called the World Wide Web. I hacked my way through HTML, started making Web sites (for the Mosaic browser!), and moved up the coast to San Francisco to start my post-college life in 1995. Those were strange days in the Bay Area. For a young woman like me with racial and economic privilege, a college degree, no family obligations, and some working knowledge of computers, it was a remarkable time of freedom and excitement. I set myself up as a freelance Web site developer, found a $300 per month room in the Mission District, and started one of the first cyberfeminist 'zines, a short-lived snarky online periodical called Brillo.

But even in the heady atmosphere of the dot-com boom, it would take a powerful brand of denial to not see that something was amiss in the middle of the Silicon Valley miracle. Though my vision was limited by my privileged social and economic position, I was not blind. It was clear to me at the time that I was part of the massive wave of gentrification that swept through San Francisco neighborhoods like the Mission, South of Market, Hayes Valley, and the Western Addition. Public housing began to disappear, replaced by coffee shops, Internet cafes, and the kind of stores that display two items of clothing in a big white room. In the three and a half years I lived in San Francisco, the vibrant diversity of the city waned visibly and rents in my neighborhood tripled.

In the mid-1990s, in the circles I was running in, it was not unusual for people to ask you at parties, only half ironically, “Have you made your first million yet?” It was, many believed, the American Dream manifest: all you needed was a good idea, some sweat equity, and a garage, and the digital economy would bestow on you its mighty gifts. I understood the itch for the million. Straightforward greed was not what was tying my brain in knots. What I had trouble wrapping my head around was Silicon Valley's unique way of combining utopian fervor with blatant dissociation from reality, a cognitive dissonance that led me to a personal crisis of conscience and eventually drove me out of the Bay Area.

People around me seemed to believe that the high-tech economy was going to lift all boats-lead to better outcomes for everyone-but they were ignoring the obvious evidence of increasing economic inequality that I saw around me every day. How could people simultaneously think they were all going to get filthy rich and make the world a better place for everyone? The people commending the economic miracle in Silicon Valley seemed to be suffering from a kind of collective, consensual blindness, blocking out the gentrification, the skyrocketing rents, and the toxic environmental toll of the high-tech industry. The increasing disparities were evident if you only had the will to look.

The solutions I found at the time, and the contributions I thought I could make, focused on access to technology. I believed that one of the key ways to mitigate the more disastrous impacts of the high-tech economy was to make the tools of the information revolution more widely available across disparities of gender, race, class, language, ability, and nationality. I began volunteering at Plugged In, a well-known community technology center in the Whiskey Gulch neighborhood of East Palo Alto, the poorest city in San Mateo County. Whiskey Gulch was an economically challenged but culturally rich neighborhood down the street from Stanford University, a community squeezed by gentrification pressures, education system shortcomings, and a lack of stable, living-wage jobs. Plugged In provided youth from the community computer access, technology classes, and employment training at its University Avenue address until 1999, when developers razed East Palo Alto's downtown, including Plugged In's original home, and replaced it with a Four Seasons Hotel, a convention center, and an IKEA store.

Back in the Mission District, I started free Internet and World Wide Web literacy classes for poor and working-class women through a community arts organization called Artists' Television Access. The classes concentrated on larger social issues-the Internet's birth in the defense industry, economic justice issues in the neighborhood, and gender issues online-as well as practical skills, such as using the Internet and the Web to find information, HTML authoring, and graphic design. But I had doubts that these piecemeal efforts could address the systemic, widespread economic inequalities I was witnessing. What drove me back east and into graduate school was a combination of this concern-that my activism was not really addressing the root causes of economic disparity in the high-tech economy-and the steadily increasing feeling that I was going crazy. Why did I insist on examining the goose laying the golden eggs while everyone else was drinking lattes, doing yoga, and cashing in their stock options?

So, in 1997, I fled the triumphant arrival of the “new economy” in Silicon Valley and went to live beside the Hudson River in the historic city of Troy, New York. My experiences in the Bay Area traveled east with me and remained on my mind. These formative experiences-my work in community technology centers, the publication of Brillo, and my experiences with magical thinking during the Silicon Valley “miracle”-mark the beginning of this book. I was a committed community technology practitioner for nearly ten years, and I believed that access to technology was a fundamental social justice issue in American cities.

I was wrong.