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Digital Nation: Toward an Inclusive Information Society

Author: Anthony G. Wilhelm
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004
Review Published: June 2005

 REVIEW 1: John Carr
 REVIEW 2: John F. Barber

While a substantial portion of academic cyberculture literature is aimed toward affecting or altering public policy, Anthony G. Wilhelm's Digital Nation: Toward an Inclusive Information Society is one of those fairly rare monographs that both concerns cyber-policy and is by a policy maker. As the current director of the Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce), Wilhelm is uniquely positioned to both evaluate the challenges posed by the so-called "digital divide" and ostensibly implement the policies needed to close the gap in digital media literacy and access throughout society. Although Wilhelm provides a thorough and well written (although by now familiar) description of the continuing disparity in new media knowledge and accessibility, much of what makes Digital Nation such an interesting read is his unique vantage on both the historical efforts and current obstacles to extend the benefits of digital media to all Americans, and his proffer of an open critique of the Bush administration's informational and educational policies from within that very administration.

More than simply a shill for increased funding and support for initiatives such as Wilhelm's TOP Program (which was, incidentally, eliminated in President Bush's Fiscal Year 2005 budget), Digital Nation provides a striking discussion of the links between disparities in digital empowerment and broader social inequalities. That said, the strength of Wilhelm's argument is somewhat undercut by a familiar technocentrism. By focusing upon internet literacy and access as both a central challenge to achieving social equality and the key to overcoming such inequality, Digital Nation runs the risk of placing too much faith upon the curative potential of such technologies.

At its heart, Digital Nation lays out the argument for the need, benefits, and implementation of "a society where technology does not increasingly fray the social fabric, where everyone can take advantage of faster, cheaper, and better services" (xiii). While such a project lends itself to a degree of techno-utopianism, Wilhelm is careful to recognize the tendencies of existing distributions of equipment, infrastructure, and knowledge to increase, rather than eliminate inequity.

Wilhelm begins Digital Nation by recognizing the role of emergent digital technologies in exacerbating existing socio-economic disparities and positing the challenge of achieving society-wide internet access and literacy as the key to overcoming such disparities. While much of his argument is familiar from prior work on the digital divide, Wilhelm's analysis is most compelling where he focuses upon specific policy areas. For example, chapter 4, "The New Frontier of Civil Rights" provides an excellent overview of prior efforts to reap e-benefits in the areas of education, online voting, and the provision of governmental services. In each area, Wilhelm balances the potential benefits to be gained through the embrace of digital media against the substantial costs of shifting from the "real" to the "virtual" prematurely. In particular, Wilhelm convincingly argues that even the best intentioned efforts to extend the benefits of a "digital nation" to the most disadvantaged Americans will fail if there is insufficient political and economic commitment to providing and integrating not only infrastructure, hardware, and software but also technical training and education regarding the use and benefits of digital participation.

Given Wilhelm's current position as the Director of the TOP program, and prior work with the Benton Foundation and the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, it is not surprising that the greatest strength of "Digital Nation" is its historical analyses of governmental and non-governmental policy initiatives to expand popular digital access and literacy. For example, much of chapter 5, "A Digital Nation in Black and White," is dedicated to tracking such federal investments in public digital access as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the E-Rate program, the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) grant program, universal service support incentives, and Wilhelm's own TOP initiative, as well as complementary state efforts and private grants by such institutes as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Markle Foundation.

Wilhelm traces the failure of these efforts to achieve substantial progress to three phenomena. First, the simple provision of funding, education, infrastructure, software and/or hardware has not and will not automatically translate into the carefully implemented mix of all five elements that are required for true digital media literacy and access. Wilhelm is particularly critical of the type of "input" based decision-making by state and private actors that has led to the uneven provision of a non-integrated array of technology and knowledge. While such shortcomings could have ostensibly been overcome by further political and financial commitments, the support required to address these obstacles was effectively undermined by the second and third phenomena discussed by Wilhelm, namely the retrenchment of the welfare state under the Bush administration, and the failure of the private sector to make up for the shortfall in the wake of the dot-bomb stock market crash.

Indeed, given Wilhelm's position within the Department of Commerce, his criticism of the current administration's neoliberal roll-back of social welfare programs as well as such educational initiatives as the "No Child Left Behind Program" is both refreshing and somewhat troubling. On the one hand, Wilhelm's willingness to acknowledge the growing socio-economic divides in the United States, and to recognize the direct role of the government policy in perpetuating and exacerbating such inequities is (unfortunately) remarkable for a high level federal administrator. Indeed, Wilhelm's citation of Marx's Das Kapital, alongside such familiar cyber-theorists as Castells and Kurtzweil, is almost shocking in the current political environment. On the other hand, one cannot help but wonder if the Bush Administration's decision to terminate the TOP program's funding was in retribution for its director's aggressive critique of not only that Administration's policies, but of its core belief that social problems may be more efficiently and effectively addressed through private investment and market incentives.

Notwithstanding the substantial strengths of Digital Nation and the political boldness of its author, the question remains as to the accuracy of Wilhelm's contention that the digital divide will, if unabated, drive the trend toward greater socio-economic inequality in the U.S. and -- more importantly -- that remedying that divide will likewise remedy such trends. For example, Wilhelm acknowledges both the longstanding resistance of the educational system to decades of reform efforts, and the enduring underclass that is the underside to U.S. prosperity. Nonetheless, he largely shies away from addressing the broader economic and cultural forces that have continued to allow the gap between the empowered and disempowered to persist, notwithstanding such previously "emancipatory" technologies as the radio, the telephone, the television, and the personal computer. Although the proscription for a digital nation is clearly coupled to a renewed political and financial commitment to educational equality throughout the nation, it is difficult to imagine the success of even these modest goals without a much broader restructuring of the political and financial realities within the U.S. The demand for greater access, more carefully designed and integrated education, digital literacy, and universal infrastructure is of course compelling. It is questionable, however, whether a "digital nation" can overcome on its own the types of inequality that have persisted despite decades of civil rights legislation and litigation, union organization, and successive waves of federal and state social and economic engineering. Once again we are confronted with the promise that -- this time -- technology coupled with enlightened policy can truly overcome chronic inequities, and once again the promise rings hollow.

Beyond its compelling analysis of various digital media access and education initiatives, Digital Nation's most enduring feature may well turn out to be its status as a record of policy-maker level protest. Indeed, it seems to be a distinctly Bush-era phenomenon that we are beginning to hear such impassioned and forceful voices of discontent from the very wilderness that is the federal government.

John Carr:
John Carr is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Washington, and a licensed attorney. His research interests center on the role of digital media in both destabilizing the legal jurisdiction of the liberal nation-state, and enabling nation-states to effectively circumvent their own legal restraints.  <carrj@u.washington.edu>

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