Inequality and Technology Syllabus

I am fascinated with U.S. sociology’s casual and sporadic engagement with digital spaces, technologies and trends. This year, the federal government enacted one of the most sweeping public policy initiatives we’ve seen since the Great Society programs. The healthcare exchange may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but no one can argue that it isn’t a massive change. Indeed, I think the argument is about how massive it is and what kind of change in constitutes. When the healthcare exchange was enacted, online enrollment figured prominently. Given what we know about differential access to — and skill-based engagement with — high-speed Internet access, hardware, and embedded social media the healthcare’s online roll-out mishaps is a sociological goldmine. Citizens needed primarily private utilities, technologies and digital acumen for the most efficient (and normative) access to a new citizenship arrangement.

That’s just one example of how technology and sociology are dancing around each other. Increasingly, to go to school, apply for a job, mitigate the “black” tax or “gender” tax in exchange relationships, groups (not just persons) must have access and comfort with digital technologies. That is a fundamentally sociological process. And, I don’t think we’ve yet to fully explore what that means, especially for inequality.

This syllabus comes from these observations. It is a work in progress. I imagine the course as an upper-level sociology seminar with graduate and undergraduate students.

The course has three objectives: 1) understand technology broadly across primary socio-historical points of social change in the U.S. 2) consider how technology and digital spaces are socially-constructed 3) critically engage how the material, social and political architecture of the Internet and social media platforms are reconstituting inequality regimes.

I am still developing assignments and shaping the course narrative. Feedback welcome!

6 thoughts on “Inequality and Technology Syllabus

  1. Looks to be a cool course shaping up here through the thinking of Tressiemc. Look forward to hearing more about it.

    “…technology and sociology are dancing around each other. Increasingly, to go to school, apply for a job, mitigate the “black” tax or “gender” tax in exchange relationships, groups (not just persons) must have access and comfort with digital technologies. That is a fundamentally sociological process. And, I don’t think we’ve yet to fully explore what that means, especially for inequality…”

  2. Thanks for another insightful article. I am writing as an individual who was out of the workforce for quite a number of years who has also studied political philosophy, equality and citizenship at university level. As a person who is subsisting on welfare benefits any investment of income is devoted to sustaining life, putting food on the table, keeping a roof over your head. Since technology is not a need it is classified as a want so it isn’t a basic necessity for daily existence. However, in todays society, having access to modern products, being digitally relevant and having marketable skills is all a part of social participation and political participation. Liberal theory requires changes that occur slowly, over generations and the implications of the technological age has really has revised the definition of generational change. It was explained to my by a store salesman that new generation or next generation models of most IT products occur every seven weeks. This has caused a revised conception of generational change which in my opinion which has sped up society and expectations of efficiency in an economic rationalist sense to a much greater pace than the changes ever experience by previous generation. In fact, my own theory is that you can link the concept of entropy to principles of economic distribution to explain how society has become more rapid in pace and how the changes are then transferred and dispersed to other sectors.

    My re-entry to the workforce was a cruel and punishing experience. I was nearly hysterical with distress as I could not discern what I needed to know next and my brain could not cope with the information overload. Everything was different and I struggled to determine what was the most relevant piece of equipment. Photocopiers, no longer just took copies but it also sent emails, faxes, scanned documents and these capabilities are remarkable. What was supposed to be making life easier was so much harder to wrap my head around. Yet we live in a society where two or three year olds are assisted to create Power Point presentations for their day care show and tell. They are given tablets to play with in prams instead of books and toys. We have secure information exchanges that happen in the ‘cloud’ and Syria has an electronic army. Being able to participate in the workforce and being able to keep up with your peers means that you need to know the names of this technology, you need to know the language that is spoken but the scale and trends and rapid speed of these changes are something else. You need to understand what people around you are using and how they are functioning with programs.

    Many technological advances are also disqualifying whole groups of individuals from participation. If you cannot compete, if you cannot keep pace with your peers, or cannot engage with technology then you cannot access services or supports so it represents a gross form of social exclusion. Furthermore, if you don’t have a credit card you cannot book some things online. You can’t book fares for planes, some buses or some trains. You cannot book tickets to attend some concerts. Concepts of play and social norms have altered in conjunction with access to these services.

    Economic participation requires you to have a good financial history and access to adequate resources to be able to keep in play. Governments have changed the rules of the courts to adapt their information exchange processes so revenue collected from fines is automatically updated. Fees and charges for non-payment are automatically applied through runs undertaken on specific dates. Electronic voices on telephone lines are programmed with inflections to make them sound more human but they are not capable of compassion, or understanding or able to understand that there is a human being on the end of the line who may only have this conversation with this one person today. This is part of the elimination of human activity in the name of efficiency and yet it is part of the perpetuation and drivers for greater advancement. From a sociological perspective, big business and social change has removed all of the markers that previous generations have been able to refer to for local and community consciousness. Belonging to a society and being a citizen as a child meant that you were known to the lady at the local corner store or you were recognised as a someone with a reputation at your school and the knowledge of who you are or what your circumstances are was something that tied people together. In some communities it meant that people looked out for each other, they knew that child or they knew the mother or father and their circumstances. Now, so much of our social relevance is based on superficial presentations in snippet and sound bites. Your Facebook page counts your friends and tells the others out there that you are worthy of this friendship or not as the case may be.

    In recent years I have lived in conditions where the mere capacity to make a phone call has meant that I needed to know where the local public phones were located as I didn’t have regular access to a connected phone. However, most bureaucrats and many professional individuals have limited or no understanding that merely making a call can be an arduous, exhausting and time consuming task. It feels pathetic because it is a pathetic state to be living in these conditions. Being dependent on mobile phone technology is expensive business. Many phone numbers that are free call services from government agencies can still cost anywhere near $25.00 if you are running a pre-paid service and you have to wait two hours or more to speak with the service. Yet at the same time telephone companies are reducing the access and availability of public phones in public spaces but government welfare agencies require contact for ‘compliance’ purposes. Payment of bills for basic domestic services, electricity, gas etc, are another example of technological discriminations. Most companies offer individuals the ‘benefit’ to receive their bills online. However, if you don’t have consistent and regular income to ensure that you have a consistent and regular access to the internet then this is not a viable proposition. However the paper versions delivered in the mail have a much shorter time for payment so you are given 10 days to pay from the time the letter is dated. If these are sent in batches they you may only receive the account with than a week to pay. These conditions compound the hardships of poverty and the discriminations associated with accessibility and social participation. Yet from my perspective, so many of these technological advancements are a key part of agencies and organisations increasing their efficiencies and if individuals are not able to comply or participate or satisfy these criteria for participation, then they are responsible for their own conditions. Your connection to citizenship is critical and as a Liberal feminist I am dismayed at the use and abuse of technology in the oppression of many more vulnerable sectors of society. I have lived these experiences so the knowledge resonates in my marrow. I wish you all of the best for this study – it is truly necessary.

  3. Well, this is interesting & exciting. I expect (as a lecturer out here, one may “expect” until August) to teach a First Year Seminar with theme Technology & Society in the fall. If our classes could interact online in any way, that would be great for the students at my end. It’s General Education, intro level, but flexible enough to allow students to consider and discuss your objectives. I’m thinking give my class a couple of readings from one of your three sections, so it would be a short interaction not to take over either of our classes (unless some kind of bond really happens?). Here, Twitter (@harmonygritz) or G+ to follow up. Thanks!

  4. Have you considered using selections from Walter Benjamin’s writings on technology and industrialization in the theoretical foundation of this course? I see Marx and Weber, which is why I ask. (But I am very partial to Benjamin – this is a BIASED opinion!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *